“I don’t know why, but design is pretty much all I think about all the time. Much to my wife’s dismay.” Master woodworker and furniture maker Blaise Gaston laughed, fully aware that the affection he lavishes on his work is the sort many reserve for first loves. Which, in a way, it is.
“I remember turning a cherry wood candlestick when I was perhaps 17, and it was unusual, different from what was woodworked in the stores,” he said from his studio and woodshop in Earlysville. “I thought, ‘Wow, I could do this with all sorts of things.’ I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to turn that candlestick and think of how many different options there were.”
Gaston has more than 40 years of experience creating wooden structures for the home, including a decade crafting cabinets, doors, window frames, and more for leading architectural millworking firm Gaston & Wyatt, which he founded with friends Chris Murray and Richard Wyatt in 1979. For the past 20 years, he’s designed and made contemporary, curvaceous fine art furniture for his independent company, Blaise Gaston Furniture.
“Woodworking varies,” he explained. “Some people make large scale pieces all day long, and some work only with hand tools and make very fine, delicate pieces of furniture. I’m somewhere in the middle. I use plenty of power tools, but I don’t do huge productions of things.” Intertwined, a glass-topped cocktail table set on spiraling bubinga wood legs that sells for $1,980, is the most factory-like thing Gaston said he’s done, creating 50 at one time.
The majority of Gaston’s unique designs live in homes across the country, but his publicly commissioned pieces can be seen across the city and the state, from the doors and dome room windows at Monticello to building fronts on the Downtown Mall. “I did pieces for the Virginia Discovery Museum when it first started 30 years ago,” he said. “I made a giant tongue out of wood, and kids would climb through the mouth to use it as a slide.”
Bitten by the bug
Gaston began his woodworking career when he was 9 and received lessons for Christmas. “I don’t think I asked for them,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t remember anything I made except a steering wheel for a go-kart.”
Tutelage in the backyard workshop of a neighborhood general contractor, followed by junior high woodshop and a stint in boarding school “where I did quite a bit of woodworking,” led to Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Crafts and a four year BFA in furniture design. “Most of the people were older and had left other careers because they wanted to make furniture,” he said. “We’d work from eight in the morning to midnight, six to seven days a week.”
He described how the shop had a wall of windows, so students managed to climb inside even when they weren’t supposed to be there. “It was an extraordinary school. I’m still good friends with a few of those people.”
After school, Gaston took a job shoveling gravel for $3.25/hour before working as a door- and hamlet-maker for Shelter Associates. He also got a studio at McGuffey Art Center, making the fine art furniture he’d eventually build into his own career.
Labor of love
Though his portfolio includes a few small batch productions of cocktail and side tables, most of Gaston’s pieces are developed on commission. Each marries the artist’s organic aesthetic with homeowners’ specific desires. “It’s an exciting process for the customer as well as for me, creating something that no one else has,” he said.
Mass-produced furniture costs less to purchase because it takes so little time in comparison to handmade work. “There’s a huge amount of figuring out how to make it first,” Gaston said. “We’ll talk about what they like about my work, then I do sketches and they give feedback, then I do formal drawings and small models and full sized models if necessary. A custom piece can take anywhere from 50 to 400 hours.”
Aside from the design and construction of his house and studio in the woods, the largest piece Gaston ever built was a 10′-tall walnut bar with a built-in sink, wine refrigerator, and cabinets. Using wood collected on the owner’s farm, he cut oversized pieces, let them acclimate, then flattened, machined, cut, and assembled them. “It weighed a massive amount and had to be lifted with two large mechanical lifts,” he said. “We almost dropped it getting it up there, but we got it in place. It was very exciting. Terrifying. And it’s all on film.”
Though Gaston’s passion for beautiful wood propels these labors of love, he’s discovered the dream of design to be just as alluring as the final product. “I guess most people say the best part of the process is when they put the finish on and can see how good it looks,” he said. “More and more for me it’s coming up with the design. Then the mind just starts floating. I start doodling. Everything looks lousy for hours, and then all of a sudden something looks interesting. It’s kind of torturous, but I break through and find something I like, and then it’s pretty wonderful.”