Thomas Throop has traveled many roads in his two-plus decades as a furniture maker.
The most dramatic was near the very start of his career, his first glimpse of the British estate where he would fine-tune his craft with a two-year program helmed by one of England’s finest contemporary furniture designers and makers.
“I have this great recollection of driving down this chestnut-lined drive to this 15th-century manor house,” he says.
Having arrived at the training grounds run by John Makepeace, whose contemporary work resonated with Throop, he felt an instant connection when he saw Makepeace’s modern furniture in such a historic setting.
“It fit so beautifully into the context of the building,” he says. “I said that ‘This is very special.’”
And that feeling has stayed with him through the years, as his career continues to find him on the road at times.
It might be to exhibit at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show in Manhattan, as he did this past March, to appear at the prestigious Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., as he did in late April, or simply to deliver his heirloom-quality work to one of his clients personally.
Most days, though, it’s a quick drive from his Rowayton home to his studio and showroom of the past six years. The light, airy space is tucked into the heart of New Canaan, the town he grew up in. It’s a garage-like setting, where hand tools stand steps away from large-scale saws. And it has a fitting history, having been the studio of a cabinetmaker since the 1940s.
“Here we are between two office buildings, a little woodshop,” Throop says with a smile.
Throop has a clear enthusiasm for his craft, down to the very materials.
“I work with suppliers all around the country,” he says. “You kind of go where the wood is.”
The wood, from maple to English walnut, cherry to oak, each has its own characteristics.
“I’m fascinated by the material itself,” Throop says. “It’s a living thing. I love looking at beautiful trees.”
And he certainly knows what goes into that beauty.
“All woods have terroir,” referring to the characteristics of a location of origin. “A walnut from Connecticut looks different from a walnut from Pennsylvania looks different from a walnut from California.”
A favorite to work with is indeed walnut, as featured on a dramatic table from his “Laguna” series in progress on a recent morning.
“The walnut for this table base came from California,” he says. “I actually went out there and bought a log and had it milled up right in front of me and had it shipped out. It adds a lot to the experience.”
Each decision, from selecting the wood to hand-applying the finish, plays into the process, whether it’s a table or chair, desk or cabinet.
“It’s a reciprocal sort of equation. You design a piece having a sense of the wood quality, and the wood quality informs the piece.”
The wood is treated as a living material, with designs taking into account the changes that different climates and seasons will bring. Then an unwavering attention to precise fabrication and joinery assures the pieces are of heirloom quality. Hand-rubbed finishes both enhance the wood’s natural beauty and add protection while setting the tone for the patina over time.
Many of his pieces are first made as maquettes, or scale models, which help a client visualize the finished piece.
They also help Throop, too.
“You have to understand structure. You have to understand what you’re supporting, the nature of balance from a physical standpoint.”
“Each part of the process asks for different choices to be made.”
He likens it to a game of chess, thinking out what one move will lead to.
“I’ll clamp it together and walk around and see how it relates to the other pieces,” he says. “At a certain point you say ‘All right, I’m going to commit and let the cards fall where they may.’”
Even when the woodwork is done, the process sometimes is not yet complete. The “Laguna” tables, for example, which feature what Throop calls “tapering arcs,” are topped by glass.
The question is square, round or oval.
“Just a different-shaped top can totally change the vocabulary of a thing,” he says.
And precise work is Throop’s trademark. Though he’s not against modern conveniences – cutting-edge equipment, mostly from Europe, dots the studio – he has an affinity for what has worked for ages.
Taking up a weathered tool, his admiration is clear. “This plane is from about 1902. This is one of the best tools ever made. It does the job beautifully. … I love doing hand work.”
Most pieces take weeks to create, a process that finds him in the studio during traditional business hours, though design is always on his mind.
Throop didn’t set about to study furniture design in college, though he certainly had an interest in the field having helped his uncle, a boatbuilder and restorer of antiques, during his younger years.
Family connections also influenced him further. His company, Black Creek Designs, is named after a favorite family retreat, his grandmother’s Washington County farm in upstate New York that included the headwaters for the Black Creek.
Throop’s course of study at Connecticut College focused on economics and photography. Following graduation, he became involved in house restoration and soon realized he wanted to go further.
“I had wanted to refine my skills,” he says. He began looking at schools and learned of a program run by John Makepeace, the noted British furniture designer and maker. As he had recently traveled to England, Throop knew he liked the country. After a rigorous admissions process, Throop was accepted and would spend two years in Dorset at the John Makepeace School for Craftsmen in Wood.
It was there, he says, that he learned not only the practical, from furniture-making skills to marketing and selling work, but the more artistic.
“It really gave me a very sound background for understanding the material.”
And his undergraduate studies have served him well, too.
“You know, I use that every day,” he says of the economics background. “The great thing about a liberal arts education is it teaches you to problem-solve.”
Coming back to the United States in 1992, Throop began to specialize in designing and creating what he calls “one-off” furniture. Each piece is unique, a handcrafted study in design.
Through the years, Throop has sold pieces for public and private collections, exhibited in galleries and earned awards.
He is a repeat exhibitor at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show in Manhattan as well.
The AD show, he says, offers a “great way for me to get a sense of what’s going on out there.”
He has also shown in more than 75 juried exhibitions, most recently at the renowned Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C. and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show.
“It’s really great,” he says of these outings. “It’s one of the few times I get to be with other people who do what I do.”
And for him, it’s all about receiving feedback – and connecting with potential clients.
“I try to make a new piece for every show,” he says, though he doesn’t necessarily design something for a particular market. “It’s more about what I’m working on.”
Throop says that there is indeed more attention paid to artisan work and locally crafted goods these days.
“I couldn’t be happier with the whole ‘local movement’… but I’ve been doing that for 20 years.”
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Throop says. “I’ve always found an audience for this type of work.”
The collaborative process with a client is especially rewarding, he says.
“It’s my challenge to create a piece that works with their context that has my aesthetic.”
He names many pieces after the client who commissioned the work – “It feels like that’s a nice homage to them.”
“My speculative work I typically name after a place that inspires me.” The “Laguna” series, he notes, “evokes wind and water.”
Throop says he’s been asked if it’s hard to part with his work. But for him, having work reach the client simply completes the artistic process.
“The fun for me is to have it have a new life with somebody else, have them enjoy the object. That’s the next critical piece of the project.”
But surely he has filled his own home with custom work?
“You’ve heard of the shoemaker’s children having no shoes…,” he says with a laugh.
But, he adds, with a sweep of his hand, “I do occasionally make a piece for my wife. She tolerates this.”
And “this,” is an ever-changing world, where Throop says his work has continued to adapt, with some pieces even evoking a sculptural feel.
“There’s a thread that goes through my work that has led up to this,” he says. “It’s been an evolution.”
And that is a road that Throop will continue to travel.
For more details on Thomas Throop and his work, visit blackcreekdesigns.com.