Have It Your Way! Discussing the Tables

Is there a longing for a William Morris time, a handcrafted, special aesthetic going against the machine and to a handmade world of peacocks and furniture made by forest gnomes?

Perhaps. In a sometimes-shoddy age, Jonah Zuckerman, a designer and master craftsman of contemporary furniture using traditional techniques and materials, has a relentless drive to make perfect things.

A Harvard-trained architect and Fulbright scholar, Mr. Zuckerman started his business 10 years ago—coincidentally just when big changes began happening in New York. Now the rich are richer and are spending more on higher-priced, handmade custom furniture. The not-so-rich may be wearying of the sameness of available brands. (BKLYN Designs, Dumbo’s yearly furniture show, reported 65 designer exhibits this year, compared with 30 in its first year, five years ago.) There is the rocketing use of advanced software systems and flexible computer-aided manufacturing systems to produce custom output at less cost. There is just a general “special-for-me” expectation these days that goes anywhere from programming a home page or holding up a line of people to make a complicated request for a certain kind of latte, to people who not only have custom furniture made, but custom floors, stairwells, bookcases, carpets, upholstery, embroidered linens, lighting for the paintings, lighting for the sculptures, lighting for the dog, and then long intimate talks with the audio-video designer—a major character in the drama of custom-made homes—and later nobody knows how to turn on the television.

Visiting Mr. Zuckerman’s City Joinery shop in a factory building in 19th-century-like Dumbo, with the Belgian cobblestones and old train tracks in the streets, was like being in a beaver pond. There was all this wood and men discussing wood in low tones. Mr. Zuckerman conducted a tour of the 6,000-square-foot shop, where he and his eight employees make custom furniture and his own standard designs that sound like the names of modern dance pieces—“Leaning Shelves,” “Hovering Bed,” “Aspiration Lamp Table.” He began with an impassioned monologue on wood. “Cherry! Maple! Walnut! We had a giant sycamore.” Mr. Zuckerman pointed to a big log of which he was particularly proud. “Sassafras,” he said. He explained that while it is a chestnut substitute, he has never seen any mass-market furniture in the material. “It has a wonderful curl.” Most Americans like things dark, he said. “One of the most desirable is Mexican ebony. Unfortunately, I really shouldn’t be working with it. It’s endangered. In theory, harvesting, exporting in Mexico is prohibited by the government. I care about these things, but there are limits.”

A discussion of mass customization and sociologist Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave, about the effects of the information age on economics, politics, and culture, ensued. Mr. Zuckerman’s cousin Paul Freedman, who has similar concerns as a custom bicycle entrepreneur (Fossil Fool and Rock the Bike), was visiting and chimed in. Mr. Zuckerman, who has made many a “special” handcrafted table for movie stars, could not say enough about computer-aided systems. He will use them, for example, to make 26 chairs for a clothing showroom. “You can draw something, the computer figures how, and—sis-boom-bah—the computer will basically create all of the tool paths for the piece,” Mr. Zuckerman said. Although “we only use C.N.C. [computer numerically controlled milling machines] for jobs that are big enough to justify,” he recently used the mass customization tool for a new design: “a new bookshelf that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It has an aluminum component. I could have done it all by hand, but I did it on C.N.C. because it has more precision. It probably cost me more, but it has a perfect evenness and crispness.”

What would William Morris have thought about all this mass customization? Before his era, “furniture was pretty much mass-produced,” Mr. Zuckerman said, referring to the Industrial Revolution. “They started to use carving machines and cheap industrial labor to do carvings over and over again, where the person doing the carving had no say in the design.” But C.N.C. production, he said, is the opposite of dehumanizing, because the person running the machine is a very skilled laborer and to some extent has to be a designer. “In my experience with C.N.C., there is dramatic improvement with quality,” Mr. Zuckerman said. Still, he said, “I don’t want to use it all the time. We like doing things by hand. I would want to keep it to a healthy minimum.”

Have It Your Way! Discussing the Tables