Destined to be cherished for generations to come, these timeless works showcase the region’s legacy of superb craftsmanship.
By Christie Matheson
Feb 17 2011
Slide Show: New England Heirlooms
Our six-state region is filled with talented artisans crafting beautiful (and functional) pieces for the home. But there are a few whose work is so consistently spectacular–the result of more loving labor than most of us could possibly imagine–that they’ve achieved national and international renown. Even when brand-new, the pieces these artisans produce decidedly qualify as heirlooms. And by heirlooms, we don’t mean those dusty, fusty, unclaimed antiques lurking in attics and moldy basements. These are works we covet. They’re exquisite, timeless, in most cases quite practical, and destined to be cherished for generations to come. Here and on the following pages we’ll take a close look at a handful of creations that are well worth the investment. And we’ll go into the studio with the talented people behind these pieces to find out what makes their work so special, and why they’re committed to doing what they do–and to doing it in New England.
HAND-THROWN, HAND-CARVED POTTERY
Though master potter Miranda Thomas has lived and worked in Vermont since 1983, her voice still carries the lyrical lilt of someone who grew up in Italy and Australia and then trained in her craft in England. She’s become completely devoted to her new home state, however. “Vermont is practical, strong, independent, sustainably minded, and self-sufficient,” she says. “And I love the nature here–I love its being part of my life. I love the seasons, too. They test you, and make you humble.”
Thomas and her team create all their pottery by hand: It’s hand-thrown, hand-carved, and hand-painted, with intricate nature-inspired designs. She compares the process to caring for a cow. “You have to tend it every day,” she says of the multiple time-consuming steps involved in creating each piece. But she wouldn’t rush the process: “When we make anything, we know it can last for hundreds of years–or more. So we have to make it beautiful.”
It’s so beautiful, in fact, that Thomas’s pottery has been given as a gift–and a peace offering–to some of the world’s most prominent leaders. Then-President Bill Clinton asked her to make 16 bowls for him to present during a trip to the Middle East, and later requested her carved porcelain Peace bowl, in white, as a gift for Pope John Paul II. And then, “the United Nations Association of New York asked me to make a gift for then-Secretary General Kofi Annan, and they’ve been giving my pieces as gifts for 10 years. Last year Yoko Ono got one.” In 2007, she created her aqua-and-cobalt Water for Life bowls for the U.N. Association’s Humanitarian Awards gala, and a handful of those limited-edition pieces are still available for sale.
Prized heirloom: Thomas studies the work of ancient potters, and cites an 11th-century Chinese plate and bowl as beloved pieces, along with Japanese tea bowls she inherited from her grandfather. “Pottery is considered a treasure in Japan,” she says, “so when you’re collecting art, you collect pottery.”
Favorite Miranda Thomas pot: “There’s one piece in our showroom in Hanover [New Hampshire] that I’m loath to sell. It’s a black carved Ali Baba vase with a black doe. It’s emblematic of the skill level of the pottery at the moment. When I see it, I know we’re doing all right.”
Famous fans: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, Robert Redford, United Nations Association of New York
ShackletonThomas, Bridgewater, Vermont. 802-672-5175; shackletonthomas.com
SWANS ISLAND BLANKETS
Most commercial wool products are made from fleeces that have been through a rather unpleasant process called carbonization: bathed in toxic chemicals (think hydrochloric and sulfuric acids) to remove the chaff (bits of seeds, hay, and other debris), which also strips away the natural lanolin. Not so with the fleeces used to craft the simple, soft, elegant blankets from Swans Island. “We wash our fleeces in organic soap,” explains co-owner Bill Laurita. This gentle process leaves the fleeces clean and toxin-free, but doesn’t chemically eliminate the chaff; Bill and his dedicated team remove any remaining chaff from each blanket by hand–with surgical tweezers. “It sounds like a joke,” he laughs, “but we really do.”
Following an apprenticeship at Swans Island, Laurita took over the company from founders John and Carolyn Grace eight years ago. He now oversees all operations and design work and is currently working to build a best-in-class all-natural dye house. Laurita insists on using all-natural dyes, derived mainly from plant sources such as lotus trees and indigo plants, for all Swans Island products.
Though he acknowledges that the company’s off-the-beaten-path location presents challenges when it comes to running the business, he has no intention of moving. “There’s nothing like the coast of Maine,” he says. “It’s inspiring. You can go out and fill yourself up with the nature experience, and then if you’re lucky, you have some sort of artistic outlet.”
Prized heirlooms: “A few pieces from the old house in the Adirondacks where I grew up, and an original painting that we bought when we first moved to Maine by J. R. Braugh, an artist and ship’s captain who runs a schooner out of Camden Harbor.”
Favorite Swans Island blankets: “Our ‘Rare Wool’ blankets. They’re made from beautiful brown wool that comes right from the sheep–it’s not dyed. There aren’t many sheep with that kind of wool, and they keep the color for only a few years, so it’s a lot of work to find enough fleeces to spin up. But the color is so rich and inviting.”
