The Best Rustic Furniture Makers

These masters—whose skilled hands create works of art out of raw materials—know one thing to be true: there is beauty in the process

Contoured by Nature

Randy Holden’s furniture designs are driven by the natural shape and character of wood. He calls this approach “free-form rustic” and culls his raw materials—birch, mountain laurel, ash, rock maple—from the forests near his Maine studio, where he’s gathered a stockpile of different wood species throughout the years. “What distinguishes rustic furniture makers to a certain extent,” Holden says, “is where they’re located and the wood that’s close by.” Yellow birch comprises this whimsical cabinet, which gets its shape from the natural contours of roots and branches. The craftsman used to start his designs with a sketch, but found that as he started adding individual pieces of wood to create a form, each piece took on a life of its own. For Holden, therein lies the beauty. “I’m inspired to keep going because I want to see what it’s going to become.”

Randy Holden
Elegantly Twisted Rustic Furniture, Norridgewock, ME,
Root-base Cabinet, $20,000


A Study in Antlers

When Doug Nordberg was a teenager, he often hiked through the hills of Cody, Wyoming, collecting antlers that had been shed. He sold some and kept the broken ones to experiment with crafting small items like candleholders and slingshots. When he started building furniture full time in 1992, antlers would become his best-loved medium. “My brain doesn’t really work in straight lines,” Nordberg says. “Things that have curve and life make a lot of sense to me when I’m building.”

The Beaver Foot Stool, one of Nordberg’s bestsellers, “was a really fantastic accident,” he says. “The original design was for a barstool and I made it too short. So I just chopped down the legs and put on a beaver pelt I had lying around, and 15 years later, it’s still one of our most popular pieces.” These days, the furniture maker is taking his favorite material in a new direction. “I’ve switched to a real contemporary look with antlers,” Nordberg says. “There aren’t many log homes being constructed anymore, so I’m trying to adapt to the building trends and create work that can fit into new spaces.”

Doug Nordberg
Nordberg Furniture, Cody, WY,
Beaver Foot Stool, $750


Western Gestures

As an illustration major in college, Scott Armstrong enrolled in a 3-D design class. “Working in the shop was just so much fun, and the 3-D format came easily for me,” the artisan says. His instructor, who happened to be a studio furniture maker, opened his eyes to the trade. Later, at work as a product designer for a large-scale furniture manufacturer, Armstrong spent time after hours in the company shop, teaching himself to work wood. These days, the now-veteran craftsman, who’s been building furniture for 35 years, prefers working with domestic hardwoods—most of it sourced in and around Billings, Montana—to create designs that loosely interpret Western forms and themes. Take the Concertina table, for example: the wood inlay around the top is a stylized representation of barbed wire; the legs are a reference to cowboy boots. “I don’t want my work to scream ‘Western,’” Armstrong says. “Subtle is always better.”

Scott Armstrong
Arrowleaf Studio, Powell, WY,
Concertina Table, $8,500


Perfectly Flawed

Incorporating Craftsman influences and Adirondack style into his work, Brad Greenwood coaxes furnishings from California hardwoods from the Sacramento Valley, much of it salvaged from downed trees. The furniture maker’s fallow antler table—which shows off a base made of mountain mahogany that the artisan left beautifully gnarled—reveals his philosophy on rustic design. For Greenwood, proper rustic furniture embraces the natural imperfections of the wood, and, if the material is reclaimed, preserves the history that comes from old tool marks (think saw nicks and nail holes). “It’s very satisfying to make a piece from nothing,” Greenwood says, “and to watch somebody enjoy what you’ve created out of material that could have been turned into firewood.”

Brad Greenwood
Greenwood Designs, Beckwourth, CA,
Fallow Hall Table, $6,800


Art Deco Goes Western

Kevin Showell is a master of many trades: He’s skilled in classic European hand- carving, has carved trees for public artworks and makes beautiful wood elements for custom homes. Yet ask him to describe his vocation and he’ll give you one simple word: artist. “All my inspiration started in the West with Western and wildlife art,” says the Wyoming native. “I love going back to those themes because that’s where it began for me.” But Showell’s designs are modern-minded too. The Head in the Clouds table—designed for the Cody High Style exhibition and composed of a live-edge cherry top, fir legs, aluminum aprons and cottonwood carvings—speaks to this past-meets-present sensibility. The legs are slender and angled inward, the scale is stretched with an “Art-Deco styling” and the wood is light, giving the rustic piece a contemporary twist. “I wanted to do something Western and rustic,” Showell says, “but somehow make it work in a very modern setting as well.”

Kevin Showell
Kevin Showell Custom Wood Carving & Sculpture, Minneapolis, MN,
Head in the Clouds 2010 table, $5,200


Dressed in Birch

Husband-and-wife team Janice and Jonathan Kostreva got their start doing figurative Western carvings on antlers that would become light fixtures and furniture. But it wasn’t until the couple visited the Rustic Furniture Fair in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, that they found their sweet spot. “When we saw that style of furniture,” Janice says, referring to folk-art-inspired pieces that celebrate the beauty of birch bark, “we fell in love immediately. We came home and started making our own Midwestern version.”

Before the Kostrevas set tool to wood, they harvest the birch bark themselves, spending weeks backpacking into logging sites to peel bark from trees destined to be cut down. Once the layers have been sorted, stacked and pressed, the Kostrevas have a beautiful veneer for furnishings like this coffee table covered in bark from one whole tree. The intricate twig detailing is inspired by the artisans’ surroundings—where the wetlands meet the forest in northern Wisconsin. “We incorporate what we see on a day-to-day basis to create a folk art feel,” Janice says. 

Janice and Jonathan Kostreva
Bear View Ridge, Vilas, WI,
White Birch and Twig Coffee Table, $3,500



These top shows put rustic furniture makers’ masterpieces in the limelight:

Trailside Galleries’ Four Man Show, Aug. 13-26, 2012, Jackson Hole, WY
Admire the works of four high-country masters at this intimate exhibition

Western Design Conference, Sept. 7-9, 2012, Jackson Hole, WY
Western art gets elevated at this juried gathering of furniture makers and home and fashion designers

Rustic Furniture Fair, Sept. 8-9, 2012, Blue Mountain Lake, NY
Browse and buy authentic rustic furniture from an elite group of craftspeople

Cody High Style, Sept. 17-21, 2012, Cody, WY
A show for Western art enthusiasts of all stripes, featuring top furniture talent

Categories: Artists & Artisans