R. Thomas Tedrowe
by Rachel Perry
photo by George Bredewater
Tom Tedrowe’s furniture studio on Hamilton Creek Road is a pleasant surprise. Unless already familiar with Tedrowe’s work, one would expect to see the contemporary designs and flawless craftsmanship in the showrooms of an expensive urban decorator rather than in rural Brown County.
Perhaps the modern artistic (though practical) designs of the wood objects are a reflection of Tedrowe’s recent move from Chicago’s west side, as well as his vast experience and training. Tom and his wife Martha moved to Brown County in October of 2002 and he began construction of his studio six months later. “We wanted to get out of the city,” he admitted. “We needed a change in scenery. Martha’s mother is in a nursing home in Kentucky and my parents and sister live in Indianapolis so Brown County made sense. There’s also an art colony established here.”
Although Tom grew up and attended high school in Indianapolis, he has spent many years in Chicago, where he met his wife. After receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Herron School of Art, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where he received his Master of Fine Arts in Furniture Design. For four years he worked for Chicago’s Lyon and Healy Harp Company, where he designed the Prelude Harp, “the high end of cheap harps,” he laughed. (A good concert harp in the 1990s cost $15,000 and his harp had a price tag of a mere $3500.) “I stopped working for the harp company because I don’t play the instrument and I never could tell whether my design changes were making a difference in the tone or not,” he said.
Tom Tedrowe has taught furniture design and construction at the Herron School of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Elston Woodworking School, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He also worked as an exhibit fabricator for the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis. “That’s where I started doing functional woodworking,” he recalled. “Right now I’m changing what I do. I used to do a lot of built-ins and custom work for interior designers.” He is now concentrating on art fairs (beginning in Providence, Rhode Island) and is represented in Domont Gallery in Indianapolis.
The fine things in Tedrowe’s studio include faceted lamps, veneered tables, exquisitely perfect tiered jewelry boxes, music stands shaped like whale ribs, desks, chairs, and contemporary wood clocks, among other items. His pieces reflect his expert knowledge of how to emphasize the natural characteristics of subtle grain and color in many different types of wood. He uses multiple woods such as Bird’s Eye Maple, Curly Maple, Walnut, and tropical hard woods, among others.
At one time he even used a composite called Corian. “I used to be part of a group called the Chicago Furniture Designers Association, and Dupont Company gave us a bunch of Corian to experiment with,” he recalled. “So I created this piece called ‘The Jellyfish Queen.’ (The piece is a whimsical large octagonal orange and green box with doors on top of ebonized wood tentacles for legs.) We had a show of the pieces at the Cultural Center. The guys from Corian didn’t really like it because they wanted us to design pieces that could be mass-produced. This stuff does not lend itself to furniture. It’s so heavy, but great for counter tops and walls. Hospitals use it for floors and ceilings in surgery units because it doesn’t absorb anything, and bacteria won’t grow on it since it’s non-porous.”
Tom spends the better part of every day in his studio and designs his furniture pieces on drafting paper before attempting to build. Then he must figure out how to produce the “jigs” to create the components of the piece. “That’s the fun part for me—creating the jigs and things to make a piece,” he smiled. He works on several pieces simultaneously. “I need to think about something and figure out how I’m going to do it, so I put it aside for awhile and work on something else. Some things need to wait until the glue is dry to go onto the next step,” he explained.
Building and exhibiting fine furniture since 1978, Tom Tedrowe has been included in countless exhibits, receiving the James R. Thompson Excellent in Crafts award at the Illinois Artisans Program; the Designer’s Choice Award at the Illinois Interior Designers Coalition Benefit; and the Founder’s Excellence Award at the 57th Street Fair in Chicago, among others. He has been accepted in the 80th annual juried Hoosier Salon, to take place at the Indiana State Museum this summer.
Tedrowe is a featured artist in the Chicago Historical Society book Chicago Furniture: Art, Craft and Industry, 1833–1983 and his work has been included in many publications. The most recent book to include his work is 400 Wood Boxes: The Fine Art of Containment and Concealment published by Lark Books in 2004.
If you’re interested in furniture design, fine craftsmanship and one-of-a-kind wood products, the R. Thomas Tedrowe, Jr. Furniture Studio is definitely worth a visit. To see some of his pieces on line go to <www.tedrowefurniture.com>. The studio is open 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday or by appointment by calling 812-988-6953.