by Lou Mancinelli
An extraordinary custom furniture craftsman with an eye for beauty and another for what is useful is turning out world-class functional works of art at 7054 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy. The work he produces, like his Japanese-influenced wood panels with delicate inlay work, remind this observer of the finest museum paintings and landscapes.
The store is called Mt. Airy Custom Furniture, and the man is Charles Todd. Forty years ago Todd was a Presbyterian minister in St. Louis. He did woodworking then, too, until 20 years ago, when he dedicated himself fully to creating custom furniture. The work Todd produces — desks, wood panels, chairs, bookcases and more — prove that lofty aesthetics can indeed marry practicality. “I think you should have nothing in your home that is not both beautiful and useful,” Todd said.
So a bench is a bench, but it’s built in Todd’s studio from a sturdy and beautiful piece of dark honey-toned natural walnut. You can see the grains curving, and that gives the bench a sense of both stillness and motion. The top of the bench has an unexpected natural curve, a little half-circle. The seat’s rounded edges look like a tree has been polished and is happy to be serving a new purpose now but has not forgotten that it was grown in the wild. “There was a curve in the wood that I could not just bring myself to cut off,” he said.
The particular bench is an example of how the grain lent itself to a design. It was a beautiful accident. But Todd is a deliberate and precise craftsman, which is also obvious in his delicate inlay pieces, called marquetry, that remind one of elegant watercolors.
Recently, Todd designed and built the wooden pedestal that now holds the Sylvia Shaw Judson sculpture outside the Lovett Memorial Library at 6945 Germantown Ave. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the pedestal is how it complements the sculpture with its dark, woodsy tones.
Raised in the St. Louis area on a 50-acre farm with horses and sheep, Todd has two master’s degrees. In college he studied English literature, earned a master’s of divinity and then worked in the St. Louis area as a minister.
At first woodworking was a way for Todd to make some extra money. Before moving to Mt. Airy in 2003, when he opened Mt. Airy Custom Furniture shop, he ran a similar business in the Nashville area for 23 years. “I followed my wife,” he said about ending up in Tennessee.
He met the woman who would become his wife as an undergrad. In 2003 when the University of Pennsylvania offered her a position, they moved east with their three children. They bought an old house in Mt. Airy as well as the building where Mt. Airy Custom Furniture is located. Since then, he has made numerous improvements to the building’s aesthetic.
There is a shop in the front selling work of numerous artisans and a workshop that other artisans use. Todd is mostly self-taught but also learned from other highly skilled craftsmen. He made the shift into custom furniture after he tired of simple woodworking. He wanted to push his work to a higher level. “Cabinets are just big plywood boxes,” he said.
A strong Japanese influence is infused in his work. He was also greatly influenced by The Shakers, furniture makers who practiced minimalism in their designs, depending on functionality and proportion. The wood panels he makes are put together like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces of wood, called veneers, are extremely thin.
One piece, called “Japanese Cranes on a Sea Coast,” is made from dozens of pieces of wood that Todd has carved and put together almost like a mosaic. But you can hardly tell the pieces are separate; it’s only their color, grain or shape that give them away. “Every element you put in your marquetry has to be thought about,” Todd said.
His marquetry wood panels are reminiscent of Japanese haiku and landscape paintings. The woodwork is delicate inlay work, carved with a blade as thin as a fingernail. There is motion to it and proportion. There is a sense of understanding implicit in the simple images. Another is of two birds in the trees. The shot is of only a few bare branches.
“It’s stylized, but it’s faithful to nature,” Todd said, explaining what he finds so compelling about Japanese art. “I think human beings have an innate need to create something. We’ve been decorating our surroundings since our ancestors painted caves 30,000 years ago. We’ve learned how to survive. Now we need something more.”