April 3, 2012
PHOENIX, Ariz. – When Richard Morris traded wordsmithing for woodworking, his creative energy shifted into high gear. He began stretching himself. He was on a new plateau of personal growth.
It was about a decade ago when Morris began his career transition away from writing advertising copy. Today, Morris designs and creates arts and crafts furniture from quartersawn white oak in his northwest Phoenix shop.
Both occupations are creative, he says, but the influence of advertising is temporary. On the other hand, the cabinets, chairs and other items Morris is making today could be treasured for generations.
“Part of what I have to sell is the hand of man,” Morris says. “It looks organic. It looks like something that someone has labored over.” Photo © copyright by Mike Padgett
Morris’ clients are scattered worldwide. Some are local. Others are in Chicago, New York and Europe. Morris recreated historic furniture for the Hubbell Trading Post and the Painted Desert Inn, both in northeastern Arizona. He also crafted furnishings for an Oak Park, Ill., home designed in the early 1900s by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Craftsman or Artist?
Morris was busy with a bathroom vanity when I visited him in his shop recently. Our paths crossed weeks ago, via email. I told him I write about people who have interesting stories to tell. He agreed to share his .
After our handshake, he grabs a hand broom and dusts off a drafting stool for my camera bag. I see an organized workplace. There are several power tools for his precision work. Wood clamps and hand tools are on racks within easy reach. His radio is tuned to National Public Radio.
My eyes wander to his planer, table saw, sander, and to lathe tools in a wall rack. Morris is wearing a worn leather apron. In its chest pockets are a pencil, an old pocketknife and a tiny gauge Morris uses to set his table saw blade.
Morris shows me a design for a tall-case clock he is starting for a client in San Diego. He recently shipped a similar clock to a Chicago client who hopes the clock will be in the family for generations.
“She is going to give it to her oldest son, who’s in turn going to give it to his oldest daughter,” Morris says. “And if there’s any justice at all, it’ll be there for several generations after that.”
On the white oak bathroom vanity he’s finishing, Morris shows me the dovetail joints. He marks and cuts the dovetails by hand. Dovetail joints, if you know woodworking, require skill and patience to make them tight, even and straight.
Richard Morris prepares a bathroom vanity for its door hinges. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett
My appreciation for skilled woodworking kicks in. I imagine an artisan bent over the workbench, gluing together a table or chair. Adrenaline flows faster than glue dries. The artisan’s frown deepens. He rushes to tighten the clamps before the glue sets, adding pads between the wood and the clamps to avoid leaving dents in the wood.
In this arena, craft approaches art. It is a personal zone where magic is created by a good supply of patience, a love of craft and 10,000 hours of muscle memory.
Morris continues. “Once in a while, the little hairs on the back of my neck just stand up, it’s so satisfying. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it. It’s just profound satisfaction at having done a thing well.”
Clients Fall Silent
Morris knows he’s been successful when clients, arriving at his shop, fall silent the minute they see their commissioned furniture for the first time.
“Their eyes will close and they stroke it and I feel like I should walk away and give them some privacy,” Morris says. “It happens with some people. That’s one of the things about why I love what I do. I just put it together. The wood is beautiful on its own. All I do is not screw it up.
“It’s really gratifying,” he says. “I mean, it’s why I get such a big kick out of it. I can stand back at the end of the day and say, ‘I created that out of some sticks.’”
Collectors appreciate American antique furniture because of its beauty, the skill used in creating it, and because well-crafted furniture is functional decades after it was made. Properly cared for, wood antiques will achieve a unique beauty. They can become functional art. The skill of the hand of man becomes obvious.
Crosswords Before Sunrise
Morris says woodworking is his fulltime job, “and will be till I die.” During the summer months, to avoid the heat, he works tropical hours. That means he often arrives at his shop before sunrise.
“I love to come to work. Absolutely love to. I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and do a couple of crosswords and have breakfast, and I’m here.
“People talk about retirement and I say, ‘Retirement? This is my retirement.’”
Morris picks up a cabinet door he’s finishing for the vanity. I reach for my camera.
Morris steadies the cabinet door and grabs his cordless drill. I shoot a few photos of him at work. He drills pilot holes in the door and the cabinet frame for hinge screws. He picks up a tiny screw. It nearly disappears between his thumb and forefinger. He scrapes the screw back and forth on a small piece of soap. The soap will make it easier to twist the screw into the wood.
When Morris attaches and closes the doors, their fit is a little tight. The solution, he says, is sanding the thickness of a sheet of paper from the edges where the doors meet.
