Woodworker finds beauty in nature's simple gifts

If the life of furniture maker Robert Ortiz was ever made into a movie, it would be full of adventure and plenty of plot twists.

The opening scene would unfold in New York City in the 1960s, with a Hispanic kid from humble roots leaving home at age 14 to enter a religious order that trains monks. The camera would pan to a young man strumming a guitar at coffeehouses, renovating houses, teaching schoolchildren and eventually landing in Baltimore.

After leaving the order and trying his hand at many careers, Ortiz finally found his professional calling: designing and crafting fine wood furniture.

Today, the 61-year-old husband and father of two teens, spends his days meticulously making contemporary tables, chairs and other pieces from a tidy 2,000-square-foot studio on the Eastern Shore.

Depending upon the design, the furniture can run upwards of $10,000 or more, and it is exhibited in galleries and private collections nationwide.

"There's a Puerto Rican in downtown Chestertown making Japanese furniture," Ortiz says, chuckling. "Who would have imagined it?"

If this were a movie, there would be a cinematic flashback about the pivotal moment that changed the trajectory of his life and led him here.

"I was visiting Chicago, and one day I was walking past a bookstore," Ortiz recalls. "There was this big window display with all these copies of one book, George Nakashima's 'The Soul of a Tree.'"

Published in 1981, the biography of the renowned Japanese furniture designer is also a how-to manual for woodworkers to, as Nakashima wrote, "create an object of utility to man and, if nature smiles, an object of lasting beauty."

Ortiz, who gained carpentry skills renovating houses during summers while he was attending Catholic University, was immediately fascinated.

"I read it five or six times," he says. "I very foolishly thought I could teach myself about woodworking."

Thus began a journey to learn the art of furniture making.

"Back then, there were a lot of books about furniture-making that focused on the Old World European tradition," notes Ortiz. "And as I liked to say, it was not my tradition."

Yet the clean, minimalist aesthetic of Japanese furniture appealed to Ortiz.

He also appreciated the craftsmanship of the Shakers — the religious community that came to America from England in the 1770s — who gained fame for their simple, functional furniture.

"In postwar America, the prevailing view was that furniture made by hand was seen as inferior," Ortiz says. "Nakashima is among those credited with reinvigorating the American craft movement, noting that these pieces could have inherent value."

Slowly but surely, Ortiz honed his skills. He went to work for two commercial furniture makers, and later opened his first studio in Dickeyville. His second stop was among the artists' hub in Baltimore's Clipper Mill, where a fire in 1995 destroyed the old foundry and left a firefighter dead.

"Miraculously, the fire leapt over my studio," says Ortiz. "But so many others lost their work." He stayed two more years, then moved his business to Chestertown.

The scenic environs of the nearby water and land are well-suited to a nature lover like Ortiz, and his philosophy regarding organic craftsmanship: namely, respect for the natural lines and grain of timber.

"Many woodworkers use dimensioned lumber, cut and squared," he says. "I work with slabs of wood. Some pieces still have the natural edge. I try to be respectful of the slab I'm working with."

Eastern walnut, cherry, yellow birch, Honduras mahogany and African bubinga are some of the familiar and exotic woods that he uses to create his treasures.

With time, love and care, Ortiz transforms them into, say, a curvy coffee table, or a sideboard with rice paper. Or a chair of cherry wood accented by silk.

"My method is not unlike sewing. I develop my patterns. I transfer them to the wood. I cut them out," he says, adding that two part-time employees assist him with sanding and building.

Still, he does most of the work himself. "My customers expect that it's my hand making the piece."

While the tools of the trade in every woodworking shop may be slightly different, Ortiz says there are a few staples.

"I use a wide belt sander — 36 inches — because I'm working with wide slabs. I have two band saws. Just like the person sewing must cut out material, mine is the band saw. It can go through curves."

Safety is paramount, says Ortiz. "This is dangerous work," he says. "I know people who have died or lost limbs."

To that end — and having weathered a minor accident — he has invested in saws with new technology that will automatically stop a blade if it comes into contact with skin.

"How would I feel if one of my helpers was injured?" Ortiz says. "And I play piano — my wife's day job is an attorney, but we also have a band. We love music, and I can't afford to lose a finger."

Woodworkers have to deal with other hazards, he notes.

"Some woods, such as a dark-chocolate African wood called wenge, are absolutely beautiful when polished," says Ortiz. "But until you get to the polished state, they are nasty as hell. Splinters fly off and stick into you."

The key, he notes, is working "purposefully and slowly."

All that said, the joys of woodworking far outweigh any downside for Ortiz, who often plays lively Latin music in his studio and has an open-door policy with the community.

"One of the things I love about woodworking is that it still has an oral tradition. If you sit five experts in a circle, you'll get five different answers, and all are just as valid."

Ortiz says he is continuously learning and growing as an artisan. "There's always something new you can learn. You never arrive. I know what I know. But as I learn, I do try to incorporate new things in my work."

Does he ever stop to think about why he makes furniture?

"Now this is gonna sound hokey," says Ortiz. "But this vocation is a calling. I love the fact that I get to make something beautiful. At end of day, I can say I made that."

Robert Ortiz Studios

Owner: Woodworker Robert Ortiz designs and crafts wood furniture that draws on both the Japanese and Shaker influences and his own design aesthetic.

Background: A native of New York City, Ortiz graduated from Catholic University with a degree in Spanish literature. After a series of odd jobs, he moved to Baltimore in 1980 to be near friends. Ortiz taught school, worked in a soup kitchen for a year and was an administrator at a residential treatment center for youths, until he realized "I wasn't cut out to sit behind a desk."

Professional: Ortiz has had three studios, one of them at the site of a tragic fire in 1995. He moved the operation to the Eastern Shore in the late 1990s.

Products: Robert Ortiz Studios offers a range of custom tables, chairs, sideboards and cabinets. Prices vary depending on design, but can run upwards of $10,000.

Where to buy: 207-C South Cross St., Chestertown, 410-810-1400, ortizstudios.com.

About the series

Today, furniture from all over the world is easy and often inexpensive to come by, but there remains a demand for quality furnishings made by hand. Maryland is home to dozens of businesses producing hand-crafted, often one-of-a-kind furniture, mirrors, lighting and other items for the local market and beyond.

So we're turning the spotlight on some of the Maryland companies that produce top-quality furnishings for the home. Some are small shops, consisting of one or two people crafting custom pieces for clients with specific needs. Others have grown to become large companies with a national footprint, establishing a presence in some of the country's toniest locales.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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