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Artfully crafting furniture with precision and imagination.



AT HOME
From the South Bend Tribune BECKY EMMONS
Tribune Staff Writer - October 27, 2007

SOUTH BEND -- Larry Piser has won numerous awards and accolades for his personally designed and built furniture. And, he's never even taken the first shop class.

Stepping around his constant companion, a black-and-white former stray cat named Schmutzy, he works in a studio many shop classes would envy. Quite a transition from the mobile home where he did his rudimentary carvings when he lived in Taos, N.M. Piser, a South Bend native and 1987 graduate of Adams High School, got his degree from Indiana University in English and psychology. After he graduated from IU, he worked for Marriott, but felt an urge to live someplace outside the Midwest. He decided on Taos, intrigued by its local flavor, and because he knew he could get a job with Marriott in the resort town "I packed up my car, took a few possessions, rented a trailer and headed for Taos," he recalls. He and a friend rented a mobile home with a woodburning stove. "We had a big pile of wood for the stove. There wasn't much of a used furniture market there, so I banged together a coffee table and bookcase," he recalls, chucking, "Originally I was using a Swiss Army knife and a hammer." He had gotten a job as the manager of an outfitter's shop and when the owner learned that he'd made a coffee table, he asked Piser if he could make a shelving unit and a hat rack for the shop. "He created a monster," Piser jokes of the store's owner.

Over the years, Piser experimented with more advanced pieces and began studying woodworking books and magazines. His best education was "trial and error," which he says has made him better. "I started designing and building pieces and actually sold a few," he says. Family commitments drew him back to South Bend, and he brought a few pieces that drew favorable feedback. He started getting orders. Since his style wasn't really characteristic of the Southwest -- "more refined, more finished" -- he decided to move back to South Bend and tap into the Midwest/Chicago market. He moved back to South Bend seven years ago and has had a backlog of commissions ever since. Earlier in the summer he took "best of show" at the Leeper Park Art Fair for his presentation. Piser defines his style as "a little hint of Mission, a little hint of contemporary, a little hint of Shaker with Japanese sensibility." Some pieces are reminiscent of '40s and '50s modernist. Piser is definitely including more and more Asian touches in his designs. A popular piece is his Torii bench which he based on a gateway to a Shinto Temple. The clean-lined bench with curved legs looks light and delicate but is very sturdy, he points out. The bench has spawned an entire line for Piser that includes hall tables and bar stools. His repertoire includes chests, tables, desks, chairs, and he has created built-ins for specific spaces in clients' homes. "It's deeply fulfilling work," Piser says. "When people can't find a particular piece of furniture, they come to me to build them exactly what they want," he says, adding that many of his clients have custom homes where every piece of furniture has to tell a story. His pieces contribute to home's "story." "A lot of thought goes into the process," he says. "I agonize over which boards to use. I want to continue the story." A friend in Mesa, Ariz., had a huge house and needed a "special" California king-size bed, so Piser made him one.

He also has been doing more work with architects and interior designers. One project was with Dean Bergeman from MPA Architects to design and build an altar table and two benches for the chapel at Madison Center. According to Bergeman, "To have Larry -- an award-winning local craftsman -- design pieces that reflect the essence of the space was something I wanted to do as a legacy to the larger project. Larry has the rare ability to release the 'spirit' of wood and by extension, help to define the sense of place." Whatever wood he uses, he studies the grain and incorporates it into his design. Piser likes to buy his wood locally and gets much of it from the Amish. Most of his furniture is made of walnut, cherry or maple, often with accents in more exotic woods such as Hawaiian or African hardwoods. Most days he's working in his studio at 516 E. Colfax and welcomes visitors to drop by. To be sure he is in, visitors may call him at (888) 527-7477. Some of his designs may also be seen at www.piserdesigns.com. In addition to building his furniture, he's busy planning a new showroom that will open in the East Race Village in May of 2008.

Piser jokes that he doesn't use the latest, state-of-the-art woodworking equipment. "I gather tools as I need them and I don't need a lot. I don't need all these gadgets," Piser says. "The most important tool is my brain, my creativity."