At a time when being drafted to serve in Vietnam was still a real possibility, David Dreifus dropped out of school. In 1970, he left academic life at Antioch College in Ohio because he wanted a real job.
He returned home to Memphis, Tenn. – in his own words, “18, brainless and looking around for work.” A tip from his grandma led him to Leo Barthol, known then as one of the best woodworkers around. “I pulled my shoulder-length hair into a ponytail and started sweeping floors and stripping furniture,” he says. Apprenticing himself to a woodworker was ironic. Dreifus’ previous experience in high school shop class left him feeling he showed no abilities whatsoever. But the apprenticeship was not just ironic, it was lucky. Dreifus always knew he would go to college and use his intellectual abilities. This introduction to shaping wood gave him room to be creative as well – if he could just find a way to balance these two aspects of himself.
Mr. Barthol, as Dreifus still refers to him, became his “third grandfather” and lifelong friend. Bald, with glasses and a tiny pointed goatee framed by a handlebar mustache, Barthol was brilliantly talented and down-to-earth. A few years into their relationship and well before distressed furniture became the vogue, Barthol gave Dreifus a solid white pine board as lid for a blanket box, saying “Top’s all buggered up, but that’s all right – it’ll make it more antiquey-looking.”
After the better part of a year under Barthol’s instruction, Dreifus returned to school. He wanted to do both intellectual and creative, hands-on work, but could only manage the next best thing: spending summers, breaks and every minute he could spare away from school in the workshop.
With his schooling at Tufts finished in 1974, Dreifus turned full time to the world of fine tools and raw wood. He rented space in Barthol’s shop under a Dickensian arrangement of $100 per month plus half the cost of coal after the first ton. His rent gave him access to the heavy, cast iron shop tools – table saw, joiner, planer and band saw – used for giving furniture pieces their rough shape before the finer work is done with hand tools. These tools, fashioned in the ’20s were “solid as a rock” and driven by a series of belts and pulleys. To engage the main pulley, Dreifus threw a big switch set in the floor. He would then start each tool by flipping its belt onto a pulley with a hefty metal bar. The huskiness of the shop tools contrasted with the spare walls of corrugated tin and bare wooden studs. Dreifus says the building was “hotter’n hell” in summer and “colder’n hell” in winter outside the range of the coal stove.
During this period, Dreifus worked on his own, not so much to be a business owner as to allow him to do all the woodworking himself and to see how far he could develop his skills. Foreshadowing his future career, one of Dreifus’ favorite pieces from that time was a round conference table made for a lawyer’s office. He also designed and made built-in bookcases and restaurant signs, as well as an assortment of tables, sideboards and chairs.
Although he felt creative challenges remained and that he had not reached his peak as a woodworker, Dreifus found very little intellectual stimulation in his work. After two and a half years as a self-employed furniture maker, he felt “mentally unchallenged.” Trying to find the right balance in life again, he traded corrugated tin walls and cast iron tools for a campus and classrooms. He earned a law degree from Duke in 1980 and now works for the Raleigh firm of Poyner and Spruill, handling complex lawsuits between corporations.
Furniture-making didn’t end when Dreifus’ law career began. He made furniture in his basement until 1993, when he built a backyard workshop. His woodworking hasn’t been so much an escape from his legal work as a complement to it. “Whichever half of my brain I use for being a lawyer, I use the other half for making furniture,” he says.
Almost every room of the house he shares with his wife and daughter holds furniture that he has made or an older piece he has repaired. A favorite piece, the white pine blanket box with the beat-up lid, has solid sides 12 inches wide. Pointing to the hand-cut, dovetailed joints, Dreifus says, “With wood this pretty you feel a responsibility to do something special.” The blanket box shares bedroom space with two other white pine pieces. Hanging over a dressing table is a 2-by-3 mirror frame. At each corner is a block carved with concentric circles like the plinth blocks you might see on the interior window trim of a fin de siècle house. Running between the corner blocks, Dreifus hand-carved a string of pearl-sized beads. The mirror frame is patterned on a bookcase built by Barthol many years ago. Across the room an armoire-sized free-standing cabinet features hand-carved side panels cut by Dreifus with block planes and chisels and rustic v-grooved doors with simple wrought-iron hinges. This cabinet and another like it in his wife Karen Starks’ office were built in the early days of their marriage, when they lived in an old house without closet space.
Another piece inspired by necessity was the cradle for his daughter Sally, now in high school. The cherry wood features a four-petaled flower hand-carved into the footboard and dovetailed corners. Thinking back, Dreifus says that “seeing the kid I made in the cradle I made gave me quite a strong feeling. The kid more so than the cradle, of course.”
Several pieces that arose from intrinsic creative and technical challenges are his Shaker-style ladder-back chairs of birdseye maple and a Shaker-style pedestal table of cherry, oak and walnut. Dreifus favors the Shaker style because it lets him emphasize the grain without the distraction of fancy ornamentation.
While Dreifus acknowledges that his furniture-making has taken a back seat to his legal career, he comes closer these days to balancing what he calls his two disciplines – cerebral law and tactile woodworking – than he has in the past. On a good weekend, he gets in four to five hours a day in the backyard workshop. This isn’t too far from his fancifully stated “ideal week” of four days practicing law, three days being with family, two days woodworking and one day reading.
Currently, Dreifus’ weekends find him producing pieces that contrast greatly with his earlier work in their reliance on ornamentation and detail. About three years ago, he woke up one morning telling himself that he had wanted for 20 years to build a guitar – and that “at age 44, if I’m ever going to build a guitar, it’s time to start.” He’s now on his third steel-string acoustic guitar, which he is making for Karen. The first he’s keeping for himself, the second he may sell to a friend. He hopes he will be able to sell more, because, he says, “I want to keep making them, and I don’t want to have a dozen guitars in the house.”
More about David Dreifus.