Back to Basics

Back to Basics

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Vogel explores an array of shapes and sizes in his work. These maple, sycamore, and catalpa vessels range from 7 to 20 inches tall.

Joel Baldwin

Twenty years after learning the lathe, Joshua Vogel has made woodturning his full-time pursuit, with sleek, sculptural results.

The name of Joshua Vogel's latest venture - Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading Company - suggests an old-time general store, and that perception seems just fine with him and his partner, Kelly Zaneto. The tone hints at the desire for a slower lifestyle that led the couple to leave New York City several years ago and settle near Kingston, New York, where they opened BCM&T in September. (They borrowed the first part of the name from a stream near their Hudson Valley home, the Swarte Kill - old Dutch for "black creek.")

The spartan, garage-like woodshop is enviably pristine, even with a pile of shavings under the enormous lathe in the center of the studio. A large bank of windows, partially frosted for privacy, diffuses the sunlight and gives everything - the rows of tools hung on the wall, the new table saw, the worktables loaded with freshly turned vessels - a soft glow. Vogel leased the 1,600-square-foot space, part of a converted 1917 factory, determined to make a go as a solitary craftsman.

It's a big change for the 40-year-old, who, not long ago, oversaw no fewer than 20 people in the workshops of BDDW, the Manhattan-based handcrafted furniture company he co-founded, and where he supervised all manufacturing. At BCM&T, he crafts alone; Zaneto handles the business end.

A New Mexico native, Vogel was first introduced to the lathe in 1991 at the University of Oregon - not as part of his curriculum (he studied architecture), but as a leisure activity, through a class at the student union's Craft Center. After learning basic operating and safety rules, Vogel taught himself how to turn, working through the center's back issues of Fine Woodworking and Woodshop News. Through the magazines he came to know the work of legendary woodworkers such as Ed Moulthrop, David Ellsworth, and Rude Osolnik.

In 1995, he went to New York to work with Tyler Hays, and out of that partnership came BDDW (incorporated in 1999), where he applied his woodworking skills and architectural eye to furniture. One of the company's earliest successes was a turned stool, or "stump," a loose riff on Charles and Ray Eames' iconic turned stool. Vogel never abandoned the lathe, but BDDW's growth left little time for personal work.

Now Vogel has all the time in the world to create. And he has turned out a series of generously scaled, crisply geometric forms, including wide bowls, spherical bottles, abstract double-gourd vases, and fetching boxes. The aesthetic is undeniably modern, yet betrays his reverence for the material. "One of the things I love about my work is the connection with wood," he says. "A tree, [before it becomes] wood, is a living thing ... using it as a material in an art form eternalizes it."

Earnest and soft-spoken, Vogel grows animated when he talks about his medium - how the growth of a tree and its harvesting, for example, produce tensions visible in a turned piece that aren't always evident in a sawn board. His large-scale sculptural designs celebrate the subtle surface variations caused by branches, fungus, even unintended splitting, which he often sutures with a butterfly joint. For Vogel, adapting to wood's often unpredictable nature is part of the beauty of the material: "If it cracks up, to me it's not worth throwing out, it's worth fixing." A large crotch of oak, relieved of thick branches and certain fate as firewood, sits on the concrete floor of his workshop like a piece of statuary, awaiting its turn on the lathe.

Vogel prefers working with local woods such as catalpa, maple, walnut, and sycamore, and traditional, "close to the wood" finishes. Tung oil, along with bee and carnauba waxes are BCM&T staples. For a set of turned boxes in sycamore, an unremarkable wood on its own, he went to elaborate lengths to carve radiating grooves into the soft surface, which he then ebonized and brushed back to a mellow graphite color. Like Moulthrop (also an architect by training), he has started using a polyethylene glycol bath to cure large walnut pieces - a time-consuming process that stabilizes the wood by replacing moisture in the cells. Other times he leaves pieces raw; the constant is that all are handcrafted and the surface preparation is never rushed.

Vogel envisions his finished work in people's homes (admittedly, spacious, loft-like ones) rather than galleries or museums, and imagines that what could be put in his vessels is as interesting as the forms themselves. This unpretentious spirit carries through to BCM&T's marketing strategy. The plan is to sell through furniture stores and design showrooms. Karkula, a design shop in New York's Tribeca neighborhood, was the first to pick up his work; Zaneto is busily scouting venues in other cities. The couple is also working on assorted small products. The first one they created is a custom-blend cutting board oil, bottled in antique-looking glass containers and sealed with wax and ribbon. They also plan to market cutting boards. Later this year, they are considering some limited-production furniture. This diversified approach is meant to ensure the company's appeal to a wide market.

Not that Vogel seems all that concerned; for now, the lathe has him well-occupied.

Caroline Hannah is a design historian in New York City.