Famous fans: Michelle Obama, Norah Jones
Swans Island, Northport, Maine. 888-526-9526, 207-338-9691; swansislandblankets.com
LANDSCAPE OIL PAINTINGS
Allen Whiting, who lives and works on the same generations-old family sheep farm where he grew up, has been painting landscapes for a long time. At age 64, it’s what he wants to keep doing: “Mostly I really want to do what I do, better. I’m starting to eliminate stuff from my life that’s unnecessary so that I can spend more time painting, with more focus. There’s no sense in changing horses at this point.”
That means he’ll keep painting on Martha’s Vineyard, his primary muse since he first picked up a paintbrush. His collectors, who pay upwards of $20,000 for his larger works (small paintings start in the $1,200 range), wouldn’t have it any other way. “There are lots of beautiful places,” Whiting says. “I’ve painted in Utah, where my wife is from, and in Maine, and in the Caribbean. But there’s something about the Vineyard for me–it must be a sense of familiarity and security.”
Whiting paints directly from nature, starting and finishing every small sketch outside, then turning favorite studies into larger works in his studio. The particular island subjects he chooses to paint come up arbitrarily. “What gets painted is that which catches my imagination at the right time and the right place,” he says. “When it’s really beautiful here, especially in the fall and spring, there’s stuff everywhere. I almost start to levitate.”
Prized heirlooms: “Mostly paintings. There’s artwork that’s come down through the family that I think is fascinating. I still have paintings by my mother’s father, a wonderful painter, that inspired me over the years, and I’ve acquired some paintings by local artists, like Doug Kent and Ben Shattuck.”
Favorite Allen Whiting painting: “There’s one called The Raft. It hearkens back to painters whom I so admire–it’s more of an illustrated painting than my usual landscape. It’s a painting of an ancestor of mine, a made-up thing.”
Famous fans: Carly Simon, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Larry David, Jim Belushi
Allen Whiting, West Tisbury, Massachusetts. 508-693-4691; allenwhiting.com
“The rawness of a piece of wood is what really attracts me,” says master furniture maker Timothy Clark, who was first drawn to woodworking when he visited Williamsburg, Virginia, and watched Colonial-era instrument making in progress: “A musical instrument, or a chair, in its raw state is very attractive. The process is what captivates me. While something is still raw, I’m very attached, but when it’s finished, I can let it go.”
The raw wood from which Clark crafts his minimalist yet elegant Windsor chairs and Shaker-inspired benches and cases is all native–maple, ash, and cherry are favorites–and all from managed forests. In Vermont, he says, sustainably harvested wood is easy to find. “Whether they’re certified or not, people here are focused on sustainability,” he observes. It was in Vermont, while attending Middlebury College, that he became interested in furniture design. “I wanted to go to Europe to study design, but I also wanted to make furniture. I didn’t want to separate the two,” he says. “So I found a guy in Vermont to work with and did both designing and building, and loved it.”
Both design and quality of building set his furniture apart from mass-produced pieces. “They’re designed to be comfortable–you can’t get that in a factory chair,” Clark explains. “And the strength is better; the finishing is better. That takes time and attention to detail.” Once he’s given a piece that time and attention, though, he’s confident it will endure for a long, long time. “My chairs are guaranteed,” he says. “They’ll last, or they’ll be replaced. No questions asked.”
Prized heirloom: “Most important to me is probably my workbench, which consists of just a plank of maple with a vise attached. The bench belonged to my great-grandfather on my dad’s side, and I remember it from my grandfather’s little workshop, which was off the kitchen in their house. He was always fixing things like clocks or repairing one of their chairs.”
Favorite Timothy Clark piece: “I have a lot of favorites. My ‘Cod Rib’ rocker, my benches–especially my painted Waltham bench.”
Famous fan: Terry McAuliffe, former head of the Democratic National Committee and chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign
Timothy Clark Cabinetmaker/Chairwright, Waltham, Vermont. 802-877-1058; timothyclark.com
Simon Pearce finds inspiration in Vermont’s hills and mountains, countryside, and changing seasons–but what this Irish native loves most about his adopted home state are the people. “From the beginning, I just had a sense that these people do what they say they’re going to do, and that they’re totally trustworthy,” he says. “And I love doing business in a straightforward manner.”
Pearce moved his glassblowing business here in 1981 after finding an abandoned mill building on the Ottauquechee River that met his three key criteria: “somewhere beautiful to live and work, somewhere we could have a retail business, and somewhere we could make our own electricity.” Thirty years later, he says, “It’s the best decision I ever made in my life.”
Aside from where they’re made, what sets Simon Pearce glass pieces apart from mass-produced glassware, and most other hand-blown glass, too, is the quality of the raw materials. “We use the highest-quality sand available so our glass is perfectly clear–any impurity in sand will change the color,” Pearce explains. (He notes that that’s one reason why he doesn’t produce any colored glass. “You can cover up a multitude of sins with color,” he adds.) And of course, every single piece is hand-blown by a highly skilled craftsperson, often Pearce himself.
Prized heirlooms: “We have wonderful pottery made by some of the well-known English potters,” says Pearce, who was a potter himself before becoming a glassblower. “I especially love Richard Batterham’s work and have collected quite a lot. And we have some paintings that we love, especially by my godfather, Patrick Scott, who is a well-known Irish artist.”
