Some people think craftsmanship is a dying art. After all, it has to compete with the current desire for instant gratification, one-click buying and the must-have-it-tomorrow way of American life. But, fortunately, a core group of artisans still believe in quality and American-made craftsmanship, and they are determined to not let the tradition fade away.
Handcrafting is all about a love for design, a passion for perfection and the desire to keep improving. For the creators of handcrafted, quality products, craftsmanship is the center of their lives. It’s the reason they get up and go to work every morning—and they are constantly thinking of new ways to innovate. Their credo is that, without craftsmanship, you just have a pile of parts thrown together, without a care for how they fit or the value of the end product. Craftsmanship represents the soul of the crafted piece, which comes from the mind, the tools, the knowledge, and the hard work of the craftsman. Constantly inspired by the world around them, craftspeople believe that, because of this passion to create, manufactured items will never make crafting obsolete.
Four men and women at the forefront of keeping the artisan tradition alive were interviewed for this story: Aaron Dewitt, who, together with his wife, Angie, runs Hammered in Time in Derby, CT; Justin Hawker, owner of Hawker Metalworks and the Industrial Revival Furniture Company, based in Shelton, CT; Cynthia Davis, who, together with her partner, Rena Paris, runs Wallovers in Fairfield, CT; and Richard Brooks of Brooks Custom in Mt. Kisco, NY.
Aaron Dewitt has been involved in every aspect of metal fabrication and welding since the age of 19. He comes from a family with a tradition of working with one’s hands: his father was a machinist, his grandfather owned a sheet metal company and his great-grandfather was a blacksmith. He is very thankful to his parents for sending him to a technical high school.
Working for years doing restaurant interiors and storefronts, Aaron knew what customers were looking for with respect to quality and durability, so he started an Etsy store. He began by making barn doors from reclaimed wood, and then turned to stools, which have been his main focus since 2013. He loves to design and produce beautifully crafted bar stools.
Aaron enjoys the freedom to design a stool any way he or his customer wants. He usually goes into his shop with an idea and comes out with a new stool, and then brings it home for approval by Angie and their five kids. He uses steel for the frames, and oak and marbled cedar or Douglas fir for the seats. All the frames are 100% welded, with no bolts.
Aaron’s East Coast clients typically ask for his rough-sawn “Nantucket” stools, which are very light and have straight lines. He is particularly proud of his “Fiesta” stool, which he designed from an oil painting. He made the prototype on a Saturday and sold 30 of them to the Grand Old Opry Hotel in Nashville by the following Tuesday. Other popular stool designs include “Cantina,” “Manhattan” and his hand-made swivel stools. Aaron is also the manufacturer of the super-popular “Keg Urinal,” which started out as a joke but now numbers more than 300 in sales across the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia.
Justin Hawker, owner of the Industrial Revival Furniture Company, first took up welding in 1999. After graduating in 2005 from the Wentworth Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, he went to work for an architectural firm. But in 2009 he was unexpectedly laid off and had no plans for the future. However, helped along by a family tradition he describes as “gumption” and the support of a few friends, he accumulated enough orders within weeks to start his own business. He began by doing ornamental steel work, which developed into restaurant outfitting, stairs, window walls, custom structures, doors, etc.
Also skilled at making quality handcrafted smaller products, Justin began by creating yard and garden sculptures, which he sold every weekend and during the summer at craft shows. Over time, what became more important than the size of a project was spending more time with his family, so he is now focused on furniture, smaller fixtures and similar projects. When one of Justin’s tables for a local restaurant anda bunch of other furniture was featured in a few magazines, this became the jumping-off point for his custom furniture business.
Justin works in the trending field of “vintage” and “industrial” American design. He uses a lot of steel plus a fair share of wood. Most of his pieces are on the heavy side, but they’ll last a few generations. Many of the complex profiles he uses for stools and tables are cut out on a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) plasma table. Aside from that, his work involves the basics of cutting, heating, bending and welding.
Clients who buy furniture for their homes typically ask for details to be adjusted to make the piece more their own, so Justin works with them to make sure they get something they’ll love. His furniture has been gaining popularity not only all along the East Coast, but also in Colorado and California.
To Justin, craftsmanship is vitally important, so he passes his craft along to others via welding workshops, where enthusiasts can learn to cut, weld, grind and go home with some great furniture and pride in their achievements. Ultimately, Justin believes that if you want to live in a country that builds things, you have to buy things your country builds.
Cynthia Davis has been a decorative artist since 1993. After earning her BA from the University of Vermont in 1984, she began a career in marketing, but never stopped being involved in art as a hobby. When the first person paid her to paint his walls, she decided to make a career change. Cynthia pursued decorative arts studies in the U.S. and abroad, including courses at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Pratt University in New York. One of her European projects involved working on a design team to faux paint an 18-room chateaux in France, in association with Prismatic Paintings Studios in Cincinnati. She is currently a national decorative arts teacher accredited by the International Decorative Artisans League.
