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Horns and Tails

Urban studies professor Mort Gulak adds craftsman to his resume.



The thought of animal-inspired furniture conjures Dr. Doolittle or perhaps critters from the Disney stable. But mention the name Mort Gulak — long a well-respected name in Richmond's academic, planning and architectural circles — in the same sentence with animal-form furniture and you'll likely get sideways looks.

Who knew?

While still dedicated to his day job, the Virginia Commonwealth University urban studies, planning and design professor has recently developed a line of residential furniture that's as whimsical as his academic endeavors can sometimes be pedagogic.

So far, he's morphed a fox into a chest and cows into beds and dressers. He plans to give other animals the treatment in the future.

"I think it's therapeutic," Gulak says of his foray into furniture design.

It's a bright afternoon at the end of the fall semester, and the quiet-spoken professor sits in the airy kitchen of the large, lower Fan District house he renovated with his wife, Paula.

"I am often concerned with neighborhoods, working at a larger scale," he says of his teaching and research. "The larger-scale projects are collaborative. Furniture design gives you a different sense of control and implementation that you don't have at a greater scale. I can implement my own ideas."

Gulak's design and production output includes three bovine-inspired pieces — a bed and two dressers, complete with spots — as well as a high chest with a fox motif. All the pieces are crafted of wood.

His foray into furniture design can be traced, indirectly, to another keen interest (and talent), watercolor painting. "As an architect I've always sketched and drawn," he says, "but about 12 years ago I decided to take a class at the Hand Workshop [now the Visual Arts Center of Richmond] and fell in love with the process."

Gulak's blooming subject matter, flowers, often came directly out of his own back yard. "We have an unusually large lot for the Fan, and it is mostly planted. We have no hard space," he says. "Paula likes to plant flowers and I like to paint flowers."

Those paintings paved the way for his furniture design about three years ago, he says, when he and some friends decided to mount an exhibition of their artwork. His wife helped with organizing the show, and it was a success. Delighted that his paintings sold so well, Gulak invested his windfall into fostering another aspect of his creativity and interest, furniture design. While he had designed and fabricated a number of other pieces of furniture over the years, he was ready to kick things up to a higher level.

"I'd been doing sketches for a dresser for our own use," he says. "I was thinking about practical things, like where I'd hang a shirt or place a necktie." Perhaps the dresser could have armlike extensions.

Soon the design for the dresser was taking on unanticipated forms. "What my mind and eye saw were horns, and the piece became a whimsical animal."

Creating the cow spots created a major design challenge. Gulak wanted a crisp delineation between the dark spots and the blonde background. Early attempts at applying stain resulted in a bleeding between dark and light areas of the maple surface. (More on that later.)

The first piece was fabricated in Richmond. "We had fun coming up with a name for that first piece of furniture," Gulak says. "At first we called it the Texas drawer, then the farm bureau. We've settled on cow dresser."

Although Gulak was born in Pittsburgh, a city known for some powerful architecture, he says not any one thing in his upbringing inspired him to become a designer and architect: "My mother said that I expressed interest in being an architect from the time I was young. And some of our relatives were in the construction field."

But maybe Pittsburgh inspired his choice of profession more than he knew. "It was a very masculine city with steel mills pouring out fire and soot," he says. "It was a powerful place."

After receiving an architectural degree from Pennsylvania State University, Gulak went to work for a small architecture firm in Sarasota, Fla. While he found that west coast Florida city exciting, with its solid tradition of architectural modernity, he was frustrated with his practice and the restrictions of individual clients that came with the territory.

"What I was really interested in was looking at other forces that shape the design of a city," he says. "I got interested in the placement of buildings on a street, the history of a community and what happens to a street when people walk by. What about the economic forces? These are factors that affect architectural design." So he left his practice to go into city planning.

He received a master's degree in urban planning and regional planning from Virginia Tech and a doctorate in planning from the University of Pennsylvania. "I shifted into urban design and decided I wanted to go into teaching. I felt I could have more impact by teaching future planners [than by teaching architecture]."

The Gulaks moved to Richmond in 1972 when Morton received a position at VCU, where he continues to teach in the urban and regional planning program of the school of government and public affairs.

Having lived in both Rust Belt and Sun Belt cities, Gulak finds Richmond has its own special characteristics. "This is a very classical city in the European sense," he says. "There are boulevards, traffic circles, and it creates a wonderful framework for the architecture to go into. It all works together. As you go further out from the center, however, that framework is lost. Still, there is a tie-in, a Richmond quality in the architecture of the suburban areas."

In many of his courses he's used Richmond's older neighborhoods as labs for his students to study and develop conceptual redevelopment plans. Shockoe Bottom, Battery Park, Church Hill and, more recently, Highland Park Plaza have all been the focus of major projects.

Gulak says he's most pleased with a plan his students presented for Carver, a historically black neighborhood just north of the university's Monroe Park campus: "Our proposals played a big part in developing the plan for the neighborhood and for new housing. I'm really proud of the master plan."

A redevelopment for an entire neighborhood is one thing. Keeping a cow's spots from bleeding is another.

As Gulak became more serious about fabricating his work, he began using a cabinetry shop in Bath, Maine, that had been recommended by one of his brothers who'd had some cabinets made there.

To solve the cow-spot problem, the cabinetmakers at The Maine Table Company routed out shallow, thin spaces into the maple wood, surrounding each spot. This area was then inlaid with Philipino mahogany, and a dark stain was applied to the spots.

The horns on the cow bed's headboard were capped with stainless steel balls that were taken from a horse harness.

A second animal-form possibility presented itself when one of Gulak's cousins, an artist in Lexington, Ky., told him that a local gallery was presenting a yearlong exhibition of furniture relating to horses and fox hunting. Thus, the idea of a fox chest was hatched. Gulak and his cousin Daniel Sigal, who works in enamels, collaborated on the piece. The overall chest of drawers has an abstract fox form, but incorporates a colorful medallion depiction of a fox.

Gulak's piece will be displayed in Virginia when the exhibition, sponsored by a fox hunting association, travels to Middleburg later this year.

So far, Gulak has no retail outlet for his pieces (which range from $1,000 for the single bed to $2,400 for a chest of drawers). But he says he's developing a sales and marketing plan.

"I would like to do a full room of cow-inspired designs," Gulak says. As for future animals, he doesn't hesitate: "Horses and giraffes, they're very different animals but each would be interesting." HS


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