Editor’s note: An exhibit of fine art furniture from roughly two dozen New England woodworkers is on display through June 18 at Discover Portsmouth. The free exhibition in the Balcony Gallery is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at 10 Middle St.
Jeffrey Cooper is on a mission. As chairman of NH Furniture Masters, Cooper and his fellow artisans want to educate collectors about the value of owning fine hand-crafted furniture.
Now in its 23rd year, the nonprofit group was created to promote the work of master woodworkers and, ultimately, to keep this ancient craft alive in an era of cheap, disposable, mass-produced, machine-made furniture.
“You really only need a couple of sawhorses and a piece of plywood to make a table,” says Cooper. “Or you can buy a commercially-manufactured table almost anywhere these days.”
What you can’t get in any store, Cooper points out with pride, is a one-of-a-kind work of art created specifically for your needs by a local master craftsman. A resident of Portsmouth, Cooper has been working from a rented workspace and studio for the last 30 years. Like the other members of NH Furniture Masters, he has dedicated his career to being the best at what he does.
“As we’re working, we’re always striving for a higher degree of excellence,” Cooper says. “But the problem in furniture making is that it is so labor intensive. So our goal with this organization is to show people what we do and why our work is worth what it costs.”
“Nobody ever set out to become a starving artist. We all started out to make a living through our art. The degree to which you can make a living creating fine furniture is the degree to which you can develop a following,” he says.
Meanwhile, many members continue to supplement their furniture-making by teaching or writing, or other work.
At one level, Furniture Masters is a marketing cooperative. Members must meet the highest standards of craftsmanship. Their work is juried. They pay dues, pay commissions, pay for advertising, put on exhibitions, send out press releases, maintain a website and produce a beautifully photographed color catalog.
“Becoming collectible is what I call the Picasso Effect,” Cooper says. “The goal is to attract new collectors who want to own fine art furniture, both as a financial investment and for its personal reward. Collectors not only gain a family heirloom, but they get to know the artist who created it.”
While members are, in some ways, competing with one another for customers, Cooper admits, by working together rather than competing, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
“Our goal is to grow the market,” he says. “If we can reach new potential collectors and show them the value of studio-made furniture rather than commercially made products, then everybody benefits.”
At another level, this is a teaching association. Its educational wing, the American Furniture Masters Institute, works with the New Hampshire State Prison system, teaching the craft of fine furniture-making to inmates. One member of the group is a former prisoner, and there are plans to expand the program into Maine and Massachusetts.
“We believe that prison should not be just a warehouse,” Cooper says, “but a place to train people, so when they get out, they have goals and dreams.”
Despite its ancient origins, NH Furniture Masters is focused on the future. Most of the work by members is wildly imaginative. Numerous members have works in the permanent collection of art galleries, including the Currier in Manchester and the American Craft Museum in New York City.
So when does a functional chair or a table or a chest of drawers become a sculpture? Asked how fine furniture becomes fine art, Cooper cringes. It is a question long debated and never resolved.
“To me it’s silly to even pose the question,” he says. “It is what it is.”
“We just want people to say: ‘If he’s a member of NH Furniture Masters, I know he’s good.’ Owning that person’s work is both a pleasure and an investment.”
It is the future of their craft, Cooper says, that is of greatest concern. “We only have two young members. The rest of us are all late in our 50s to pushing 70. Where are the fine woodworkers of the 21st century coming from? We haven’t done enough yet to make the next generation possible.”
To that end, this year NHFM is making it possible for younger emerging artists to succeed. The group has instituted the Alden Advancement Scholarship that allows promising students to show their work alongside work by professionals. The 2017 award goes to Grant Burger, a graduate of North Bennett Street (Woodworking) School in Boston.
So why did Cooper stay at it – working alone in a studio for more than 30 years? “I don’t know,” he says after a pause. “Could be because I love it. Or maybe because I’m so damn stubborn.”
For information on the NH Furniture Masters exhibition curated by Gerald Ward and Lainey McCartney (ending June 18) call Discover Portsmouth at 436-8433 or visit PortsmouthHistory.org. The show features work by an elite group of woodworkers from New England including Jon Brooks, David Lamb, Richard Oedel, Cooper and many others. The companion exhibition, “Four Centuries of Portsmouth Furniture,” is also open daily at 10 Middle St. through June 18.
J. Dennis Robinson is the author of a dozen books about history. His feature “History Matters” appears every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald.