Blaise Gaston: The Artist as Furniture Maker
By Kathy Johnson
Few people have a true passion for what they do. Blaise Gaston’s love of wood and woodworking started at age nine and that passion is still going strong.
Born in England, Gaston moved to the area when he was just three. “Almost home grown,” he said, and from that first woodworking class his path moved steadily toward becoming the master craftsman he is.
The plan was that he would study industrial arts, but Gaston said no. He went to Barlow Boarding School in New York, then to the School for American Crafts, earning a bachelor’s degree in furniture design. After graduation in 1975, things didn’t come easy. “I got a job making $3.25 an hour—shoveling gravel,” he said.
But hard work started to pay off when he got on with Shelter & Associates in Free Union, building doors and cabinets. Then he ran the shop. In 1978 he spent some time at the McGuffey Art Center. The next year he and some friends started Gaston, Murray & Wyatt, which became a premier shop for architectural woodworking and custom furniture.
But in 1992, Gaston said, “I made the leap to more exciting work.” He sold his part of the company and began building the art furniture and cabinets for which he has become well-known.
“I did a huge job for a local client,” he said as he pointed to some photos. “The walnut bar took six months to do—that’s one piece of furniture in six months.”
He also made the front doors for Monticello and took on projects at other historical sites such as Ash Lawn and the University of Virginia’s Rotunda, as well as for private homes and businesses.
“It’s a hard way to make a living, but it’s a whole lot of fun,” he said. “I spent five and a half years on restoration at Montpelier. I did all new woodwork.”
The home he and wife, Cali, share is a three-story art structure nestled in the woods near Earlysville. Filled with unique and beautiful wood pieces, all done by Gaston, the home is a testament to Gaston’s artist statement: “I make unusual furniture: elegant, beautiful, and superbly built.”
Each piece is an art piece, but each is also functional and beautiful. Probably the most unique piece at his home is the large white sycamore tree trunk sofa that Gaston made some years ago, which has its own story.
Blaise and Cali enjoy canoeing in the large stream that runs through their property. In 2001 they were out in the canoe when they saw a large sycamore hanging out over the stream. After gaining permission to remove the tree, Gaston and some friends built a shed on the property near the house to dry the sycamore. That took seven years. “Then when the tree was dry,” Gaston explained, “it had to be power washed – then sanded.” Once the tree was ready, “we brought in a crane.” The tree was lifted to the second floor. Glass panels in the house were temporarily removed and the tree was moved inside. With animal skins and pillows it offers the perfect resting place or spot to curl up and read a book.
Near the tree is his one-of-a-kind dining room table with unique chairs. One of his specialties is fine dining room chairs. Done on commission, a set of chairs typically takes about five months to finish, depending on how many chairs are needed. He always makes at least one extra. Those extras become his dining room chairs.
What does the future hold? Well, some of the pieces he creates are made using new computerized equipment that enables him to twist and shape the wood into forms not natural for the wood. “I always want to design something a computer can’t do,” he said.
To see more of his work, visit his website at www.blaisegaston.com.