In a historic New Hampshire village, Douglas Dimes pursues a family tradition–crafting heirlooms.BY Susan Muldoon
Once upon a time, not so long ago, we Americans made superb furniture. From the “Pilgrim” furniture of the earliest settlers to mid-century modern in the last century, we were good. Very good. The earliest immigrants could bring only a handful of goods from their home countries, the occasional copper kettle or brass candlestick. But very little furniture was brought along—no room in the boat.
But what they discovered in the New World were infinite virgin forests filled will oak and spruce, poplar and cherry, walnut and maple, all ready to harvest. Immigrants from many countries brought their cabinetry skills and traditions with them, creating regional styles that harked back to their home countries.
Up and down the eastern seaboard in the Colonial period, some of the finest furniture ever made was created, in Newport and Boston, Portsmouth and Philadelphia, in Baltimore and Charleston. So important were many of these pieces that they bear the names of their makers or owners to this day. They were made to last forever, to be listed in wills and handed down, piece by piece, to generations to come. Today, these pieces fill our museums and remain genuine masterpieces. Pilgrim, Queen Anne, Colonial, Federal, American Empire, Victorian—gradually, over centuries, American furniture came into its own and spoke with a distinctly American accent.
But, sadly, we have squandered this great tradition of making wonderful furniture. Cheap has trumped quality, and our stores are filled with sharp-edged pieces with shoddy veneers. We buy pieces we assemble with odd little tools, their Phillips-head screws gleaming for all to see. We buy furniture that is made to fall apart. We send our best timbers across the Pacific and welcome it back made into at best second-rate goods. Even the best of these imports (with the possible exception of traditional Asian designs) are lacking in finesse. Somehow, no matter how good they are, there is a lack of spirit and authenticity.
But there are still those people who crave the best in American furniture, who want handcrafted pieces that they will live with and pass along in their families. They discover the work of Douglas Dimes.
Dimes is within the broad tradition of New England craftsmanship. He is a fifth-generation descendant of a famed Boston silversmith; his great-great-grandfather worked in the classic tradition of Paul Revere. His pieces are in many museum collections. His father, D.R. Dimes, founded the company that bears his name in 1964, creating hand-made interpretations of classic pieces of American furniture. He was a self-taught master craftsman, whose skills and love of American furniture continue to this day through his son.
Genetic? Maybe. D.R, Dimes passed his love of authentic American furniture and skills in woodcrafting to his son, Douglas, the current owner of the business. For over thirty years, he has been studying American furniture, examining its complex construction, deciphering its codes. Dimes does not make copies or reproductions. Rather, he interprets classic pieces of American furniture and makes them relevant for the way we live today. A cupboard becomes an entertainment unit; a pot board morphs into a coffee table.
He trains those who work with him in the painstaking methods used by Colonial craftsmen: fine dovetailing, mortise-and-tenon construction, bentwood seats and deeply incised hand-carving. They create block-front bureaus in the spirit of the great Goodard-Townsend workshop, and over 100 versions of traditional Windsor chairs. They interpret elegant Boston piecrust tables and classic Philadelphia highboys with flamed finials. Some pieces have deeply hand-carved shells and elegant volutes, or Spanish and ball-and-claw feet. There is a king’s ransom of dining and occasional tables, chests, cupboards and servers, all destined to be cherished by future generations. No piece leaves Dimes’ Northwood, New Hampshire shop that has not been made and finished to the highest standard possible, and marked with the workshop’s signature.
Dimes has a particular fondness for tiger maple, perhaps because it is the quintessential American hardwood. He notes, “Tiger maple is in itself organic decoration. Like a piece of marble, every piece is unique. Since we scrape every piece with antique cabinet scrapers, our tiger maple also has texture and dimension. When finished, it is almost iridescent. People can’t resist rubbing it with reverence when they see it.”
Dimes is a polymath, constantly thinking up new projects, new pieces and new lines. He has extended his reach to include traditional English pieces, such as dressers, pot board coffee tables and pub tables, and an imposing, Tudor-style linen-fold bed.
Dimes notes that the internet has changed the way his company does business. While many pieces as still sold through high-end furniture dealers, many sales and custom orders come directly to him through his extensive website.
This workshop is proof-positive that the term “Made in America” still has significance and resonance. Dimes is in the business of making heirlooms. His is the hand of the maker, the hand that will still be remembered when the maker is no longer here.
(To learn more about D.R. Dimes, and the fine pieces they create, check out www.drdimes.com).