In 2015 Cynthia earned a master’s degree in intercultural service leadership management from the School of International Training in Brattleboro, VT. She founded Our Woven Community, a program that uses her intercultural service leadership and creative skills to help educate and empower refugee women who have been victims of war and genocide.
Cynthia is the owner of Cynthia Designs, a business that specializes in unique painted-surface finishes, but also features her handmade, one-of-a-kind jewelry crafted with semiprecious stones, metals and antiques. She is also the co-founder, along with Rena Paris, of Wallovers, a company offering more than 50 “allover” stencil designs, and the creator of “The Topper” and “The Wallbuster” stencil brushes.
Decorative artists for over 25 years, Cynthia and Rena make use of a wide variety of materials and techniques, including glazes, plasters, glass beads, glitter, metal foils, metal leaf, custom-designed stencils, hand-painted murals, and lime and fresco ornamentation. Coffee grounds, shells, antique buttons, pennies and other items find their way into their unique finishes. The two artists transform walls, furniture, backsplashes, sinks, lighting fixtures, countertops, ceilings and stairs, and change surfaces to resemble concrete, stone, leather and unique ornamental moldings. They bring their phenomenal creativity and skills as painters and colorists to each project.
After 20 years of hand-cutting stencils for clients, the partners decided it was time to reproduce and sell them to others. Decorative painters and homeowners around the world now use Wallovers stencils, a unique line of repeatable, wallpaper-like stencils for walls and furniture. More than 55 designs are available, but the individual artists who apply the finishes can create an infinite number of innovative designs. Artists administer their own unique paint products through Wallovers stencil designs that repeat across the surface using “puzzle-like” registration marks for the artists to follow.
Homeowners rely on Cynthia and Rena to bring a unique, handmade quality to their rooms, as they watch the artists bring the customer’s vision to life with their hands. In the end, the customer is part of the process and feels his or her own personality exuding from the completed work.
Richard Brooks grew up in New York and obtained a degree in engineering before beginning work in the antique furniture and restoration business. Although there is no family tradition for what he does, he was not pressured to follow any predetermined path, but instead was encouraged to pursue his passions in life. When he realized he wanted to create his own products instead of just repairing the work of others, he studied with a master Swedish cabinet maker to learn more about the woodworking trade. His first experience with creating his own designs came when he furnished his first home in the early to mid ’70s. This led to the formation of Brooks Custom in 1977.
Richard loves integrating and experimenting with different materials, including wood, concrete, metal and glass. To remain competitive and cost-effective, he combines working with modern machinery with hand-detailing. In his shop, only the most experienced craftsmen use hand tools to create the quality products for which he is known. He has a regular group of top-class architects, designers, and kitchen and bath showroom owners, whom he has worked with over the years. He also has clients who come back to him each time they redo their home, move to a new location or need to renovate their kitchen.
Brooks Custom specializes in quality, handcrafted kitchen products, including countertops, range hoods, backsplashes and furniture. Countertops are fashioned in wide-plank wood, stainless steel, glass, copper, bronze, pewter, zinc and concrete. Furniture encompasses end-grain and edge-grain butcher block tables. His clients on the East Coast typically ask for quality wood countertops, butcher blocks and dining tables. Right now he’s especially excited and happy with the specialty finishes he is using on his live-edge tabletops, which include pewter, stained maple, washed maple and zinc cold cast.
Richard’s latest line is the “Bistro Collection,” featuring cold-cast, metal-finished countertops in zinc, nickel, pewter, aluminum, copper, brass, bronze and stainless steel. The metal coating, which is 80% real metal, is applied and bonded to a real wood core or to an exterior grade substrate. Cold-cast countertops have a living finish that will continue to evolve throughout the lifetime of the top. They have a distressed look, imperfections and patina that create a time-honored or rustic appearance.
His business represents an innovative and creative resource for designers, architects and others in the decorating trades in the Hudson Valley region. And, indeed, Richard doesn’t think that craftsmanship is dying out. He believes that people in the decorative and building trades are fueled by their passions, and in them find a consistent way of life. For as long as there are artists and creatively minded people, craftsmanship will never fade away.
Hammered in Time Aaron Dewitt 203.343.2224 hammeredintime.com
Industrial Revival Furniture Company Justin Hawker 203.395.8806
Cynthia Designs Cynthia Davis 203.268.8928 cynthiadesigns.com
Wallovers Rena Paris 203.268.8928 wallovers.com
Brooks Custom Richard Brooks 15 Kensico Drive Mount Kisco, NY 10549 800.244.5432 brookscustom.com