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Furniture Makers Gather in New Orleans

Furniture Makers Gather in New Orleans

Creole armoires, glittering beadwork, and a veneer fleur-de-lis—American Craft drops by the Furniture Society’s conference in a city built on craft.

Furniture Makers Gather in New Orleans

Creole armoires, glittering beadwork, and a veneer fleur-de-lis—American Craft drops by the Furniture Society’s conference in a city built on craft.
Michael Puryear and Rosanne Somerson sitting on a stage in 2 chairs during a keynote presentation at the Furniture Society conference in New Orleans.

Michael Puryear and Rosanne Somerson enjoy a moment with the audience during a keynote discussion at the Furniture Society conference in New Orleans. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

“We are more than who we are as economic beings,” said renowned New York–based furniture maker Michael Puryear, keynote speaker and Award of Distinction honoree at this year’s conference of the Furniture Society in New Orleans. “That belief has been a driving force in my life.”

The conference, which took place June 8–10, was built around the theme Making Spaces: How Place Shapes Production, Living, and Community.

In a wide-ranging conversation with another giant in the field, Rosanne Somerson, president emerita of Rhode Island School of Design, Puryear struck a philosophical tone. He discussed the importance of moving past social constraints and experiencing the world openly. “Curiosity is an important part of that,” he said, “being curious about the world and bringing that into your practice. I think just looking is important and not being judgmental about everything you see. It’s the Western way to judge everything. I like to relaxedly look at the world.”

Michael Puryear sits in a chair on a stage.

Furniture maker Michael Puryear is this year’s Award of Distinction honoree. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

“Judgment goes away and you can be part of a bigger world,” Puryear said. “When I travel, I want to be away from people who are part of the culture. You can get outside of your own culture, outside of what you think defines you. It’s a very creative process.”

Puryear and Somerson also touched on such practical matters as working with clients as designers and builders. Collect a design fee up front, recommended Puryear, so “your client knows that you are in a professional relationship.” Somerson added, “If you present a client three ideas, make sure you want to make any of the three.” That insight drew knowing chuckles from conference attendees, who were gathered on the Loyola University New Orleans campus for the Saturday morning presentation.

A young woman in the audience asked how, as a person of color, one gets people in the craft world to take one seriously. Puryear, who grew up in Washington, DC, had this to say about racism: “I realized it’s not my problem. It’s the world’s problem. You will have negative experiences and you don’t have to respond. Sometimes the most powerful response is not to respond.”

Other events on Friday and Saturday included an entertaining and informative presentation on “Furnishing New Orleans: Creole Craftsmanship and Trade, 1718–1865” by Lydia Blackmore of the Historic New Orleans Collection; a demonstration by North Carolina–based artist and furniture maker Aspen Golann called “Laser Show: Demystifying Compound Angle Drilling”; and a two-part workshop during which conference goers made “storytelling chairs” with local teens and sculptor Rontherin Ratliff at YAYA Arts Center—the latest partner in the Furniture Society’s Craft for a Greater Good initiative. Attendees also enjoyed a demonstration by New Orleans–based woodworker and veneer artist Chelsea Van Voorhis called “Veneer Fleur De Lis in 60 Minutes!”

Two people work together to build a chair.

Curt Anderson (left) and furniture designer Peter Scheidt work on a “storytelling chair” at YAYA Arts Center in New Orleans. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

The conference featured several local luminaries, such as Big Chief Howard Miller and Queen Elenora “Rukiya” Brown, both of whom spoke on Friday morning during a keynote discussion called “The Art and Culture of the Black Indians of New Orleans.” Miller and Brown create intricate, elaborate ceremonial suits of feathers and beaded images and wear them during the city’s annual Mardi Gras festivities. Each suit is unique and packed with meaning.

Miller explained that traditions around Black Indians date back hundreds of years, beginning when escaped slaves found safe haven with local Native people. During early New Orleans carnival or Mardi Gras celebrations, “We couldn’t express Black culture,” Miller said. “We couldn’t go. So we made our own expression as Mardi Gras Indians. It’s a transformation. It’s a spiritual expression and a creative expression.”

Asked how much work goes into making a suit, Brown, who is Chahta, answered, “First I had to quit my job.” That comment drew laughter from conference attendees. She explained that years ago, while working as a fitter in a department store, she made some of her signature sculptural dolls, which have spiritual and healing aspects, and they sold immediately. “That said something is going on and I need to pay attention.” Before long, Brown had left the job to focus on her craft. “When you create something and you have it in your mind, if you are at work, you might lose it,” she said. “When you are in your sanctuary, you can get your thoughts together. I’m always trying to find a way.”

“It’s what you do and what we do,” Brown said. “The whole world needs it. The kids need it. Stay focused on your dream. Stay focused on your work and it will pay off.” A couple hours after the talk, Brown led an enthusiastic group in a demonstration of “The Power of Storytelling Through Beadwork.”

Overall, the Furniture Society conference presented a rich offering to attendees—a meaningful melding of local craft traditions and perspectives from some of the best furniture makers and woodworkers in the country. Add to that potent mix a bit of partying, New Orleans–style, and laissez les bons temps rouler! 

Queen Elenora "Rukiya" Brown demonstrates beadwork.

Queen Elenora “Rukiya” Brown demonstrates beadwork during a workshop at the Furniture Society conference in New Orleans. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

Local photographer extraordinaire La’Shance Perry was on hand to take photos of the Furniture Society presentations and sessions for American Craft. You can see what took place through her lens below!

Furniture makers and local teens making chairs.

Furniture makers and local teens make “storytelling chairs” during a workshop at YAYA Arts Center in New Orleans. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

Justin R. Cockrell stretches materials for the seat-weaving portion of the workshop.

Justin R. Cockrell prepares materials for the seat-weaving portion of the workshop. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

Lyric Lee works with two conference attendees.

Lyric Lee (right) works with conference attendees during a chair-making workshop. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

Rontherin Ratliff cuts designs for "storytelling chairs" at the conference.

New Orleans–based mixed-media sculptor Rontherin Ratliff cuts designs for “storytelling chairs” during the Furniture Society conference. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

Annie Evelyn smiles while holding upholstery materials at YAYA Arts Center.

Furniture designer Annie Evelyn prepares upholstery materials at YAYA Arts Center. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

Rukiya shows a multicolored beaded shoe during a workshop.

Queen Elenora “Rukiya” Brown shows a beaded shoe from an Indian suit during a workshop at the Furniture Society conference. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

Chelsea Witt admires a hand-beaded doll during a workshop.

Woodworker Chelsea Witt admires Brown’s doll The Elder during a workshop on “The Power of Storytelling Through Beadwork.”

Close-up image of a beaded cuff with yellow fabric and orange, red, blue and blacks beads and stones.

A beaded cuff from the Indian suit Phoenix Rising. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

Aspen Golann demonstrates compound angle drilling techniques using tools on the floor at the conference.

Artist and furniture maker Aspen Golann demonstrates compound angle drilling techniques during a workshop at the Furniture Society conference. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

Green laser lights shine on the floor and a chair displaying angles.

A demonstration of how to use a laser in the compound angle drilling process. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

Chelsea Van Voorhis shows how to make a fleur-de-lis on a piece of wood.

New Orleans–based veneer artist Chelsea Van Voorhis shows how to make a fleur-de-lis during a Furniture Society conference workshop. Photo by La’Shance Perry.

Jennifer Vogel is senior editor of American Craft.
Photographs by La’Shance Perry @lashanceperryvisuals

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