Artistry in black walnut and pearwood

Last month, furnituremaker John Hein attended the most prestigious awards show in his field, and as usual, he sat in the back of the theater. That way, he says, he's guaranteed a short walk to the buffet table after the show.

But this time, he took an unexpectedly long walk - all the way up to the stage to collect his NICHE award, the American craft equivalent of an Academy Award, sponsored by NICHE magazine.

"I try not to expect to win an award so I won't be disappointed," says an elated Mr. Hein.

Such modesty is surprising from one who has previously won three NICHE awards, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and recognition - along with the likes of William Morris, Thomas Chippendale, and Frank Lloyd Wright - in the Design Encyclopedia's listing of "eminent furniture designers who have made significant contributions in the fields of furniture and interior design."

Despite such recognition, Hein has no plans to relax his seven-day work- week. If anything, publicity generated by the award for his intricately designed coffee table may generate more orders and the need for even longer hours in his Hopewell, N.J., studio, a converted two-car garage with skylights and a high peaked roof.

He smiles at the prospect. "My work brings me a lot of joy," he says. What keeps him going day after day, he adds, is a need for expression, a spiritual satisfaction in the work itself, and pleasure in the process of woodworking.

"Wood is more than a convenient material on which to impose a design," he says. "It contains a beauty rarely seen in furniture. It is one of the most beautiful natural materials."

Hein's work is distinguished for its simplicity, its elegance, and its rich, natural woods.

He prefers to work with American black walnut or English walnut, and he uses only Japanese hand tools - a dovetail saw, planes, and chisels, which, he says, are more sensitive than Western tools.

And he's largely self-taught. "I taught myself to make furniture in a vacuum," he says, explaining that his career grew out of boredom with his previous job as an archivist at Princeton University. "I started to live vicariously through the lives of people whose files I was going though," he recalls. "It struck me that maybe I should go out and live my own life. I was almost 30, and I didn't feel like a complete person. I felt I would be happier if I could work with both my hands and my mind."

That job wasn't done in vain, however. When Hein decided to try making furniture, his research skills led him to the right literature. He was especially inspired by books about furnituremakers Tage Frid and James Krenov. He also recalled his college art history classes, when he was exposed to painters Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko.

"They both combine color and graphic characteristics in their paintings to bring attention to vivid details and the richness of color," he says. "I wanted to do the same in my furniture. In order to do this, I would have to keep the forms of my furniture as simple as possible, much like Shaker furniture."

After reading up on the field, he sequestered himself in a garage until he finished a free-standing wall cabinet. This piece along with his second one, a sideboard, were displayed in an exhibit in New Jersey in 1986. They led to his first commission and representation at a Baltimore gallery.

Collectors of Hein's furniture remark on his patient, gentle disposition as well as his attention to detail. "Every inch of his designs is made with a great commitment to beauty," says Bobbie Pervin, who owns three works by Hein. "His furniture isn't fussy, but he takes great care with every detail," she says, adding with a laugh: "You would want John to be your surgeon!"

Hein spends from 200 to 500 hours on one piece of furniture. "Furnituremaking is probably the most labor-intensive of the contemporary crafts," he says. "I am only now just starting to earn what my pieces are worth."

They cost from $3,000 for a small table to $20,000 for a sideboard or a large cabinet. Hein and his wife, Christine, have yet to furnish their own home with his designs. "We need to sell every piece in order to keep going," he says.

Hein now works only on commission. Collectors sometimes learn about him from his Web page (pluto.njcc.com/~jhein). And many artists write him via e-mail to ask how they, too, can "make it." To which Hein often quotes the playwright August Wilson: "In order to succeed, your belief in yourself has to be greater than everyone else's disbelief in you."

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