Paul Donio’s been working with wood since 1983. In 1989, he founded Hawk Ridge Furniture in one of the most beautiful places on earth; Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. We were lucky enough to visit his home and workshop in St. Johnsbury last October, when the last of the leaves were still golden.
Paul treated us to a tour of the property. “I built this place. Every bit of it,” we walked the cut meadows paths adjacent to his home and shop. “There’s a lot of positive energy here.” As we wandered and talked, we absorbed the generous landscape, the mountain views, the fruit trees and bee boxes; everything quieting down for fall. The studio mascot, Abbey, examined us, and then accompanied us. “I’ve had shepherds most of my life,” Paul smiled, “and Abbey is a special girl. An old sage…” We think you can tell from the pictures.
As Donio approaches his property, he approaches his furniture, investing his entire self, heart and soul, into each new effort. His clients happily attest to that. The wood shop is neat and orderly. “I plan my work, and I work my plan,” says the craftsman. At the center of the modest shop lives a really cool compound table (the shop’s hub) ringed by windows, smaller machines, hand tools, Paul’s workbench and a wood stove that keeps the place warm in the winter.
The lowdown. Paul works primarily with solid hardwoods like maple, cherry, and walnut, and with sustainably harvested mahogany. “When I use an exotic wood (like mahogany) I look for suppliers who obtain the wood from sources that follow sustainable harvesting and management practices. I choose these suppliers because if illegal logging continues in the forests, we’ll lose the exotic woods. And we’ll change the ecology of the forests forever.” We got to peek at a stack of gorgeous red birch, destined for a next project, on the roster behind a cherry standup writing desk, pictured below.
An adaptation of an older design, the top box lifts off for ease of moving. The photos don’t do it justice. It’s gorgeous. And one of the most popular pieces in Paul’s portfolio. Although he regards himself as sort of anachronistic, these standing desks (and computer desks) are at the forefront of modern office styling. Sitting down all day is bad for your health. Paul offers a handmade, heirloom quality alternative to work smarter and feel better. And one that’s handsome enough to be in your living room.
What would you do if you weren’t making furniture? “There’s nothing else. I’m a furniture maker. My grandfather had a little shop in his basement, so I grew a curiosity about wood, and woodworking. I have a degree in history but when I got out of college, I went back to building. I realized I was passionate about both, so I decided to try out the North Bennet Street School and their historic preservation program.”
Paul’s designs reflect his love of history and the craftsmanship prevalent in the periods from which he draws inspiration. And a deep respect for traditional joinery and fine woodworking. “I use dovetail, mortise-and-tenon, and pegged joinery for strength through simplicity. Hand rubbed natural oils bring out the natural beauty of the wood in each piece. From rural vernacular to formal period furniture, I strive to create synergy between the unique character of the wood and the elements of structure and design.”
You’ll find a fair amount of custom work in the Hawk Ridge collection, and a library of Shaker, Queen Anne and Mission designs. Some pieces are traditional and true to form. Others are Paul’s own, drawing inspiration from the periods he reveres.
So, how furniture from historic preservation? “There’s not much difference, you know, between the patent books that they used to have from the architects to build homes, periods like William & Mary, and Queen Anne. You could build furniture from them, or you could build a house,” he shrugged. “I learned a lot from the friends I made on Cape Ann. And from working on historic buildings along the North Shore. I met a fellow there, Dick Higgins, who’s been a friend ever since. Dick was a master craftsman and a boat builder in Rockport. He taught me much, and he had great confidence in me, which was the kind of booster I really needed to take the leap.” It’s been almost thirty years so we think, it was a leap well taken.
And the Guild, what does it mean to you? “There’s a practical and philosophical value. We’re all unified by the state of Vermont, and by the fact that we appreciate the lifestyle we have and to be able to work for our own existence, carve it out. Sort of like pioneers, still doing it the old way. And there’s a heritage component.” This year will Paul’s fifteenth, as a member.
And what would you like a client to take away from a commissioning with you? “There’s a design process, and some clients are more involved with it than others. One question brings another question, so it’s a dialogue and a learning curve, shared by the maker and the client.” Paul smiled again. “The most important thing is that the client gets what they want.”
Plain and simple. Thanks, Paul for the tour, the conversation, and the hospitality!