Edward Allen might be seen as the anti-Ethan Allen - the furniture company, that is, not its namesake Green Mountain Boy. Ethan Allen mass-produces furniture in 21 factories and sells it in 310 stores throughout the United States and Canada. Edward Allen, 73, makes all his Shaker-styled pieces by hand in a converted East Middlebury garage and sells them in an adjoining 200-square-foot showroom.
A fifth-generation Vermonter from Brattleboro, Edward Allen has remained rooted in his native state; the 75-year-old furniture firm long ago transplanted its corporate headquarters to Connecticut. Ethan Allen has also closed two of its Vermont plants and scaled back production at the two that remain open, eliminating hundreds of jobs.
Ed Allen has actually laid off employees, too. He let one full-timer and two part-timers go a few years ago because, he explains, "I was spending most of my day not working with wood but being a supervisor." And he's since found there's only one disadvantage to working solo: "You can't blame your mistakes on somebody else."
After 31 years as a woodworking teacher and 20 years of crafting mostly custom-made furniture, Allen doesn't make many mistakes. The elegantly angular desks, tables, hutches and jewelry boxes he designs and shapes in his well-ordered workshop appear flawless, but not soulless. Each sleekly simple piece has a character that can't be achieved in a factory.
"This is what I've always loved doing," Allen says, gesturing toward the display items that visitors can sample next weekend, May 26 and 27, during the statewide Open Studios tour. He decided to devote himself to furniture making full-time in 1987, after retiring as director of the Hannaford Career Center, Addison County's vocational high school. "My family had a lot of heart problems," Allen explains, noting that his father died of a coronary at age 44. "I figured, what the hell - I might as well just go for it."
With pencils, tape measure and a retractable ruler tucked into the pockets of his carpenter's apron, the bespectacled Allen still looks like a voc-ed teacher. But he's so soft-spoken that his students must have strained to hear his instructions. It's also hard to picture this gentle man disciplining an acting-out adolescent.
In fact, Allen did some time as director of inmate training programs at a state prison in Connecticut. That was difficult work, he recalls. He gave up the jailhouse gig after three years, thinking, he says, "I'd be better off getting back into public education and trying to prevent kids from ending up in a place like that."
He moved in 1978 to his current home on a cul-de-sac off Route 116. It looks like all the other suburban-style houses on South Leno Lane, except for the "Edward Allen Furniture Maker" sign on the front lawn. The house offers a good view of Mount Moosalamoo and the nearby Robert Frost "desert places," Allen points out. "At this stage of my life," he says with a wrinkly grin, "I'm where I want to be."
Allen used to build various types of furniture, but he now makes only Shaker-style pieces because he finds their plainness appealing. What's more, he says, "I like straight lines as opposed to all the curves."
He studied Shaker design by visiting museums and re-created villages in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Allen says he also consulted books to learn about the history and culture of the Protestant sect that perfected a pared-down aesthetic in architecture, furniture and tools. No doubt he'll find intriguing an upcoming exhibit at the Shelburne Museum that will feature more than 150 pieces either created by Shakers or strongly influenced by their style. "Out of This World: Shaker Design Past, Present and Future" opens June 16 and will be on view until October 28.
Allen's furniture doesn't adhere strictly to original Shaker designs. While staying faithful to the spirit of that style, his pieces are subtly modified to suit contemporary purposes. The bedside stand he builds, for example, measures 32 inches in height - 3 inches taller than the one on which it's modeled. Beds these days are higher than those the Shakers slept in, and so the night tables should be, too, he reasons. Allen also added a second drawer to his $835 version of the Shaker bedside stand because the single-drawer design "looked funny" when its height was extended.
He uses bird's-eye maple for the tops of these tables, as well as for their drawer fronts. The rest is made from cherry wood, which happens to be Allen's favorite material. "Cherry wood gets darker as it ages," he notes. "It's quite beautiful."
Nothing goes to waste in this workshop, either: Wood scraps are a bountiful byproduct of the furniture maker's trade, and they have utilitarian potential as kindling for woodstoves - such as the one Allen relies on as his primary heating source.
Other pieces of furniture arrayed around his modest showroom include a $2850 drop-leaf desk and a pair of wooden-rung racks, on which are draped quilts sewn by Allen's wife, Joan. Standing somewhat forlornly at one end of the room is a bookcase that a visitor from Vancouver commissioned six years ago. The longtime Canadian customer has yet to return to pick up that particular piece.
Allen describes one of his most popular products as a "three-drawer case." His customers refer to it as a jewelry box, for that's how they use it. But Allen eschews the term. "Shakers didn't wear jewelry," he points out. What's now a $495 dresser-top accessory was originally intended to hold bobbins and pins for hand-powered sewing machines. Allen modified the original design he came across at the Adirondack Museum by removing dividers inside each of the drawers and lining them with velvet.
It takes him at least three weeks of seven-hour days to make six to eight of these cases, Allen says. He works methodically with a variety of machines, including a sliding table saw, a shaper, drill press, double-drum sander and a joiner that converts into a planer. Hanging on a wall peg is a simple handsaw that's been sharpened so many times the tip has become pointy. This belonged to Allen's father, a carpenter who taught him the fundamentals.
A knee operation put Allen out of commission for a few months a while back. He speculates the problem was the result of standing for hours on the cement floor of his workshop. In all other respects, though, his capabilities seem undiminished with age. "My hands and eye are still good," Allen says. "I plan on doing this for as long as I'm able."
Edward Allen is one of 288 artisans participating in the Vermont Craft Council's statewide Open Studios Weekend, May 26-27, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Visit http://www.vermontcrafts.com for more information and to download a guide to participating locations.