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Ian Ingersoll

by Kathryn Boughton

Ian Ingersoll, renowned cabinetmaker from West Cornwall, is multilingual. "I love the classics, but I am tasked to work in the modern world" he said, "so I work in five different languages of modern design."

After 42 years in the woodworking business, his world is still unfolding. "You have to go where the market is," he said. "I have no idea what will be next."

Ingersoll began his odyssey when he built a house and its furnishings for himself after he got out of the Army. "Then some friends twisted my arm to make furniture for their apartment in New York and, by the time I was done with that, I was hooked."

The budding craftsman taught himself as he proceeded, quickly learning that the part he enjoyed most was the shop work. "I wanted to advance the art form and I looked around for an influence," he said. He found it in James Krenov (1920-2009), a master woodworker, who inspired his colleagues to bring simplicity, harmony and above all, a love of wood to their work. Krenov wrote two books, A Cabinetmaker's Notebook and The Impractical Cabinetmaker, in which be shunned ostentatious and overly sculpted pieces, stains, sanded surfaces,and unbalanced or unproportional constructions.

Ingersoll was inspired by Krenov's counsel, and "decided it would be smart for me to find an influence to grow through."

Enter the Shakers. "The Shakers represent our heritage," Ingersoll said. "[Their furniture] is in our houses and our museums. And because it was local, it was here for me to look at, touch and feel."
Also attractive to him were the pure lines of the furniture. "It is a Shaker religious directive not to include ornamentation," Ingersoll related. "They had simplified the lines of existing furniture, the form had been reinvented and redefined into simpler, less ornate, forms."

As Ingersoll taught himself the techniques needed for creating Shaker styles, he found a ready acceptance of his furniture. "I did a step-stool and put it in a village store," he said. "It sold that weekend. The next weekend, the buyer asked if I would make a chest. I didn't know how to do it, but said, 'Yes.'"

And his business proceeded from there. "The one single piece of useful advice I took from my father, was find something you love to do for a living," he said.

Four decades later, Ingersoll still works in the little village of West Cornwall in three small buildings, where he employs 10 people. "There is no 'up' from West Cornwall," he said. "How could we leave. I've never been without work through four recessions."

But to keep on top of his game, he must constantly improvise. He says he still gets requests for Shaker pieces, but now about 85 percent of his work is done for the hospitality industry.

"The learning goes on," he said. "I not only work in original designs, but also incorporate metal, stone, leather, plastic—whatever comes to hand. I show traditional pieces in Cornwall, but I'm working for the most cutting-edge design shops in New York. Everyone wants to continue learning."

He recently made furniture for the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami FL.

"We have to create as we go along," he said. "That's what allows the woodworking shop to survive when we have to compete with the Chinese, who sub-contract to Vietnamese, who will work for practically nothing. We create new and then have the proprietary rights for a year."

He does most of designing, but also collaborates with customers and designers—and even occasionally with a worker who brings something new to his attention.

He employs different woods when they have been out of the public eye for a while and when the price is right. For instance, American black walnut was hot for a while. "We reintroduced it," he said. "Prior to that, it had out-priced the marketplace, but by the early '90s, you could it buy at a quarter the price of other woods. That's one way we stay ahead of the curve, using something that had not been used. Now you see it everywhere, so we are using ash, which is a local hot wood. There is a glut of it and it is a good material."

He buys the majority of his wood product from dealers along the East Coast. If a wood is priced right, he then figures the right finish. He cites one time when he sold "a year's worth of furniture to Las Vegas" using a technique by which he rubs paint into the grain of the wood. "It's akin to liming," he said, "but more interesting because it accents the grain of the wood. In Las Vegas, we rubbed in gold paint."

"We have been able to reach from Japan to Canada—which is like bringing coals to Newcastle, with all the trees they have," he said.