Of all the artists I’ve met or known, furniture maker Richard Judd is easily the most positive. He is warm and welcoming as I enter the Zazen Gallery in Paoli, Wisconsin, where he is both gallery owner and furniture maker. The gallery features a collection of the work of American artists and represents the friendships Richard has made and cultivated while exhibiting at art fairs nationally since 1983.
Richard is a Wisconsin native and grew up in New London, near Appleton. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned his Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1975. “I came down here to Madison and was thinking of engineering maybe, so I was taking all the math and science. But then I decided to go into architecture, and Madison doesn’t have an architecture program so I transferred to Milwaukee,” Richard tells me. “I received my Bachelor’s degree in architecture at Milwaukee, and in those studies of design I saw a lot of the history of architects designing furniture and I really love that scale! I was also touring the Milwaukee Lakefront Festival of Art and I saw people building furniture there and I thought—it was like a light bulb—I’d really like to do that! I didn’t have any history of building furniture, but I was fascinated and loved the wood too, so I was drawn to it.”
“After my degree, I traveled a lot, traveled the world. But I love Madison, and my brother was here going to school, and I ended up getting a job with a furniture maker, so I settled back in. I worked for Steve Berkley for five years, kind of like an apprenticeship, and I was taking classes at the UW in the woodshop there, too. Steve was really generous and I learned a lot. Then I reached a point where I had enough pieces that were originally my own and had them photographed, and I started to enter art fairs. The first fair I entered was the Art Fair on the Square in 1983. I didn’t sell anything, but I got one call back and that resulted in doing a commission for a buffet that mounted to a dining room wall. It was very site specific and it all worked out, so I had my first commission,” Richard says enthusiastically. “I also had support from family, who commissioned work in those early days, and I kept fine-tuning what I was showing in the art fairs to be more saleable. I like having a variety of price points. It’s nice to have something affordable for the wide range of people who come through art fairs—not just high-end furniture, but also smaller objects like bud vases. You really develop this relationship with your clients being at art fairs, and they really love what you’re doing and it’s like you become part of their family, so that’s really neat.”
Richard is still traveling and doing art fairs 33 years later. The art fairs he attends have gone down in quantity, but up in prestige. He will be attending the American Craft Show in Baltimore and the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C. this spring. These are two of the most highly regarded craft shows in the country. Richard also has work in several large collections across the nation, has been included in many publications over the years, and continues to be invited to show work in museums, too.
“The second art fair I ever did was the Kohler Art Festival in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.” Richard smiles. “Ruth Kohler bought a small table from me at that fair. Recently, I was included in a show titled Wisconsin Wood at the ARTspace, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and they contacted me again because Ruth wants to include a chair of mine, the Ribbon Chair, in an upcoming show at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center that will feature Wisconsin artists. This chair, in the history of bent ply, is an original. There has never been a chair that is a continuous bend from starting on the floor in front and ending on the floor in back. It doesn’t sell as well, because people need a table more than a cool chair, but Ruth wants the Ribbon Chair for the show, so that’s really sweet. Thirty-some years later she’s still looking at my work! Thanks, Ruth!”
I ask Richard about the evolution of his work over the last 30 years. “It’s been an interesting transition with very distinct periods,” he tells me. “When I started my career it was all solid wood, minimalism, and lightness. Maybe Shaker or Asian inspired. James Krenov was a huge influence with his reverence for wood and tools. The next phase was discovering veneer! It has the advantage of not expanding and contracting like solid wood. That changed my work. A special thing about veneer is that the most beautiful trees in the world are designated veneer logs. I have been able to work with some spectacular veneers. The Art Deco era was known for great veneer work. I was inspired by Wendell Castle’s work of the 1990s, which was made in the Art Deco tradition. The first makers who designed bent plywood furniture were the Scandinavians in the 1930s, and in the U.S., Charles Eames became really well known in the 1940s. He did the iconic lounge chair and ottoman.
“In 2001, I became obsessed with spiral form and the nautilus seashell, which is based on the proportion of the golden rectangle. I finally came up with a technique to make the spiral table using bending plywood. It is a two-ply material, so it is flexible enough to make some pretty tight curves. I apply glue to all the layers of veneer and bending ply, wrap this around a form, put the whole thing in a vinyl bag, and use vacuum pressure to mold the plies to the form. The success of the Spiral Table has led to a series of pieces using the same technique and careful geometry. The Flying Console and Sinuous Shelf have a wave and amplitude that diminish by the ratio Phi, which is the proportion of the golden rectangle.”
And now? I ask Richard his next move. “Now I want to be more spontaneous. I want to sketch something really fast and see how that relates to making a form from it. Jere Osgood, who teaches at RISD, has an elegant desk design. He describes reaching out with his arm outstretched,” Richard gestures with his arm. “The arc of his arm defined the back edge of the desk’s writing surface. I really like that solution of the furniture relating to the human form. That’s a good starting point. So many things in nature can be defined by geometry, but I am ready to be more flexible. I got into building furniture because it is so satisfying to spend the day making something. I am happy to have a career that makes me want to wake up in the morning and meet new challenges.”
Richard’s work is available at Zazen Gallery in Paoli, Wisconsin, and you can view his work at richardjudd.com . The Ribbon Chair will be part of a show featuring Wisconsin artists Jan 1–April 12 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Kay Myers is a local artist and freelance writer.