The Wood Whisperer
by Leslie Vreeland | photos by Brett Schreckengost
Jun 01, 2012 | 6679 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A twice-worn coffee table of distressed Colorado pine on a reclaimed steel frame.
A twice-worn coffee table of distressed Colorado pine on a reclaimed steel frame.
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Rustic-yet-civilized: fine vintages nestled in a wine-bottle holder of gnarled Douglas fir.  (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
Rustic-yet-civilized: fine vintages nestled in a wine-bottle holder of gnarled Douglas fir. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
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The entrance to the 3,000-foot A+Y Gallery showroom. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
The entrance to the 3,000-foot A+Y Gallery showroom. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
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Yesenia and Adam Duncan with daughters Mia (left) and Ellie, in one of the two exquisitely refurbished rocking chairs in front of A+Y Design Gallery, on Montrose’s Main Street. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
Yesenia and Adam Duncan with daughters Mia (left) and Ellie, in one of the two exquisitely refurbished rocking chairs in front of A+Y Design Gallery, on Montrose’s Main Street. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
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Wooden blocks of Douglas fir, suitable for use as stools or seats (stool at right is custom-stained). (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
Wooden blocks of Douglas fir, suitable for use as stools or seats (stool at right is custom-stained). (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
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Down a dusty road off US 50, in the open farm country south of Montrose, sits an adobe-colored workshop. The inside is as granular as the outside, but here, it’s because of the fine layers of sawdust. “Doesn’t it smell great?” asks Adam Duncan. The aroma is intoxicating.

Duncan designs custom-made furniture; he uses traditional woods, such as cherry and tiger maple, exotica like Osage Orange, and reclaimed woods, including Douglas fir, Southern white oak and American chestnut, and the scent of all of them hangs in the air. A large-screen laptop computer glows in the corner from beneath its coating of dust, brimming with design plans. Among the table saws and mitre saws are chunks and slabs of wood on the floor, or piled in long pieces on upper shelves. Some of the pieces are cracked and peeling, and look unusable. Duncan not only sees it otherwise, he is staking his artistic reputation on these forlorn, forgotten-looking planks.

“We’ll accent the cracks,” he says. “We’ll bring them in” to the work.

At Duncan’s A+Y Design Gallery on Main Street in Montrose, you see what he means. The woods have been burnished, enhanced, transformed. Headboards and side tables from compromised-looking pieces back in the workshop are assembled with pieces of stronger Brazilian hardwood, in a technique Duncan refers to as stitching. Other stitching is with metal: the cracks in a burnished stump, suitable for use as a stool or small table, are plugged with custom-cuttings from a 1/8” thick aluminum sheet. A dining-room table has butterfly joints throughout the top; the joints not only help patch cracks in the wood, they serve as design flourishes. If the wood isn’t already compromised, Duncan often compromises it himself. He uses a method he calls charcoaling, toasting the surface of the wood with a weed-burner, and then removing the ash to create a deeper color. He polishes everything with boiled linseed oil before applying a finishing coat. Some of the furniture looks burly, and other pieces have a serene, Shaker-like austerity to them. But they are all unique. The juxtaposition between old, distressed wood and the pieces’ polish – the gnarled and the glossy – yields furniture not only striking-looking, but decidedly modern.

nd, in fact, “modern mountain furniture” is exactly the way Duncan describes his work. A fourth-generation Montrose native, he has always loved woodworking. As a child, he helped his father with woodworking projects, assisting in building two family cabins on Buckhorn Road, and, at the age of 8, making a willow chair using a bit and brace and his pocket knife, to go in one of the cabins.

