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Natural Craftsmen

    by Stacey Rice
    Wyoming Homes and Living Magazine
    January/February 2004

    For most men, heading to the office every day means wearing pressed slacks, a dress shirt, and tie and sitting in front of a computer all day. But for Cody resident John Gallis, that’s anything but normal. Clothed in jeans, a tee shirt, and a flannel buttondown, John heads to his studio just on the outskirts of town, where organized piles of wood and inches of sawdust are the focal point.

    John has owned Norseman Designs West, a custom furniture business, since 1997, but he honed his craftsmanship and versatility long before that. His talent for creating handcrafted, one-of-a-kind wood furniture started as a hobby in his mother’s garage on Long Island.

    “When I was fresh out of high school, I wanted to be a forest ranger, but I knew I didn’t have the talent to remember all the names of the trees, so I elevated basically toward working with my hands, with wood,” John says. “I became the neighborhood handyman, and I started doing more and more furniture.”

    John attended a woodworking school in Aspen, Colorado, where he met several high-profile businessmen, including Richard Dapple, who was then head of interior design for Bloomingdale’s in New York City. John had been operating his own business, called Norseman Incorporated, for some time already, and in 1980 he began working as an independent contractor with the famous department store. He remained chief cabinet maker for 14 years, constructing almost anything customers wanted to install in their homes.

    “It was really good experience because [in New York City] space is at a premium, and you’re always trying, as I call it, to put 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack,” John says. “People have a very small apartment, but they have to have this, this, and that, so it was a challenge.”

    Not only did John create pieces for less-than-spacious digs, but he also installed his work in upscale locations such as the Trump Towers, movie director Christopher Columbus’ Manhattan apartment, and Mr. Bloomingdale’s personal estate.

    While John enjoyed his work in the city, his family’s quality of life was lacking. They lived in an unsafe neighborhood where gunfire and vehicle thefts were common occurrences. John and his then-wife were looking for a better environment in which to raise their four children, and they found it in Cody when a family member brought them to the area during a trip in 1994.

    “We fell in love with it, and we flew back in the winter of 1994 just to see how bad the winters were. The kids were wearing shorts, and it was probably warmer here than it was in New York except for the last two days. Then it got down to, like, minus 10, so we got a good taste of what it was like,” John says. “We said, ‘Yeah, we can still do it,’ and it was July 8, 1995, when we pulled into Cody.”

    John worked for New West, a rustic furniture company, for the first two years he lived in Cody. But the adjustment of being an employee was a difficult one for John, so in 1997 he left and once again started his own business, this time calling it Norseman Designs West.

    His work is incomparable and unforgettable; each piece is custom-designed to fit the client’s needs and handcrafted based on the feel of the wood and the natural flow of the grain, so no two pieces are ever alike. “What we’re doing is very organic, very natural,” John says. “A lot of people have called our style of furniture ‘refined western.’”

    His furniture is rustic only in the sense that it is made out of mostly unprocessed wood; his attention to detail and his taste for quality give each piece a classy, sophisticated appeal. Customers know when they purchase his work that they are getting a piece of furniture that is a labor of love; it’s been carved and created with their happiness in mind. “I like something that’s graceful, something that’s finished on all sides, something that’s tightly fit and well constructed,” John says. “I don’t think quality ever goes out of style. Craftsmanship is always in style.”

    It is evident in his early works that John’s designs are influenced by his appreciation for art nouveau and Shaker styles, but his creativity is evolving. Instead of simple lines and straight edges, he now follows the natural rhythm of the wood.

    “My new trick is I like to build furniture that looks like it was just out in the jungle or woods, and everything grew around it, and then I just kind of hacked it out,” John says. “I never liked the machine that processed wood so much that you forget that it once was a tree. We don’t build with two-by-fours; we build with round trees.”

    Lauri Pettinger, who owns two of John’s desks, says his creativity with wood draws her to his work. “It’s the fun and natural way he uses the wood so that it looks like wood,” she says. “You can tell that it had a life even as a tree.”

    She appreciates the quality of construction in John’s furniture, the way he uses traditional methods of joinery, and his ability to maintain the wood as a natural shape. “It’s inspirational what he does with the wood. He looks at each piece differently and works with what it is,” Lauri says. “The form of the wood becomes its function. If that piece should be an arm on a settee, then that’s what it is; he’s not going to cut it to be something other that what it should be.”

    Gina Penn-Schneider owns nine pieces of John’s work and cites the practicality of the furniture as her favorite aspect. “We live on a buffalo ranch – my husband and I own and operate it – and we have young boys, so we need furniture that’s functional and durable but also beautiful,” she says. “You want to touch and feel his furniture. It really is a piece of artwork.”

