Brian Brace might have gotten his breakthrough. He created and sold six Arts & Crafts-style dining room chairs to a California family that is influential in the Arts & Crafts world.
The chairs aren’t just any kind of Craftsman-style chairs. Brace built them in the revered style of Charles and Henry Greene, whose architectural firm at the turn of the 20th century designed stylized “ultimate bungalows” that established Pasadena as a national center of Craftsman homes. Greene & Greene is to Arts & Crafts the way Tiffany is to lamps and cut glass – a coveted subcategory with its own distinct devotees.
“It’s scary to be at this level,” Brace, 38, said of his success recently in his wood shop in Black Mountain. Standing near the open bay of a converted warehouse near Dynamite Coffee, he said this new direction could vault him to the top of fine furniture makers specializing in the Greene & Greene style.
In the early 1900s, the Ohio-born Greenes created an architectural niche that combined the simplicity of the Arts & Crafts movement with the elegance of Japanese temples. Designing landmark homes for wealthy clients in Southern California, their firm envisioned the homes down to the tablecloths in the dining room and the carved pegs that held the furniture together. The brothers designed fixtures, lighting and fabrics as well.
Two decades ago, Brace fell in love with Arts & Crafts furniture. Living in Vermont, he at 16 started a five-year apprenticeship under a master furniture maker. His five-year journeymanship took him to Naples, Florida. He opened his first woodworking shop there in 2004 and moved to Black Mountain six years later. The Craftsman-style furniture he builds has traditional mortise and tenon joinery and is meant to be passed along to subsequent generations.
In February at the national Arts & Crafts Conference at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, a dining room chair he’d built in the Greene & Greene-style for a client in Biltmore Park attracted the attention of Arts and Crafts Homes magazine, which featured it in its summer issue.
A California family who found him through his website (brianbracefinefurniture.com) was at the show to see his work. They liked the chair so much they ordered six to replace a set of well-known Craftsman chairs they had at home. The buyers are the fifth generation of a family to live in a Greene & Greene house built in 1929. They have worked to keep the house in its period finery, so Brace feels honored that his chairs are there by design.
“They fell in love with these chairs,” Brace said, caressing the contours of the Greene & Greene-style chair he kept for himself. (He made 14 in three days, after first building the jigs, which are devices that guide a machine – a bandsaw, for instance - through a piece of wood so that the part it cuts is exactly what the furniture maker wants. Now that he has the jigs, he can make a chair in half the time, he said.)
Because the family in California is influential among other aficionados of the Greene & Greene style, Brace believes this break could be huge for his work, including his other “signature” chair, the Arbor Morris chair. “This helps me get more embedded into the society of people who own Greene & Greene pieces and want one that is handmade,” he said.
In October, the family is going to host Brace for the 26th annual Craftsman Weekend in Pasadena. While he’s there, he’s going to look at doing some work for them, building bookcases, armoires and bar chairs. Already he feels at home with them.
“To have the mother literally cry on my shoulder because someone cares about this stuff as much as they do, there is nothing like that,” Brace said. “It’s almost like being welcomed into the family.”