Honoring Craft

Furniture designer Adam Rogers takes a measured approach to building heirloom-worthy pieces

Adam Rogers is primarily a furniture designer, but he also makes time to teach and to paint. Here, Rogers stands in his Portland studio in front of one of his paintings.
Tools of the trade: Rasp, calipers, and Japanese chisels. While Rogers doesn’t do everything by hand, he does use hand tools for some of the more intricate details.
His office is spare and clean. Downstairs, Rogers has a workshop where the sawdust collects.
At work in Portland, surrounded by pieces of wood that showcase the various styles of joinery Rogers employs in his pieces.
On his bench, Rogers has placed a production sample of a chair. Though not currently for sale, soon this piece will be added to one of his collections.
Rogers calls these his “form studies.” They function like an artists’ sketchbook, allowing him to work out big ideas in miniature.
Rogers turns a stool leg on the lathe.
This joint will someday be part of a stool. Rogers likes to conceptually link pieces in the same furniture line by using the same joint in a variety of different ways.
Rogers lays out joinery in his Portland workshop.

Two hours can change your life, provided you’re in the right place at the right time. For Adam Rogers, the right place was a studio in the woods of upstate New York. The right time was his early 30s. He had spent the past several years working in architecture, but something about the profession hadn’t quite clicked. He wanted to explore the crafting and building of furniture, but for that he’d have to go back to graduate school and start from scratch. “But then one day I spent a morning with this guy, Rich Tannen,” he recalls as he perches on the edge of a table in his newly acquired office, which is on the second story of the Public Works in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. “I was honest with him—I told him this might not be the right fit. He didn’t try and convince me.” And yet, two hours later, on the walk back to the car, Rogers’s wife turned to him. “It looks like we’re moving to Rochester,” she said. And Rogers just said, “Yup.”

They packed up their belongings and moved from Ohio to New York, where Rogers learned the skills he would need to make his own hardwood creations. His first project involved hand planing a rough board until it was the “exact, precise dimensions called for,” he remembers. If it wasn’t absolutely perfect, he would start again, and again. “For three years, I did nothing but study woodworking,” he says. “It was the best three years of my life.”

As the story often goes, the eager student morphed over the years into an enthusiastic professor. He will be teaching a furniture making workshop this fall in Australia. These days Rogers can be found designing for his own line as well as other furniture lines like Radnor and Chilton, from his Portland studio, AR:S. He also does some consulting work on the side, helping furniture designers and manufacturers through various stages of product development; a skill he learned working for Thos. Moser in Freeport. “I’m still figuring out how to balance everything,” he admits. Rogers probably could exclusively design furniture, but he finds value in educating others. “I think that, if craft is the tradition, it’s the responsibility of those of us who have been trained to pass it along,” he says. “I wanted to do that for a few years of my life, at least.”

Like many people who spend their days in relative quiet, working with their hands and bodies, Rogers isn’t entirely comfortable being interviewed or talking about himself. In conversation, it becomes clear that he’s torn between two impulses: he knows he could talk for hours about furniture design, hardwood, and joinery, but like most people, he recognizes that his deeply held passions aren’t immediately verbally transmittable. Still, when he really gets going on one of his favorite topics—say, the desire to make good design accessible to wider ranges of income—his whole face lights up. It’s interesting how this happens, how one person’s love for a subject can be imparted to a listener, and in this case it makes me want to take one of his LieNielsen hand planes down from the wall and begin smoothing a piece of hardwood myself.

But Rogers doesn’t spend all of his time working with handsaws and chisels. A lot of his job involves sourcing wood, pricing out furniture, and making various spreadsheets.

Fortunately, he says, he likes each step. “I’m passionate about the whole thing, from the living tree to the final object,” he says. He prefers to work exclusively with domestic hardwoods such as white oak, black walnut, ash, and maple. He gets much of his lumber from a single mill in Pennsylvania. “I have a long-term relationship with this mill. They process everything from log to lumber,” he says. In the past, he’s even brought students into the woods with his friends from the lumber mill to show them how trees are selected, harvested, broken down into logs, cut into lumber, and dried for use. Knowing the “chain of custody” is important to him, as it is to many people who work closely with natural resources. “I do wish people would stop saying ‘sustainably harvested,’” he admits. “If it’s a hardwood that was cut down in the United States, it’s sustainably harvested.” Often, working with hardwoods on the East Coast means you’re using trees that have had a century or more to grow. Foresters who practice silviculture (the process of harvesting selectively to promote growth of an entire forest) tend to make decisions based on what’s best for the surrounding environment. “You could even make the argument that the more furniture you make, the healthier the forest,” he says.

While the process of making a piece begins with logging, Rogers’s personal creative process begins with a glimmer of an idea. He turns this spark into a flame by playing with samples of wood, creating joints that look like mind-bending puzzles. He has a bag of these “sketches,” as he calls them, on a desk in his office. Other pieces sit above the computer on a shelf, all curved wood and angles, fragments of a finished piece. Devoid of context, they look a bit strange, but once Rogers explains the meaning behind each one, I begin to see the bigger picture. These pinned joints and finger joints are his way of working through a complex idea, finding the small moments of beauty within a functional object like a bench or a bed frame. For Rogers, those moments often happen at the joints, where one piece of wood meets another in an unbreakable embrace. His furniture lines often feature a single type of joinery that becomes the focal point, like the finger joint that ties together his Cumberland pieces for Thos. Moser, or the pinned joint that defines the Foreside collection for the same brand.

To help illustrate his point, he holds up a piece of black walnut. “This,” he says, “is one of the most basic joints in woodworking. It’s called a bridle joint.” This particular joint is used in his Mae line for Radnor and Union line for Chilton, I will later learn. But in that moment, I’m not thinking about how it aesthetically links a bed to a shelf—I just want to see how it works. “It’s not a fancy joint,” he says, and I realize he’s right. One piece of wood sheaves another, and when the wood expands, they lock together securely. But what the bridle joint lacks in complexity it makes up for in durability and clarity. And when built by hand using a piece of American wood, the simple, functional link is elevated. It becomes something more, something closer to art.

But Rogers doesn’t call himself an artist. He’s a bit too grounded for that airy term. For him, the focus is on the act of making, the slow work of building. At the end of the day, he sees himself as “a woodworker who designs furniture,” he says. “Unless you redefine how one sits, you’re not going to make an innovative chair.” That’s not his end game. It’s a lot simpler than that, he says: “Honoring craft is my goal.”