PORTLAND, Maine — In 1972 Thomas Moser left the podium as an English professor at Bates College and started a new life. Inspired by the purity and simplicity of Shaker design and the love of woodcraft, he launched a cabinet-making enterprise.
Humble as it was, with his family dining room in New Gloucester doubling as his showroom, results were encouraging. Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers made about $17,000 in its first year and doubled revenue within a year or two. The Maine College of Art is recognizing Moser, now 80 and living in Harpswell, with a retrospective of 44 years of furniture making and design.
The show “Legacy in Wood,” will be up until Sept. 20 at MECA’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The exhibit highlights various aspects of this timeless craft, showing how parts fit together. Spanning several rooms, the exhibit showcases a whole range of his furniture and designs.
An “exploded chair,” a composition of the constituent wooden parts of a Windsor chair, hangs from the wall like a whale skeleton. A table of scattered wooden joints, such as the traditional dovetail, can be taken apart and put back together like a puzzle. Moser’s tools, planes and chisels, hang from the wall, and signature lines like the Rockport dining chair with hourglass curves, are elevated on pedestals, showing off warm cherry tones and sinewy, sturdy lines.
“We are not in the furniture industry,” said Moser. “The furniture industry is more like snake oil and horse trading. Today 85 percent of American furniture is made in China.”
His custom chairs, desks, cabinets, sofas, ottomans and tables are handcrafted to demanding specifications in his shop in Auburn. American black cherry and walnut are his prime materials. And he strives to optimize use of all of the wood in his pieces. Moser considers the wood precious, not to be wasted on inferior design or poorly made objects. And unlike mass-produced furniture that quickly fades, the company considers these pieces heirlooms to be passed from generation to generation.
The show gives viewers and students an opportunity to understand the inner workings of design. Or is it art?
“The argument between craft and art is an age-old conversation,” said Donna McNeil, who curated the show. “I think that beauty is beauty period.”
Moser’s take on the Windsor chair, a design that originated in England in the 1700s as garden furniture, shows his respect for the past and a keen eye for contemporary tastes.
“He’ll take the idea like a Windsor chair and turn it into a rocker,” said McNeil, pointing to a riff on the classic.
His top seller, the continuous arm chair, with a compound curve composed of 11 laminated layers of American hardwood, sprung from this design.
“A whole room is dedicated to the chair,” said McNeil.
From the deconstructed composition of its parts to the machine that bends the arms, the exhibit aims to educate. The alienation bench, which Moser said is “for people who don’t like each other,” sprang from that chair.
“It’s wonderful to have objects in your life that you use everyday that contain a great deal of beauty,” said McNeil.
His ability to marry aesthetics and ingenuity with great success makes Moser a prime candidate for this inspiring show.
“Tom’s career demonstrates how art, craft, design and entrepreneurship can come together,”
said MECA President Donald Tuski. And almost as important for a college, “how you can make a living as an artist or craftsman, market it wide enough and not compromise quality,” said Tuski. “It is fair to consider him the renaissance father of fine furniture making in Maine.”
Viewers can examine a timeline of the craftsman’s rise from country startup to celebrated designer with showrooms from Freeport to Boston to Madison Avenue to San Francisco. And see his evolution from a one-man operation to 130 employees, of whom half are craftspeople.
MECA students are responding. ”It’s nice to see someone so well-known build a dream,” said Michele Jaffarian, a sophomore studying photography. “It shows you the constant evolution of an artistic life.”
That evolution is key to MECA’s mission.
“We have an ethical responsibility to teach students how make a living with their art and design,” said Tuski. “He is a mentor.”
“Thos. Moser: Legacy in Wood” is on now through Sept. 20 at MECA, 522 Congress St., Portland. Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 7 p.m. and first Fridays until 8 p.m. Free of charge.