Vermont Furniture Designs’ company owner, Arthur Weitzenfeld.
Vermont Furniture Designs: Accent On Quality
By Clare Adrian
Burlington, Vt.—Perusing a Vermont Furniture Designs display at a dealership or at the factory store might trigger Mission, Shaker, Stickley, or other Arts and Crafts-era styles, perhaps a bit of 1950’s Danish Modern, in the mind of a furniture aficionado. Yet the furniture lines are distinct designs of company owner, Arthur Weitzenfeld.
Vermont Furniture Designs purchases approximately 500,000 board feet annually of Cherry and Walnut.
“Several of our lines are fairly traditional New England styles, though they’re not reproductions,” noted Weitzenfeld. “We design them ourselves in the spirit of those older styles of furniture.”
Even the facility location conjures up quality, as the State of Vermont had long been home to the currently defunct agricultural seal of quality. For Weitzenfeld, furniture building is all about quality, and his business decisions reflect a resolve to maintain it. He’s created a demand for it within a high-end clientele dominated by an upper middle class that spreads across a wide age range, from down-sizers and first time homeowners, to hippies now buying their first bedroom suite.
Brian Elbrader, shop foreman, and the company’s Mattison 404 straight-line rip saw.
Vermont Furniture Designs’ products are handcrafted, yet Weitzenfeld’s operation is on a large scale enough to keep prices down. He confirmed, “We build quality, handcrafted furniture to last forever in a traditional way, not in a one or two-man craft shop, rather in enough volume to offer better, even wholesale prices.”
Weitzenfeld’s objective, along with high quality, is to be able to specify color, length and width. He starts with No. 1 Common to the highest grade available, in 4/4 through 12/4 thicknesses and everything in between. All furniture lines are built in either Cherry derived mainly from Pennsylvania, Maple from various sources in New England, often Vermont, or Walnut from the Midwest, often Indiana and Kentucky.
Choice of wood species was an evolutionary process for Weitzenfeld, dating back to 1970 when he initially started building Maple handlooms based in the backwoods of the Vermont Green Mountains. A New York City native, he’d studied theoretical math for five years and rather than pursue a teaching career, took off to start his own cottage industry on $500, still utilizing his math background that cultivated his sense of proportion and design.
Weitzenfeld built the original looms in Maple for its relative low cost and its strength and density that abrades to a smoothly sanded surface. After awhile, customers were asking for something to blend into a living area and Cherry fit the scenario.
Case goods are clamped for 24 hours to ensure high-quality, rigid mortise and tenon joints.
The business took two to three years to become stable and he was building and shipping looms all over the world and it was the volume of looms he produced that set him apart from other cottage industries popular at the time.
After a 10-year duration, the handcraft movement began to die off and Weitzenfeld segued into building furniture, which provided more excitement and opportunity for him. Regarding his search for a style, he recalled, “When constructing looms and then looking for furniture to build, it was a natural transition—the straight lines, solid construction—when someone pointed me to an old Stickley catalog as to what was coming in the future.”
Weitzenfeld’s first piece of furniture was a Mission-style bed, commonly built in Oak and stained. He’d given Oak a run, which worked well enough for beds though in dressers, the glued tops reacted too much to the changes in humidity. Weitzenfeld chose not to use stains and as Oak’s porosity doesn’t lend itself well to an oil finish, he added Walnut to the mix per customer requests.
He sold his wares to furniture stores and in the late 1950’s reached a high point selling to large furniture companies, and his own company grew somewhat uncontrollably throughout the ‘90’s and into the early 2000’s. Business dropped off and he quit selling to them as it became apparent that their priority was cost not quality. The larger economy slowed production even further.He was forced to scale back the number of employees on the payroll from 85 to 40 and it currently hovers at 28.
Shop Foreman Brian Elbrader operates the Taylor clamp carrier.
Several of the craftsmen have been with Weitzenfeld for over 10 years, and general manager, Rob Bachand, over 20 years.As business builds and Weitzenfeld begins to rehire, he looks to a gentle growth while maintaining the high level of quality the company is recognized for.
Under a 35,000-square-foot factory roof is warehousing for needed lumber, a factory store, offices, and a craft shop-quality manufacturing plant.
The company’s manufacturing process includes several features that set it apart. Lumber is selected and cut by hand. Color matching is done by using the human eye as opposed to electronically. The shop has been transformed into a one-off product operation, and a tremendous amount of hand-sanding goes into each piece. All joinery is mortise and tenon and any one person can reject the whole or part of a piece so that nothing goes out unless it’s perfect. “Furniture is overbuilt,” said Weitzenfeld. “Often customers can’t believe how heavy it is. It’s built to last.” He mentioned that a furniture piece may have a plywood sheet on the back, though unlike much of the furniture case goods on the market it isn’t needed for structural support, rather only to keep dust out.
Vermont Furniture Designs’ process begins with selecting No. 1 Common to FAS Hardwood lumber in 4/4 through 12/4 thicknesses and everything in between.
Furniture pieces are clamped together overnight and becomes as rigid as a rock, said Weitzenfeld. All fronts are matched so that the wood grain of a set of drawers, for example, flows across the entire piece. And each drawer is hand-fitted to location in the dresser, where it will be numbered so that if it’s taken out it can be returned to the same spot.
Finished products are delivered to stores by contracted trucking services or common carrier and to homes by White Glove Services.
Weitzenfeld passes along the craftsman’s skills to a local rehabilitation facility to those interested in woodworking as a career. He also donates sawdust for farm use and scraps for campfires and building toys. Everything in the efficiently run company is accounted for, just as the furniture is functionally simplistic yet tastefully and artistically crafted.