"What makes it art for me is intention. I'm intending to make something beautiful and lasting-the same intention I brought to my painting."
Against the Grain
Ryan Lane '85 runs his fingertips over the polished cherry wood top of the dresser he created for a client's newborn daughter. It's not the diminutive, juvenile stuff you'd expect in a nursery, but a dignified, finely-detailed work inspired by Lane's admiration for the Shaker aesthetic and American furniture styles.
"They envisioned this as a piece she'd take with her to college someday," Lane explains. "Something she'd want to keep with her for the rest of her life."
That vision dovetails perfectly with the former Wabash art major's own perspective on his vocation. For Lane, creating these one-off pieces in the shop behind his Broad Ripple, Indiana home is an art.
"I have cabinet maker friends who just laugh at the thought that I could consider cabinet making an art," Lane explains as he points out the dresser's precisely-turned and fitted cocobolo wood handles. "But what makes it art for me is intention. I'm intending to make something beautiful and lasting-the same intention I brought to my painting."
Lane's Wabash classmates likely remember him best for those paintings, and it was a desire to improve that artistic skill that drove him to take a job with cabinet maker Tom Nu in Seattle 12 years ago.
"I was over-painting everything, and I thought this would rein me in," Lane says. "I wanted to take a project from paper to completion, to have that experience on a larger scale."
The artist was intrigued by the furniture making process, from design to finished piece.
"I fell in love with making the stuff," he recalls. And when he became proficient enough to make more challenging pieces and wasn't given the chance to do so, he left the shop and started his own business. Seattle's large number of fine arts furniture makers-many of them also painters or sculptors-offered masterful inspiration for the novice designer and craftsman as he visited their studios and studied their finished work. Lane's own artistry soon brought in plenty of work, including a teak, ebony and Japanese lacewood kitchen for former Microsoft President John Shirley.
Last year he and his wife, Lucy, moved back to Indianapolis to be near Lucy's family. The transition from the crafts- and culture-rich Pacific Northwest was initially difficult for Lane, who suddenly found himself in a market unaccustomed to furniture designed as a collaboration with and built specifically for one client.
"People here are stunned that this actually exists, that they can actually have this sort of work done," Lane explains. And in a trade where most work comes by word of mouth, it has taken a while for commissions to roll in. But the artists' reputation is spreading as more Hoosiers view his work. His backyard shop is humming with nearly as much activity as you'll find among the tangle of dogs and kids that play boisterously around it. ("Only two of the kids are ours," he's quick to point out. "And one of the dogs.") The artist's zeal for his work-and that of other contemporary makers-is stronger than ever.
"I think a lot of people disregard contemporary furniture makers in favor of antiques because they don't understand what's happening out there," Lane says. He calls himself "a patriot when it comes to American music and crafts.
"That's my mission-to make people realize the good work that is out there, that there's so much talent in this world that's going to waste because of people's ignorance."
Such zeal doesn't mean Lane has plans to expand his own shop. In a business where even fine craftsmen are hiring workers and professing the gospel of "economies of scale," Lane's is a rare but determined voice in the wilderness.
"My goal is to always be a one-man shop," he says. The only two people he'll consider bringing into the business are his pre-school-aged children.
"They'll know someday if it's for them, and they'll know how to do it-they'll learn by osmosis," he insists.
"I've hired people before," Lane recalls, acknowledging the economic burden he puts on himself by remaining small. "But I'm hard to be around-I'm such a perfectionist, and people aren't used to the demands I place on them."
"When you hire people, all of the sudden the day is about keeping them busy. It's not about the work anymore."
And the satisfaction he derives from that process-the fulfillment he finds taking three weeks " to design and build a piece of furniture he can call art-is the reason Lane looks forward to picking up his tools each morning.
"Every time I start a piece I get a chance to make something perfect, I get to strive for something different, something better."
And something that his clients may treasure for the rest
of their lives.