    Gina and her husband started with four lodge pole bar stools, which feature buffalo hide leather on the seats. From there, they purchased an entertainment center, an etage;re, a dining room table, and, most recently, a club chair and an ottoman that is personalized with the family’s names sandblasted on the sides. “To tell you the truth, after we got the bar stools and we saw how well they held up, it became like an addiction for us,” she says.

    John’s ability to handcraft a piece of furniture that fits exactly what his clients are looking for is what drew Marilyn Walker to his work. “We just really liked his professionalism,” she says. Marilyn and her husband have a dining room table, a loveseat and an accompanying stool, and a coffee table with a pull-out drawer.

    Before John made the dining room and coffee tables, he brought out cardboard cutouts of each so the Walkers could live with them for a short time and make sure they were what they wanted. “He wants to please you, and he’s honest,” Marilyn says. “He’ll tell you, ‘I don’t think I can do that,’ or ‘I can do it, but I don’t think you’d be happy.’ He’s not on an ego-trip.”

    John knows it takes more than one man to run a successful business, especially when he handles about 25 jobs a year, so he has two other talented craftsmen, Eric Shell and Tim Goodwin, working with him. “We do everything together. We all have input; it’s not just me,” John says.

    His clients come from all over the country, especially from Texas and California, and he also has a customer in Japan. When they order pieces of furniture, John follows a process to make sure they get exactly what they want.

    “Simply we ask our clients to give us a wish list,” he says. “The Web site tries to show the versatility and the skill level and the credentials of what it is the past 30 years I’ve done. From there, it’s whatever you want me to build.”

    In the wish list, John asks his customers to include specific details about the size, shape, wood, and color they desire in their pieces. From there, he creates a design and comes up with a price range. Before he begins his work, John confers with his clients to get their approval on wood and prices. He uses any method of communication necessary, including e-mailing or faxing scanned pictures.

    “Typically what we do is if we make a desk for somebody, we give them a price range, and then we locate several slabs of wood,” John says. “We’ll get one [slab] at the lower end, one at the upper end of that price range, and then one in the middle, and I let my client pick which wood they want on price and shape.” John and his team will then cut the wood down as needed and begin constructing the piece of furniture.

    Although he will use any type of wood his clients like, walnut is the primary choice for John for a couple of reasons. When he first opened his shop, he looked around Cody to see what other businesses were using, and he found that fir and pine were the popular choices. He wanted to be different.

    “It basically takes the same amount of labor to work a piece of pine as it does walnut, but [walnut] has much better salability,” he says. “And it has more longevity because pine is so soft that the walnut will hold up better and look nicer over the years than pine would.”

    Another unique touch to his method is that John uses native juniper from the surrounding landscape as finishing accents on his furniture. He secures firewood permits from the Bureau of Land Management every year and hikes up into the mountains to cut standing dead juniper, which he’ll then use for trim work and legs. John also utilizes century-old wormy chestnut, which he reclaimed from an old barn floor in the Amish country of Pennsylvania.

    During the building stage of a piece of furniture, John invites his customers into his shop to see the progress; if clients aren’t local, he’ll take pictures and scan them so out-of-town buyers have the same option. That way, customers can make changes partway through the process.

    John’s philosophy behind working so closely with his customers is simple: “We really get the clients involved because this way, if they feel the excitement that I have in doing this, then they become better salespeople for me,” he says. “If they don’t see me getting excited about my work, how can I expect them to get excited about what they just purchased?”

    Customers know that quality and craftsmanship carry a heavy price, so they spend hundreds to thousands of dollars to buy John’s work. “I stress that it only hurts once, because you buy it, and then you have it the rest of your life. My stuff isn’t cheap, but I always tell them it’s an investment, and investments go a long way,” he says. “It’s not an expense. You’ll grow tired of my work long before it ever wears out. It’s a future heirloom.”

    Important aspects of John’s success are publicity and marketing; he says a happy client is the best salesperson he could ever have. Part of getting his name out is showcasing his work at various venues, including the well-known Western Design Conference at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody. In the eight years he has participated in the show, he has won eight awards, including the coveted Exhibitor’s Choice Award. “That was a great award because that was the second year I was in the show, so I was still a new kid on the block,” John says, “and to have all your peers vote on what they felt was the best piece in the show, that was pretty nice.”

    Although John says he’s just a dad trying to earn a living, he’s as dedicated to his craft as any other artisan. His work isn’t just an everyday routine for him; every piece requires his utmost attention and commitment. “If my clients aren’t getting goose bumps on their arms for the work I’ve done, then I haven’t done my job,” he says.

    John’s furniture is always finished, down to the minutest detail, and accent work is always added to give each piece character and personality.

    Article courtesy Wyoming Homes and Living Magazine.