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Artisan: The Art of Translation

Harrison Higgins' furniture designs take you on a flight of his imagination.


Contemporary furniture captures Higgins' imagination now, after 30 years spent building period reproduction pieces in the best European and American traditions. That work is the mainstay of his West Broad Street business, where he and four accomplished woodworkers continue to build historic replicas with strength and expertise. But when he can, Higgins takes his furniture on flights of fancy that reinvent the art form and our way of looking at it.

A playful maple piece with red accents is nicknamed the Throne. It came into being after Higgins read a book about theoretical physics and was captivated by thoughts of origins and elements. The base of the piece suggests old nomadic ways ("I like that notion of recirculating ideas," Higgins says of the borrowed design), and its function spins out from the Victorian hall tree — part seat, part table, part entry-hall glamour. Looking at it now, months after completion, Higgins still finds pleasure in seeing through the surface of the piece, getting to the geometry of it.

Richmond, noted for its predominantly traditionalist aesthetic, has offered up a handsome roster of contemporary-minded clients for Higgins' work, and there are national clients too. Sometimes they show him a space in their homes and ask him to design a piece to fill it. Other times, they commission bold tables and chairs or sculptural sofas with improbably curving woodwork.

"There is a lot of trust involved when what you buy is essentially an idea, a drawing," Higgins says. "They commit to a drawing and my ability to produce it. They have to trust that the design is a good one, and that is a little leap, but that's what makes it exciting. It means you're in at the ground level of something.

"We're not in New York or Berlin or Milan," he continues, "but I'm aware of a lot that is going on in those places, and I think my particular designs spring more from the material, wood and the tradition of woodworking. That is my training."

Higgins admires the works of Wendell Castle, John Makepeace and George Nakashima, among others, and appreciates furniture from traditional periods, particularly art deco, Biedermeier, and Arts and Crafts. But stimulation comes from everywhere: "You keep your eyes open, and it could be a light fixture, a staircase — anything," he says, that propels a design into life and perhaps into perpetuity.

Issues of quality and consumerism matter to him. "In 1750, in a little Connecticut town of 1,200 people, there were 20 woodworkers, and a lot of what they made probably still survives today, and some of it is in museums," Higgins says. "Today, in a town of 1,200, what are your options? Who would make furniture and at what cost to the environment? A lot of contemporary production furniture is great in design but atrocious in construction. My whole orientation is that it should be built to last 200 years or more, and that's a given, a starting point."

Higgins, soft-spoken and contemplative, hopes to achieve longevity in design as well as craftsmanship. "I just adore sitting with a piece of paper and trying to design something and turning it into a piece of furniture," he says. "And when you see it come together and it lives up to your hopes, there's an absolute euphoria." That is what he hopes to translate into wood, as much for tomorrow as now.

Find out more about Higgins online at www.


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