These mountain-town artisans create unique home furnishings and finishes with a deep dedication to craft.
Behind most cutting-edge architecture or iconic design is a host of artisans whose job it is to humanize homes with craft and charisma, endowing them with a singular beauty, integrity and enduring spirit that comes from the heart and the hand.
For example, take the five artists from Aspen, Vail and Telluride profiled here, all longtime masters of their craft. Some work alone; others produce high-quality products on a larger scale. But all share a fundamental love for their chosen mediums. In an age of mass production and commoditization, it is refreshing to know that the creative spirit, as well as a fundamental appreciation of skill and artistry, continues to flourish.
Telluride-based furniture designer Matt Downer is particularly fond of walnut, as it reminds him of his college days in Chico, Calif., where Claro walnut trees proliferated. His extensive portfolio includes beds and desks, chandeliers and tables. Downer recently completed an elaborate one-of-a-kind kitchen island in a Telluride home, topped with a 12-by-5.5-foot single slab of Claro walnut sourced from Chico. “It’s likely that I stood beneath that particular tree at some point in my earlier years,” he says.
A puzzle master at heart, Downer is happiest when he is solving problems. These days, he is experimenting with lighting design in adjustable floor lamps and chandeliers. “Furniture design is wonderful,” says this self-taught artist, “but it’s passive. Light adds function and illuminates its own form. Figuring out how to make it work is such an important part of the process for me.”
With more than 20 years of furniture design for private clients and galleries in his repertoire (another recent project was a dresser commissioned by Rob Kalin, who started etsy.com), Downer is quick to recognize that in a world flooded with inexpensive furniture, his work must stand alone. “Making beautiful objects by hand is an extraordinary gift. We owe it to ourselves to make it unique.” Prices start at $1,500, Gold Mountain Gallery, 516 E. Hyman Ave., Aspen; 135 W. Colorado Ave., Telluride, 970.728.3460; Matt Downer Designs, 970.967.6288
Lee Lyon, of Aspen, believes that all of us are born with art intelligence. Realizing you have it, he says, “leads to a happy life.” The 90-year-old Lyon, recipient of this year’s Anderson Ranch Lifetime Achievement Award, must have a particularly happy life, as he has been creating art for much of it. Making art is also about sharing and engaging with community, he believes. “Art that comes from the heart gives me great pleasure,” he adds.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., Lyon graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics. After a successful business career, he moved to Aspen in 1977 and began a second life as an artist, specializing in ceramics. A commission for Rupert Murdoch’s Beverly Hills home in the late 1980s required more color than Lyon could provide with clay firings. He experimented with broken windshield glass, and from then on he was hooked on glass. He pioneered a technique that uses resin-bonded sand molds to produce large, thick cast-glass panels for interior and exterior decorative and architectural elements, including doors, windows, interior walls, fountains and free-standing sculptures. Lyon’s studio partner, Jacqueline Spiro, carries on the tradition today. Prices vary by commission, 17283 Highway 82, Carbondale, 970.274.1192
“Reclaiming wood provides a unique insight into the heritage of North America,” says Robbie Williams, whose Carbondale-based Distinguished Boards + Beams repurposes beams, timbers, barnwood siding and flooring for decorative use in buildings across the country. The first building that Williams dismantled, almost 10 years ago, was a 1780s hand-hewn barn in New Hampshire. Since then, he has deconstructed numerous barns and structures throughout the U.S. and Canada that, for reasons of safety or imminent redevelopment, must be removed from their current locations.
Says Williams, “Reclaimed wood has a unique history that our clients like. And it’s more stable than new-growth timber, because, in many cases, it’s been able to slowly dry, sometimes for hundreds of years.” It also contains tighter rings, which are structurally sounder than tree-farmed wood.
His company’s services include mill work, kiln drying and wire brushing the reclaimed wood.
Recently, Williams learned about a 1770s-era cabin designed by Founding Father William Penn in Kentucky, complete with hand-hewn chestnut logs, timbers, rafters and flooring. His next step is to number each piece, dismantle them and bring them back to Carbondale for resale as a complete building. Most wood runs $5-$12 per square or board foot, 698 Merril Ave., Carbondale, 970.963.7326
A leather craftsman for much of her life, Carbondale-based Chris Chapman started out reproducing 16th century European leather clothing and artifacts, and museum-quality reproductions of early Native American garments, including bead and quillwork. More than 20 years ago, she invented a multistep technique for designing and fabricating unique custom, leather-bonded furniture, a niche market in which she’s made a name for herself. Working in cowhide saddle leather, Chapman does the necessary hand-coloring, antiquing and distressing to create a look, be it classic Western, Spanish territorial, Victorian or contemporary. “Leatherwork, for me, is a combination of art, design, fabrication and research,” she says.
Chapman’s luxe pieces are meant to be heirlooms; many can be found at heritage ranches in Montana and Wyoming. Recent installations include a distressed Old English-style leather and cherry bookcase and desk unit for a Manhattan-based client; a leather and Claro-walnut gun room for a Texas ranch; and a leather bar for a custom home in Jackson, Wyo. Prices start at about $3,000 for leather mirrors, 970.963.9580
“Nothing compares to wood,” says Rudi Neumayr, owner of Dotsero-based Aren Design, near Vail. Its aesthetic and overall feel differentiates it from other materials. “It’s like a tailored jacket—it either fits or it doesn’t,” he adds.
Neumayr learned his trade in his native Austria, where he specialized in antique reproduction and restoration, working on castles and church altars, among other projects. Since the mid-1980s, he has designed and produced finely crafted, custom interior and exterior architectural woodwork, including wall and ceiling panels, staircases, libraries and kitchens, as well as vintage reproductions, for clients around the U.S.
Currently, Neumayr is focusing more on contemporary designs, which are cleaner and less ornate—an aesthetic he’s excited about. “We are swinging toward this area more and more, since the alpine look is sort of fading out,” he says. “But it’s still wood, and it’s interesting.”
One of his favorite architectural features is the door. “They are a wonderful thing, because they are such a dominant feature in a home,” he says. “The feel and look of a front door can create an impression that lasts well into the future.” Interior doors start at $3,000, exterior doors start at $10,000, 5 Cotton Lane, Dotsero, 970.524.7551