Furniture maker defines elegance in woodworking
by IMANI SALAHUDDIN REPOSITORY STAFF WRITER / Fri, Oct 20th, 2006 12:00 am
CANTON - Understatement can be the best way to make a statement, according to John Strauss.
And the Chicago-born sculptor and custom furniture maker is making a statement locally, nationally and internationally from 2121 Fourth St. SE.
Seated at his desk, in an office with children's hand-drawn pictures hanging on cool, orange sorbet-colored walls, dressed in blue jeans, saw-dusted hiking boots, glasses and an olive green buttoned-down shirt, Strauss confesses: "I'm not a flashy person. I go for understated. I think that's what elegance is about.
"You look at something, and it's not going to necessarily jump right out and grab you right away. It's gonna be something you're going to look at; then, the longer you look at it, the more you will appreciate it. To me, that's elegance."
Understated also describes the building where Strauss crafts his custom and signature line of art deco-inspired furniture. You won't see big, flashy signs or display windows. Instead, you will see a red and tan brick building and a small black and white sign that reads: "John Strauss, furniture maker, LLC."
The building is unobtrusive, tucked into a low-income residential neighborhood, next to The New Hope Seventh Day Adventist Church. Inside, amid smells of lacquer and burning wood, and the high-pitched whines of wood-cutting machines mingled with lyrics from Shakira and Radiohead, Strauss and fellow sculptor Keith McMahon produce high-end furniture - ranging in price from the high-hundreds to the many thousands - for showrooms in Chicago, Miami and Columbus, plus designers, architects, and individuals throughout the country.
"John doesn't make a lot of things here, but what he makes he makes well," McMahon said.
Furniture making magic
On bended knee, Strauss adjusts the blade of a band saw. He clutches a piece of wood, shaped like a dumbbell, in his right armpit. With the flip of a switch, the magic begins. He slides the wood through the saw, precisely slicing it to reveal the start of a seductively curved leg for a Savoy console.
"You have to visualize the leg in the wood; just like in sculpting, you have to visualize whatever object is in the stone and cut away to reveal what's there," Strauss said.
For a moment he pauses, pulls a tape measure from his apron, then uses his lips to extend it and measure the edge of the French-curved leg.
Strauss' furniture has a stellar reputation among his clientele.
"He does beautiful work. He does quality work," said Mary Ann Tarzan, co-owner of Lazar's Art Gallery of American Craft at 2940 Woodlawn Ave. NW.
Says her husband, Lazar, "His selective choices of grained wood contribute to the beauty and quality of his work. He's a meticulous artist."
Strauss carries the leg to a work table, places it in a vise and begins shaping it with a hand-held spoke shave. With each rasp, spiraled mahogany shavings fall gently to the floor, and the wood is transformed.
"Each of us is here for a unique reason," Strauss said. "When I work, I feel like I am connecting to why I'm here. It feels right to create and make things, doing handwork. Trying to create beauty seems like what I should be doing."
business began in a garage
Strauss, 47, a trained sculptor and graduate of Brown and the City of New York Universities, and wife, Dominica, also a sculptor, relocated to Canton in 1995. Strauss had lived in New York for 12 years and had planned to remain there until he met Dominica. Dominica, recently divorced when the couple met, had two daughters living in Canton. After marrying and deciding to start their family, the Strausses moved here to raise all of the children together.
Strauss' experiences with sculpting wood began during his Brown University years. Later, he studied furniture design and production with French furniture maker Gabriel Giuntini in New York. Strauss started producing custom furniture in Canton from his own two-car garage. As his business expanded, he formed a partnership with another wood worker. The partnership soured, and Strauss bought his partner out and set up shop at its current site in 1999.
As Strauss shapes the mahogany leg, his memory of Giuntini, is alive.
"This is kind of cool working with this mahogany," he said, "because it came from the last few pieces I bought from my mentor before I left New York. It's like he's here working with me."
Giuntini, at age 75, died the year Strauss moved to Canton.
In another area of the shop, McMahon cuts a few pieces of white oak and the scent carries Strauss back to his childhood.
"Smell is probably our most underappreciated sense," he said. "I believe smell can trigger memories. Smelling that white oak reminds me of when I was a child and we used to burn white oak in the fireplace."
Humble and dedicated
Strauss's appreciation of art and furniture began when he was a child, growing up in a family of artists and interior designers. His father owned a high-end furniture showroom in downtown Chicago.
Though he is a graduate of an Ivy League school, Strauss doesn't let his background define who he is.
"I think humility is an important attribute for a person to have because your true nature is going to come through. We're all here on borrowed time anyway," Strauss said. "Where you went to college and where you came from is just a description, it's not who you are."
Strauss is "incredibly personable," "humble," and committed" to many issues, said Eric Ross of the Canton Jewish Community Federation. Strauss is vice president of the federation's partnership with Israel and chairs the Shlichim, a committee responsible for bringing Israeli emissaries to Canton to inform people about Israeli culture, cooking, history and education. He's also the organizer of a video teleconference between young American and Israeli adults.
"I care about relationships between people. I care that people are treated justly and fairly," Strauss said.
Strauss crafts his care for others in another medium, too.
"Sometimes I write articles for the Stark Jewish News in my head while I'm working. Mostly I write about what friends from Israel tell me is going on with them since the bombings," Strauss said." The hardest thing this summer was having friends over there and not being able to do anything (to help them)."
Strauss patiently inspects and caresses the curved leg with his fingertips. Where some see a console piece, he sees families gathered around it years from now.
"The Iroquois, I think, believe that everything you do in the world should be done thinking about the next seven generations," said Strauss. "I think that way about furniture and other things in the
Canton furniture maker John Strauss crafts pieces that range from $940 to $13,720. Here are some of his designs.
-- Martillo Lingerie Dresser, 5-Drawer. Japanese blue curly maple and natural mahogany, natural satin finish, Lexan knobs.
-- Upholstered club chair, maple or walnut with metal leafing.
-- Bacall Buffet, carved legs and feet. Feet are metal leafed, black lacquer interior, nickel hardware, pivot hinges.
-- Vide Poche, lacewood or mahogany, one drawer, three hand-carved ebonized legs and feet, natural satin finish, metal leafed feet. Available in other species and finishes.