by Melissa Glarner
If details are the providence of gods, then Alan Powell’s handcrafted furniture is the holiest of creations. Powell, who began his woodworking career in 1973, delights in the precision of his work. As a person who likes to dot all of his ‘I’s and cross all of his ‘T’s, he has chosen a profession where the difference of a 64th of an inch can have a profound impact on the artistry and functionality of a piece.
The simplicity of Powell’s designs is deceiving. Gazing from afar his craftsmanship is abundantly evident, but up close is where his work truly shines. Admiring one of his display cases, the complex joinery techniques and artful configuration are obvious to even the most casual observer. The display case doors shut with a buttery smoothness that begs to be experienced firsthand. Opening and closing them is akin to driving a new car for the first time—the difference in quality being noted immediately.
Powell spent his early adult years in Philadelphia, a region noted for its traditionally handcrafted woodwork. After a stint teaching elementary school, he discovered the joy of restoring antiques. Largely self-taught—with the exception of a couple of short internships in Vermont—Powell has chosen to learn things as he goes. Much like tracing the grain on a piece of wood, the lure of Powell’s professional path can be discovered in its unexpected turns. Antique restoration projects evolved into cabinetmaking which led him to designing, and culminated with building fine homes and handcrafting complete furniture sets.
The importance of collecting artisan-made goods is not lost on Powell. Explaining why someone might want to consider owning quality pieces, he says, “The biggest appeal of having handmade furniture is that it is something you will keep your whole life and pass along to your family. Mass-produced items are expendable.” In this day and age of Big Box chain commodities, a personal touch goes a long way in making the world feel a little more intimate.Powell’s dining sets are creations that invite lingering conversations with family and friends. Most of his orders are generated through commissions; the skilled qualities of his craftsmanship guaranteed. Functionality and longevity are hallmarks. Though his creations exude an artful presence, the pieces are always solid and comfortable. His ergonomically-designed chairs, in particular, are a fantastic example of the magical blending between form and function.
Powell is happy to work with a client in executing whatever vision is presented to him. He is able to acquire most any kind of wood, including more unusual varieties. Douglass fir, white oak, ash, walnut, bamboo, cherry, Alaskan yellow cedar—the possibilities of what he can create are staggering.
In delving deeply into what he loves, Powell has managed to earn substantial recognition for his work. A recipient of the 2014 Judges’ Award at the Taos Fall Arts Festival, Powell’s sideboard made of Macassar ebony is a stately amalgamation of midcentury Scandinavian and traditional Chinese styling. Conveying professionalism and mastery of his craft, Powell also was invited to co-design the Maria Martinez Gallery inside Taos’s Millicent Rogers Museum. Not surprisingly, his efforts resulted in a welcoming space that considers every fine detail. Everything from the lighting, ceiling, crown molding, and display cabinetry is sublimely executed.
There are always a lot of projects on Powell’s desk, as clients from as far away as Europe will enlist his expertise in furnishing their homes. One particular proposal he finished was for a large cabinet (7 by 6 feet), as part of a barn renovation in England. “It needed to be a robust scheme,” says Powell. “I made it with tongue and groove all the way up, and the patterns are very Arts and Crafts Movement, very English.” Even through photos, the details of the piece humbly emerge: book-matched woods with identical patterning, pullout trays, and glass doors all come together to create a classical elegance.Powell is very particular about his professional approach. “Sustainable processes and forest stewardship are important to me,” he says, noting the value of sound ecological practices. He mentions how he built his home to be LEED Certified, and does his best to avoid using scarce rainforest woods. It’s a reference point that Powell returns to frequently: always include the bigger picture.
“My career has been about discovering solutions,” he says, likening his creative process to a complex puzzle. It is clear that Powell’s patience, inventiveness, and observational aptitude have served him well in his field. Most remarkable, however, is his unusual ability to coax the perfect answers out of his materials. Whether he’s trying to weave sacred geometry into his work or designing a piece to be multi-functional, Alan Powell approaches most obstacles with the same idea. “The first expression is often best,” he says. “Answers will arise organically…if you let them.”
Visits to Alan Powell Design and Showroom can be arranged by appointment. 575.776.5217. alanpowelldesign.com.