by Brian Caldwell
How does a guy who was the chief cabinetmaker for years at Bloomingdale's in Manhattan decide to just pack up his bags and move his
wife and children to Cody, Wyo.? John Gallis has a simple response: "Why not?"
That's exactly what he did in 1995, and his only regret is that he can't find good New York pizza in the town founded by Buffalo Bill Cody in 1896. Many of Cody's original buildings remain today, including the famous Irma Hotel with its magnificent cherry bar. Despite its large dose of commercialism, Cody has maintained its Western heritage.
"We started this business 31 years ago," said Gallis. "Before I sold it in 1995, we were Bloomingdale's chief cabinetmaker and we did all their interior design specialty pieces out of Manhattan. We did wall units and entertainment centers. We had to always get what I call 10 lbs. of potatoes in a 5-lb. sack because everybody's spacing was a problem. I sold the business to my foreman and he's still doing the commercial work, and we're doing more of the one-of-a-kind art pieces in Cody."
Gallis has a saying about his custom work that he repeats often.
"He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his heart is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands, his head, and his heart is an artist."
The Cody life
Cody, Wyo., is the eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, and according to the Cody Chamber of Commerce, it's "a small Western town with a big-city attitude."
If you head north from Cody, a beautiful two-hour drive will bring you to Billings, Mont. Beyond the city limits to the south and east, it's rather desolate. However, the 50-mile trip from Cody to Yellowstone National Park is the most scenic in the world, so dubbed by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Gallis is the owner of Norseman Designs West, a three-man shop in Cody that specializes in what he describes as "refined Western furniture." For those who look down on rustic furniture, what Gallis produces is not the go behind the barn, find some nails and bang some boards together type of furniture. Pieces made by Norseman Designs West are highly refined, and composed of a variety of domestic and exotic woods. Some of his works are accented by custom metalwork and stunning paintings. His furniture is reflective of the finest techniques, and garners a respectable price.
Gallis has a 1-1/2 year backlog and has pieces on permanent display in museums at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, and galleries in Cody and Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Bozeman, Mont.
"We fell in love with the town of Cody and it has a really world-class museum," he said. "The air was clean, the sky was big and we said, 'Gee, why not?' One day I'll be 80 years old and sitting in that wheelchair and I'll just be wondering, 'What if?'"
The question, "What if?" arrived about 25 years earlier than Gallis anticipated. The man who worked seven days a week and kept outrageous hours had a major wake-up call this past December – a heart attack. He was flown by helicopter from Cody to Billings and was fortunate to survive. Since then, he has reduced the amount of time he works in his shop, is in the process of changing his diet, and is spending more time with his family.
"Right now, there is no such thing as a deadline. The only deadline is in a morgue and I'm not going to be part of that," Gallis said. "In fact I refused– probably for the first time in 30 years–a job. A fellow wanted some work done two weeks before Christmas that had to be done for Christmas and I said no. So now I have slowly been learning to say no, although it's real easy to say that when you have a 1-1/2-year backlog."
New man in town
The custom-furniture business in Cody is a competitive one, as Gallis quickly discovered upon his arrival 10 years ago.
"I was the new kid on the block and I'm getting too old to be the new kid on the block," he said. "Here you have to be twice as good at half the price just to be considered an equal, and it took me a while to get over that hurdle.
"Refined Western is what everybody calls what I make. We came in and nobody was doing that here, so I just felt it was a huge niche that nobody was addressing yet. I don't want to make art where you don't want to touch the piece because you're afraid of scratching it. I want to make functional art, and it's worked out really good."
Cody is the home of the Western Design Conference, an annual exhibition of the finest of Western design in the world. The show brings together artisans, scholars, collectors, interior designers, architects and fashion designers with an interest in the West. About 100 of the nation's top Western designers unveil their original works during the four-day event. Materials include wood, metal, leather and textiles.
For Gallis the Western Design Conference has been a bonanza for awards, national recognition and business.
"Up to date we have won 10 awards including Best in Show, Best Craftsmanship, People's Choice, and the Martin-Harris Gallery Award for Excellence. The [Buffalo Bill Historic Center] museum has purchased a piece through that show. It's kind of hard for people to ignore us when we win so many awards.
"For people who may not like the outsider – people have said, what does a New Yorker know about Western design? It's just having a good eye, proportions, shapes and the ability to make it look natural rather than contrived."
Gallis uses juniper as a contrasting accent in the majority of his pieces. It's not a species where you just go down to the local lumber store and buy 100 bf.
"We get in the truck and drive about 100 miles south of us and we have a BLM [Bureau of Land Management] permit, and what that entails is we're supposedly gathering firewood, but meanwhile we're going to build furniture out of it," explained Gallis. "I think it is probably a moot point. You just need to have a permit to go on public lands and harvest the wood. We go out there – try not to be out there in July and August when it is so unbearably hot – and we just watch out for the rattlesnakes and we harvest our wood.
"We go out there with a pickup truck and a chain saw and we stay out the whole day about once every other weekend. The whole idea is to try and get wood that you can leave outside, and then when you get a commission you just walk through what we call the supermarket [a large area behind his shop] and you get just the right piece."
Juniper grows in unusual shapes – often twisty – and is a tenacious wood. The heartwood is very red, the sapwood is light, and because of its age and the severe weather conditions, it has numerous voids. It's not unusual to find juniper that has full 360-degree twists or 90-degree bends.
"We managed to get a stump from a juniper tree and we were counting the rings, and it was a 400-year-old juniper tree. Then you start thinking about what was going on 400 years ago. It's very humbling. We try not to waste the wood because it has such a dignified history that we don't want to build toothpicks out of it; we want to build something out of it that is really elegant and really nice that will be here for another 300 years."
Gallis has two full-time employees. Tim Goodwin has been at Norseman Designs West for about three years after working at another shop in Cody. Mike Esch has been working
for Gallis for almost a year after leaving work in Pennsylvania.
Designs begin on a napkin and, unless a client demands more, designs end on the napkin. Gallis doesn't provide large drawings, using CAD programs or construct mock-ups. He has a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants philosophy when it comes to designing and building a custom piece, and he loves the relaxed atmosphere.
"Deadlines and things are a little more casual here," Gallis noted. "[In New York] it took more smarts and skill to try and get a 10' cabinet built in a 10' wall than making these free- form pieces. Now, if we make a table and it's 84½" instead of 84", nobody is going to say anything. Most of our custom projects are a little bit smaller and we can have fun with them. Before we get tired of one project, we're on to a new one."
The 2,400-sq.-ft. shop is well equipped with tools and machines. The mainstays include a WoodTek sliding table saw, Powermatic 66 table saw, Powermatic band saw with resaw capability, MiniMax Formula F1 16" jointer, Denray downdraft table, Extrema 25" wide belt sander and a Rockwell drill press.
Contacts and clients
Gallis works with interior designers, architects and contractors. He attracts business through word-of-mouth and a limited amount of advertising. His work usually ends
up in large ranches, guest resorts, and with people who want to acquire one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture. Gallis receives the most enjoyment when he is able to work
with the end user.
"You kind of develop a friendship. We exchange Christmas cards and it's just a real nice extended family. And then people come back and say, 'I got the desk and now I need a chair.' It's a real investment and I always tell people it only hurts once – the first time you pay for it – and then you have the rest of your life to sit back and enjoy it."