Favorite Simon Pearce piece: “It’s easier to ask me what I don’t like. I think the most unusual is the Woodbury bowl. It’s almost impossible to come up with an original design. You may think it’s original, but chances are it’s not. But the Woodbury bowl, our square bowl, is very unusual.”
Famous fans: Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy, Michael J. Fox, Sandra Bullock, producer Lorne Michaels (who gives a Simon Pearce bowl to every current and former Saturday Night Live cast member who has a baby)
Simon Pearce, Quechee, Vermont. 800-774-5277; simonpearce.com
Quilting, in many ways, is a simple and humble craft. But when Connecticut quilter Denyse Schmidt does it, it’s also an art form. When she makes one of her celebrated couture quilts, Schmidt might work from an existing design or create a new one. When it’s a custom job, she’ll first work with her client to choose colors; then she cuts fabrics and composes the piece.
“It’s like a painting,” she explains. “I add pieces of fabric in response to what’s there.”
After she sews the blocks together, Schmidt marks the top with quilting lines. The only step of the process she outsources is the actual quilting; she sends the piece to a group of Amish women in Minnesota, who quilt it by hand. “If I did the quilting myself,” she says, “I’d make one quilt per year.” With outsourcing, a couture quilt takes about four months start to finish.
Though Schmidt’s work has been lauded for its contemporary appeal, it’s deeply rooted in traditional patchwork. “My patterns are inspired by the quilts that I fell in love with when I started studying this,” she explains. “Many are more than 100 years old.” She’s currently writing a book about traditional quilt patterns. She’s also constantly thinking about new designs. “I keep journals and make sketches whenever I’m inspired,” she notes. “The inspiration could be anything–a piece of lace, a picture from a magazine, a couple of old houses next to each other in a striking combination of colors.”
Another inspiration–in a completely different medium–is fiddle music. “I listen to a lot of old-time music, and I fell in love with homegrown hillbilly music,” Schmidt says. “So I learned to play the fiddle. For me, it’s another way of taking a traditional craft and bringing it into today’s world.”
Schmidt’s studio, in an old mill building in Bridgeport, Connecticut, gives a nod to the past as well. “I grew up in central Massachusetts, and the small old mill towns so prevalent in that area are part of my inner landscape,” she says. “My mother sewed, and we’d make regular trips to the mill outlet stores in buildings that housed all the looms and old offices and had creaky wooden floors and dusty rolls of fabric everywhere. I’ve always had a strong affection for turn-of-the-century brick factory buildings. They feel full of history–and possibility.”
Prized heirloom: “My mom sewed, and my dad made a lot of furniture that we had in the house. Nothing ever looked homemade, so it was a long time before I realized that not everyone’s parents made things. I have a lot of great furniture and lamps that my dad made that I treasure, and some hats my mom made that I’ll always have. I also have my grandfather’s fiddle.”
Favorite Denyse Schmidt quilt: “I have a Works Special Edition Tangerine/Poppy on my bed that I still love. The detail fabrics I used in this series were all purchased at an old Bridgeport fabric store that was closing. I purchased as much yardage as I could before they went out of business.”
Famous fans: Journalists Anderson Cooper, Michael Lewis and Tabitha Soren, and “others I’m not at liberty to discuss!”
Denyse Schmidt Quilts, Bridgeport, Connecticut. 800-621-9017, 203-335-2719; dsquilts.com
Second-generation New Hampshire pewterer Jon Gibson is a little obsessed with his medium. “I study the history of American and British pewter,” he explains. “I collect and restore antique pewter and pewtering tools. I have volumes of books on antique pewter. And I’m a member of the Pewter Collectors’ Club of America.”
And when it comes to creating pewter pieces with his own name on them–bowls, cups, teapots, candleholders, and more–he’s equally obsessive. “No part of anything I make is outsourced,” he explains. Finishing just one of his stunning tea sets, which involves separate castings for each part, hand finishing, and countless other labor-intensive steps, takes him at least two weeks.
Gibson works in the same 200-year-old barn where he learned pewtering from his father. He’s inspired by New England’s rich pewtering history–and by the historical feel of his own corner of the region. Every year since 2001, he’s made a commemorative holiday ornament (designed by local artist Roger Goode) celebrating a longstanding building in his hometown of Hillsborough, New Hampshire. “I like all things old,” he says.
He also enjoys the Yankee tradition of thriftiness. “I save my scraps and recycle them all,” he explains. “Pewter is made mostly from tin, but still, the materials are so expensive–so I save everything.”
Prized heirloom: Not surprisingly, it’s a pewter piece: “a quart mug by a London pewterer who worked in the 1700s, and fewer than six exist in the world. I was lucky to acquire it.”
Favorite Gibson Pewter piece: “Probably our Gleason bull’s-eye whale-oil lamp. It’s a reproduction of a 19th-century piece by Roswell Gleason, a well-known pewterer from Dorchester, Massachusetts.”
Famous fans: Hillary Clinton, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Smithsonian Institution
Gibson Pewter, Hillsborough Center, New Hampshire. 603-464-3410; gibsonpewter.com