He learned the value of a good mentor early on. In middle school, “I was terrible at everything else except P.E. and lunch,” he says, “But I excelled in shop,” where a woodworking instructor took Duncan under his wing. Over the past decade, the apprenticeships have continued: in a log-furniture store, a Cedaredge gallery and to various local woodworkers.

uncan’s closest collaboration has undoubtedly been with his wife, Yesenia, who has shared his dream and pushed him to do what he wanted all along. It began nine years ago, shortly after they first started dating, when he saw a log furniture store and remarked that he’d love to own one. “Well, why don’t you?” she responded. When he established a business six years ago, it was named A+Y (for Adam & Yesenia) Custom Furniture. His most fruitful professional collaboration has been with designer Abby Dix, the owner of Palladin in Ridgway, whom he credits with helping him step “out of the box” and tap into his creativity. “A lot of woodworkers are drawn to modern work, but I never really had an outlet until I met Abby,” he says. “She’s been able to mentor me in design and guide me. I think I had a good eye for proportion, but working with her has really elevated my design abilities.”

Dix returns the compliment. “I could see that Adam had a real command of woodworking,” she says. “He just needed to find designs that were [worthy of] his abilities.”

The two have collaborated on numerous pieces of furniture over the past few years, for residents regionally and on both coasts, and as far away as Australia. The synergy has been good for both of them. “Everyone wants something different. Adam and I put our heads together and sketch,” Dix says. “The vernacular right now is kind of ‘modern rustic.’ That’s what we’ve been focusing on, and what Adam has, too.”

At the same time that he was working with Dix, the Duncans were also focusing on opening a retail space. “There are a lot of artisans who make beautiful things,” he says. “But if you don’t know how to sell them, you’ll end up with a house full of your own furniture.” Though the couple had talked about owning a gallery, there was one crucial condition: Yesenia would have to manage it. “We’re polar opposites, in a way. I’m an artist and sort of ADD,” he says. “She’s extremely organized; a little talk, a lot of work.” She was also extremely busy, helping to raise their two daughters, Ellie and Mia, ages 5 and 6, and working as youth services coordinator for Hilltop, the nonprofit assistance organization (where she was named Employee of the Year in 2010). Nevertheless, her gift for efficiency and structure, coupled with her easy way with the public (she was a journalism major at the University of Northern Colorado), would be ideal for managing a gallery – if they could find the right space. The perfect place appeared, at 513 E. Main Street, but when the Duncans looked at it initially, they couldn’t afford it. They waited a year, the price dropped, and then they could swing it; they began working nights and weekends to get A+Y Design Gallery ready for its debut.

The gallery opened last September. The space is lofty, with carefully selected photographs, jewelry, glass pieces and ceramics, all from local artisans, to compliment Duncan’s furniture. On a recent First Friday art walk in downtown Montrose, customers nibbled Great Harvest bread and sipped fruit wine from Olathe’s Mountain View winery, surrounded by pistachio-wood bowls inlaid with turquoise, copper wall hangings, huge photographs of the San Juans (by Ridgway’s Kane Scheidegger) and Montrose ceramicist Melody Searle’s pieces of pottery, which she was there to discuss. The point of bringing other craftspeople into the gallery is not only to have brilliantly colored pieces to contrast with the darker, heavier furniture, but to give the artisans a place to show their work. “There are a lot of really talented people, and I know how hard it can be to sell what you make,” Duncan says. “It’s good to give them a space. The mentors I’ve had have given me a very good start. They’ve inspired and guided me, and we’re trying to be that outlet for others.”

Back at the woodshop, Duncan is in his element. Lately, he has begun harvesting local “nuisance woods” such as Russian olive and local tamarisk. Of the tamarisk, a perhaps surprising choice for fine furniture, given its reputation as a scourge, he says, “They make a wonderful accent wood. It burls a lot of times, which is gorgeous. And they’re hard, like oak or hickory-hard.” Everywhere he looks – at fellow artists, or artistic materials – he sees potential. Just as Michelangelo famously freed his sculptures from stone, Duncan takes inspiration from his material. He remarked earlier that it definitely pays to do what you love. Later, he put it differently. “A lot of times I’ll let the wood itself guide the direction of my work,” he summed up. “Nothing I do is identical, because the wood inspires the piece.”
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