Photography ©Fred Knight

Jazz Hands

Scott Ernst Custom Woodworks Bucks Convention with Improvisation

by Marin Sardy

April/May 2010

In his barn-like Glorieta studio, past the goats and pickup truck in his driveway, fine-furniture maker Scott Ernst works amid a dusty assortment of power saws, drafting tools, planks, and works in progress. Unpretentious and low key, Ernst has a back-to-basics air about him, but a few minutes of conversation reveals a nuanced mind with a lot more to reveal—and the same is true about the custom pieces he builds. “I don’t know that I really have a style,” he says, showing how the legs on a softly sculpted chair catch the light differently when you turn it, “but my work always seems to look like my work.”

Furniture designers these days tend to follow one of two paths, either putting out factory-produced collections or creating dramatic, often bizarre art pieces. Neither of these approaches, however, has ever really worked for Ernst, who instead carved out a third track through a decades-long process of trial, error, and self-exploration. To his own appreciation for subtle curves and preference for distinct lumber (like curly maple or quarter-sawn sycamore, which he leaves unstained), Ernst adds his love of problem solving and a secret ingredient. The key, he says, is the client—and the fresh perspective each brings, which he taps into with a sort of call-and-response, working toward designs that infuse the client’s preferences with his own aesthetic and expertise. “It’s like playing jazz,” he says. “The piano player throws out something; the saxophone answers. If it was just me in my shop, then I’d get in a rut”

The key, he says, is the client—and the fresh perspective each brings, which he taps into with a sort of call-and-response, working toward designs that infuse the client’s preferences with his own aesthetic and expertise.

A decorative kitchen island made from maple burl
Ernst’s kitchen island is made from big leaf maple burl, rusted steel and acrylic. Photography ©Ben Tremper

This flexibility may be in no small part related to his lack of formal schooling in furniture design. Ernst started out designing brick patios—he built his first at age 14—and after graduating from Rutgers with a degree in landscape architecture, he spent the next 15 years creating walkways and verandas based in the same nature-based simplicity that now informs his furniture. That education, he says, “taught me how to draft, how to draw, how to present to clients, and how to deal with space and form and time and—you know, design.” It also helped him develop the wherewithal to produce top-notch work at reasonable prices. The one thing he didn’t learn, however, was a prejudice about what furniture should or should not look like. When he took up woodworking, Ernst saw it as a challenge to apply those skills to a more demanding material. “Music, landscape architecture, furniture—whatever,” he says of the shift. “It has this same thing. It’s design.”

With these ideas as a foundation, Ernst’s fluid aesthetic evolved between two poles in an arc that curved as subtly as the legs of his latest art deco—influenced desk. On one end, he’s taken inspiration from innovators like 20th-century master Sam Maloof. On the other: a former co-worker at a woodshop where he worked when he first moved to Santa Fe, in 1991. That artist, Ernst says, who “didn’t believe there had been a decent chair designed since Chippendale,” taught him traditional joinery techniques that he still relies on.

It wasn’t until 1995 that all the elements seemed to coalesce, when Ernst received his first furniture commission from a friend. After some discussion of what her dining table would look like, he recalls, “She said, ‘You know what? Just design me something nice.’” Ernst agreed, but what came out was more than just “nice.” Somewhere in the process, he realized, “I was designing a table that, to me, felt like a portrait of her.” Fifteen years later, he not only expects, but actively cultivates, the unexpected. “The client will say one word maybe, about what they want their piece to feel like, and boom—I see a form. It’s like alchemy.”

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