From the Hands, with Heart

Today I’m taking part in the My Most Beautiful Thing Blogsplash to celebrate beautiful things, inspired by Fiona Robyn’s sweet and touching new novel, “The Most Beautiful Thing.” Bloggers from all over the world are taking part and writing or posting pictures of their most beautiful things today. Find out more at Writing Our Way Home here, and see everyone else’s blog posts here

I have far more beautiful things than I can count, some tangible and some not. This is the one (or three, if you’re counting) that I wanted to share today. 

With our move from an apartment to a house, my husband and I have found ourselves in the ironic position of downsizing and upsizing at the same time. We purged a lot of things before packing and heading south from the Washington, D.C., area back home to North Carolina and purged still more after we unpacked. But then we realized we needed to add a few things here and there to make the new space work — such as a bed for the spare room, assorted office furniture and a kitchen table. Yes, this is a first-world problem. Some choices have been more successful than others, working or not working with what we already had. One of the final things we needed, and by “we” I mean “I,” included end tables for the living room.

After being overwhelmed by trips to antiseptic, warehouse-sized stores with cookie-cutter decor (even Cindy Crawford can design furniture!), I decided to hit the Raleigh flea market one sunny Sunday morning. Amid the old and new junk and treasures was a collection of tables. They were outside, occupying a corner lot. I was instantly drawn to them — the low end tables, hip-high consoles and butcher-block pieces. Some were made of a single type of wood, all light or all dark, and others were a mixture — a light outer frame with a dark main body, and vice versa.

The lacquered tops gleamed in the sunshine, the craftsmanship of the Shaker-style pieces readily apparent. I browsed, ran my hand along the tabletops, took mental measurements and chatted with the vendor, an unassuming, soft-spoken man. He was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, so I couldn’t see his eyes. He was alone in his “stand,” quietly eating a slice of pizza. “Breakfast?” I joked. It was about 11 a.m. He smiled and said something like, “Yes, ma’am.”

I’m no expert on furniture, but I complimented him on his work, and he politely thanked me. I wasn’t ready to buy anything, so I asked for a business card. Alan Tingen, it read, with an address and phone number. Turns out he lives just a few miles from us in Apex, and he said he took custom orders. Oh, happy day! I was excited about the possibility of buying local, so to speak, and especially such gorgeous pieces.

His card didn’t list a Web site, so I Googled him. He has a Facebook page but no Web site, though some of the craft fairs he has participated in have posted photos of his work. The images showed a variety of tables, some made from variegated wood, unlike the solids I’d seen at the flea market. I was entranced. A few weeks later, after deciding what I wanted to order, I went back to see him at the flea market. He didn’t have pieces in the style I wanted, but I arranged to go to his workshop a few days later.

Alan lives on a rural stretch of road on land that his family has owned for a century. The road is in fact named for his family. The shop was full of fresh lumber — banal, unfinished planks of wood lying around at all angles and in various stages of becoming furniture — and the floor was coated with sawdust. He didn’t have many finished samples on site, but I’d printed out a picture of what I was looking for from one of the craft fair Web sites, and we went from there.

I asked if he had a catalog or Web site. He grinned and shook his head slightly, as if he’d heard that question more than once. “No, people ask me that, but …”

“You’re as busy as you want to be?” I asked. That’s pretty much it, he said. He’s a one-man show and clearly likes to take his time with each piece. He said he’d hired helpers in the past, but the younger ones just don’t want to work. (Kids these days!) He said he doesn’t sell a lot of pieces at the flea market but usually does well at a craft fair in the mountains of Western North Carolina and another one in Raleigh. I felt torn between wanting to volunteer as his PR agent — Why doesn’t everyone have one of his tables?! — and selfishly wanting to keep him a secret. But it’s hardly appropriate for me to stage an art intervention or intrude on his privacy. He’s just a guy, living in the countryside, making, I assume, as many beautiful tables as he wants to.

We talked measurements and types of wood. What I wanted for the body of our tables is ambrosia maple, with walnut trim. (A lovely name, ambrosia maple, although the striations are apparently caused by a beetle and a fungus.) I decided on three tables of the same style — two end tables for the living room, and a console for the spare room. Alan quoted me the total cost. I thought he’d left off a zero. Then he apologetically said he was backed up, so it would take about three weeks for him to make the tables. As soon as he said “three,” I expected the next word to be “months.” Considering how long it took to get our commercially ordered furniture, I was stunned.

Alan called right on schedule a few weeks later to tell me the tables were ready. I arranged a time to go pick them up. On that warm and sunny day, he was busy planting vegetables on his property. I met him after he’d set the corn and before he started on sugar snap peas. He led me to a side shed where the tables awaited. They took my breath away. They were even more gorgeous than I’d imagined, museum-quality pieces, in my opinion.

I thanked him and complimented him many times, but he is so unassuming and low-key that my gushing started to feel excessive. I’m sure he knows his work is good, even great, and it’s clear he’s proud of it without being boastful. I resisted the urge to suggest (plead) he promote himself more. That’s none of my business. We’re virtually strangers, after all, and I know nothing about him other than what he shared with me. His work speaks for itself. He’s as busy as he wants to be, but I’m so glad he wasn’t too busy for me.

Handmade crafts are special, especially those made from natural materials. No two are ever alike. And every time I look at one of Alan’s tables, I feel lucky to have them. I know wood isn’t alive once it becomes furniture, but Alan’s pieces are moving. They speak to me. They speak from his hands and heart, and that’s a beautiful thing.

By Alan Tingen




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