Monday, February 21, 2011
Furniture Makers Carving Out A N.M. Niche
By Kate Mcgraw
For the Journal
Walk into the New Mexico Governor's Mansion and look around.
All those beautifully carved wooden tables and cabinets and chairs in the public rooms were made from designer Gene Law's drawings by Gunther and Joan Worrlein of Worrlein Studio in Lamy.
Go to the mezzanine at La Fonda, and you'll be entranced by the 36-foot, hand-crafted, wooden, LED-lighted nichos created to protect and display the famous Vladan Stiha murals painted by the longtime artist (1908-1992) and gallery owner there. Those nichos were made by Klaus Messerer of Klaus' Custom Furniture in Lamy.
And the furniture in the refurbished conference room at La Fonda is the product of a collaboration between Worrlein and Messerer.
The two grew up, a generation apart, in small villages about 40 miles from each other in northern Bavaria, Germany. Worrlein, 70, trained in Germany and Italy, while Messerer, 42, served an apprenticeship in Germany. Both men married American women, and both came to the U.S. to seek their fortunes. Both wound up in Lamy, N.M., the small railroad village south of Santa Fe. They live 100 yards apart: Klaus, his wife, Leigh, and their children, Peter and Lucie, in a house, and Gunther and Joan in the upstairs apartment at their woodworking shop.
Both legal immigrants, they are officially resident aliens. But both are loyal to the small village where they've found home and work.
"I think it is an incredible place — pretty, quiet and peaceful," Messerer said. "We have incredible neighbors. It's a very, very tight community."
Messerer is a dirt-biker and Worrlein is a rock climber — and both find their activities have a far better setting in New Mexico than Bavaria.
They are not business partners. They have two separate furnituremaking businesses in one 900-square-foot studio, where the south end is Worrlein's, the north end is Messerer's. The power tools are mostly Messerer's; the rows of chisels and mallets are Worrlein's. The state-of-the-art laptop computer is definitely Messerer's.
Worrlein, who met and married Joan in Italy, came to the U.S. in 1979 and to Lamy in 1981. The pair had been living with their oldest child in New Orleans, where Worrlein created intricate home décor and carved millwork for oil millionaires in Houston.
"I wanted mountains, and we felt that New Orleans was not a good place to raise our children," he said. He came to Santa Fe on the advice of other artists, but he quickly realized he couldn't afford to live there. "I drove on into Lamy, which was close to Santa Fe. I liked it," he said. "I asked at the Legal Tender (then an eating house and saloon) whether there was any place to rent. That night, I called Joan from the lobby of La Fonda. She asked, 'Do you like New Mexico? Do you think we could live there?'" Oh, ja, was Worrlein's reply.
"That's good," Joan said, "because we just got evicted here."
Their Lamy studio opened and did well. Until 2000, Joan was an integral part of the business, doing finish work, bookkeeping and production management. But she had to step back when her mother, on a visit, had a stroke and required full-time care.
Needing help, Worrlein thought about a young Bavarian wood worker he'd met at a trade show at Sweeney Center in 1995 — Klaus Messerer, who had established a custom furniture business in El Paso.
Messerer had known he would end up in the U.S. since his mother met and married an American GI in 1984. He stuck out his apprenticeship in Germany and in 1987 came to El Paso because, he said, he'd dreamed of sun and warmth through long, cold Bavarian winters. He started a custom furniture studio, making furniture distinguished by its clean, sharp European modernity and functionality.
Messerer was intrigued by Worrlein's invitation to relocate. Klaus and Leigh — an Oklahoma girl originally — had been talking about getting themselves and their young son out of the El Paso rat race. In 2001, they moved to northern New Mexico.
"At that time," Messerer said, "40 percent of the business and 80 percent of the revenue was coming from Santa Fe. Good woodwork is appreciated here; there is no appreciation of it in El Paso."
"There is a much more sophisticated clientele here," Worrlein said.
From Bavaria to Lamy
WHAT: Klaus' Custom Furniture Worrlein Studio
WHERE: Lamy, N.M.
INFO: 505-466-7777; www.Klaus customfurniture.com; www.WOStudio.com