News Column

National reputation grows for Paoli furniture designer Richard Judd

May 21, 2014

By Doug Erickson, The Wisconsin State Journal

May 21--Richard Judd couldn't eat or sleep the night before his debut at Art Fair on the Square, the Madison event that annually brings artists from around the country to the Capitol.

It was 1983, and Judd was a young furniture designer with dreams of living solely off his craft.

"I was so excited and had done all this work. And then I waited, and waited, and nothing happened," said Judd, now 60.

Nothing sold. It was a disappointing start, but today the story can be told with a laugh and an uplifting ending. Judd's fortunes quickly improved. Within a week, someone who'd seen his work at the art fair called and commissioned a piece. Judd did go on to earn a living solely as a furniture designer -- a highly respected one with a growing national reputation.

In April, Judd, who lives in Middleton and owns Zazen Gallery in Paoli, won the Gold Award at the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C. The juried show, an extension of the Smithsonian Institution, selects 120 artists each year from a pool of about 1,200 applicants. Just one Gold Award is given annually. The only award higher is Best of Show.

"It's probably the most prestigious show of its kind in the country," said Tom Loeser, chairman of the UW-Madison Art Department. "It's small and tightly juried. To get the second-highest prize is an honor -- a pretty big one."

Judd's signature pieces feature exotic wood grains bent into waves and swirls. The names say it all -- Flying Console Table, Sinuous Shelf, Ribbon Chair.

The look is distinctly contemporary, all sleek lines and radical curves.

"The designs are really uncluttered," said Loeser, head of the wood/furniture program at UW-Madison. "He resists the temptation to put in too much."

In person, Judd comes off as equally no-frills. He is tall and slim and speaks deliberately and modestly after giving a question some thought. A student of Buddhism and a self-described introvert, he leans toward the meditative and said he would be fine never leaving his workshop.

Early on, that is where he could be found almost all the time. After earning a bachelor's degree in architectural studies from UW-Milwaukee, he worked briefly as a carpenter and architectural draftsman, then apprenticed for about five years as a furniture maker with Savanna Oak, a Madison-area firm no longer in business.

His early works were straightforward -- solid wood pieces with traditional joinery. Within a year, he started finding his style.

"It was being very modern and contrasting a really dark wood with a brilliant redwood or a maple," Judd said. "That contrast, and kind of the minimal pairing of the woods, was a really distinctive look, and I immediately began having good success with those."

In 1987, he purchased a rundown industrial building in Paoli for his workshop. The unincorporated community is about 15 miles southwest of Madison. Ten years later, he converted the front of the workshop into the Zazen Gallery, which displays his work and that of several other artists. He moved his workspace farther back, behind double-insulated walls.

His pieces continue to be produced there. The space operates like a tiny factory, with two shop employees and a gallery manager. The extra hands are needed because of the volume of orders and because Judd's technique for bending wood is a team effort.

Multiple layers of birch plywood are glued together, with the exotic wood veneer on top -- so thin it's like fabric. The wood is then physically bent around a solid form, which is placed in a vinyl bag. Industrial vacuum pressure molds the layers to the form.

The dramatic result can be seen in Judd's Spiral Table, a design he landed on in 2001 and that has become his all-time best-seller. The base is inspired by the nautilus sea shell. "There's something just subliminally irresistible about that form," he said.

A Spiral Table sells for $2,200, and he sells about 10 per year -- two sold at the Smithsonian Craft Show.

Judd still tries to get to his workshop every day, even if it's only to help with a critical stage of a gluing project.

"I now spend more time working with clients and ordering materials than actually making things," he said. "That's actually fitting with aging and feeling the strains of work. I physically could not keep up the pace I once did."

His wife, Karen, has been an integral part of the business over the years, he said, traveling to art fairs with him and managing the finances. The couple have one grown daughter, Ellen.

Judd still appears at several art fairs across the country, including Art Fair on the Square occasionally. He now has many positive memories of the Madison event to replace the original downbeat one.

One year, a woman he didn't know stopped by the first hour of the fair and bought $8,000 worth of furniture on the spot. It turned out to be Judy Faulkner, the founder of Epic Systems, the electronic health records company in Verona. She had purchased the pieces for the company's collection.

"I call that my Epic moment," Judd said. "I was on Cloud 9 the rest of the show."


(c)2014 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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Source: Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)

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