Writing Advertising Copy
Morris’ path to his shop started in the Midwest, where he worked a short time in radio while finishing college at the time. He eventually received two bachelor’s degrees – one in history with a philosophy minor, and the second in art with a French minor.
After college, he worked for an advertising agency where he wrote copy for radio commercials. That was followed by a stint in the Navy in the 1960s during the Vietnam era. He attended the U.S. military language school in Monterey, Calif., where his days were devoted to studying French.
After his military duty, he worked first for an advertising agency and then for a printing company, both in St. Louis. In the early 1980s, he relocated to Arizona where he worked for similar companies.
Over time, he developed an interest in woodworking. In about 2003, his hobby became a business. He started in his home workshop. At the time, he lived near the White Tank Mountains west of Phoenix.
Later, when he outgrew his workshop, he moved his woodworking business in 2007 into leased space in a light industrial area in northwest Phoenix. He now lives close enough to bicycle to work. He also launched a website, www.desertcraftsmen.com, on which he focuses all of his marketing.
Many of his clients are doctors, lawyers, college professors and accountants.
Morris focuses his energies on arts and crafts furniture, sometimes called Mission style. Many of his clients favor quartersawn white oak, often called “tiger oak” because of the unique golden rays created in the lumber by the quarter-sawing method. The arts and crafts designs, which date to the late 1800s, remain popular and functional.
“One, it’s easy to do,” Morris says. “B, I love the look of it, and C, there’s a considerable market for it. For which we can blame Barbra Streisand.”
It was at a Christie’s auction in 1988 when Streisand – by phone – offered the high bid of $363,000 “for an oak and wrought iron sideboard made by craftsman Gustav Stickley,” according to the Dec. 12, 1988, edition of the Los Angeles Times.
Before the auction, the Columbus Avenue Sideboard – which once had been in Stickley’s home – was appraised at $90,000. Stickley, a major influence in the American Arts and Crafts furniture movement, died in 1942.
White oak was the furniture wood of choice during the arts and crafts era because of its beauty, its strength and because it was plentiful. Today, the price of the wood is increasing because oak forests are decreasing in size. Also competing for the wood are the bourbon whiskey manufacturers, who use it for their whiskey barrels.
It was on Morris’ new career path where he walked in the footsteps of some historical figures with high profiles in Southwest history. His company was commissioned to replicate office furniture to replace aging originals used in the Hubbell Trading Post on the Navajo Reservation. The trading post opened in the 1880s.
Desert Craftsmen also was commissioned by the National Park Service to replicate furniture for the original soda fountain in the historic Painted Desert Inn on the Petrified National Forest.
The Painted Desert Inn is about 25 miles east of Holbrook. It was built in the 1920s as a private retreat and a tourist stop by Holbrook businessman Herbert Lore, according to author Arnold Berke in his book, “Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest.” Berke writes that Lore originally called the building the “Stone Tree House” because blocks of petrified wood were used to construct much of the original building.
A flier from the Painted Desert Inn, which was closed in 1963. After it was reopened and renovated several years later, Richard Morris was hired to recreate furniture for the Inn’s lunchroom. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett
The National Park Service, as part of its expansion of the Painted Desert, bought Lore’s “Stone Tree House” in 1936. The NPS updated the structure from 1937 to 1940. Two years later, because of World War II, the Inn was closed. In 1947, the Fred Harvey Co. took over the concession contract at the Painted Desert Inn and brought in Colter to update the building’s interior. The Inn closed in 1963.
In the 1970s, when the Inn was considered for demolition, public support helped the Inn receive listing on the National Register of Historic Places. That was in 1975. In 1987, it achieved status as a national historic landmark.
Morris said the major hurdle in his restoration of the Inn’s soda fountain was the lack of any original furniture. The room apparently had been gutted in preparation for demolition.
“All I had to work with were two black-and-white photographs and the original drawings of the fixtures and such – the counter and the booth and the tables – that sort of thing,” he says.
Morris made the replacement furnishings in his Phoenix shop. But in listening to him talk about the property, it was obvious he enjoyed the trips he made to the Inn to take measurements and photographs, and then finally to install the reproduced furniture.
“You can go there at the crack of dawn and sit and watch as the sun goes across. Everything out there changes color. The shadows change shape. It is just fascinating and well worth the trip if you’ve not been there.”
Full disclosure: I wrote about Richard Morris because he has an interesting story to share. After listening to his story and seeing his work, I commissioned Morris to recreate a small table for me. I paid Morris for the table. Never was there any discussion of me writing about Morris in exchange for the table.
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