Papa in the news

Against the Grain

Newburyport - Still enjoying the success of his sons’ chickens at the Topsfield Fair, Henry Fox shows off his entry in the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association annual auction to be held this weekend.

The piece is just about as unusual as two kids who live in downtown Newburyport raising prize-winning chickens.

Called “Pushmepullu” after the “Dr. Doolittle” character with heads facing both back and front, the cabinet was originally designed to open either left or right by flipping it over. That didn’t work out from a design standpoint, but the name stayed.

The striking contemporary cabinet, made of tiger maple, madrone (an evergreen native to the Pacific coast), ebony and sandblasted aluminum, was shown at the Smithsonian Institute in April, in Concord during the month of August and at the Cushing House Museum in Newburyport.

The original design came to Fox when he was commissioned to make a piece of furniture to fit in a particular space in a customer’s apartment.

“He wanted to fill a space with a table, but he wanted something dramatic,” Fox says of the customer. Fox, in turn, suggested something bigger and higher — and thus was born “Pushmepullu.”

“I have always thought in three dimensions. I work in a similar way to an architect, but I don’t build houses. I build furniture. Everything in our portfolio and in here was designed and built as a response to a request — us trying to solve a problem.”

That aside, he adds that sometimes ideas for materials come while he is just “fooling around” with something — like chair seats and backs made from Knoll Imago, for example. This is a textile sandwiched between layers of (hardened) opaque resin.

“It’s highly unlikely someone would come in with an idea like this,” he says.

The chairs are quite popular. The substance is flexible enough to lend itself to the curved seat and back and makes quite a visual impact.

Fox has also used the material in other pieces, such as a table he modeled after the greenhead boxes that dot the marshes in the summer. Not unsurprisingly, the table is called “The Greenhead Table.”

Fox Brothers is rather unique in that they make a lot of chairs, Fox says.

“Chairs are sort of interesting. Many people that make furniture don’t make chairs — I think because they’re challenging. They have to be light and strong and there are no hidden parts — at least the way we design them.”

And ergonomic precision makes Fox chairs appealing from any aspect. Fox uses a typical human being as the model for his chairs — himself.
Behind the name

The studio/shop is called Fox Brothers, so you expect to see Henry and assorted brothers working industriously at their benches. In actuality, Fox says, “I’m the father.”

The sons are his own sons Orren and Willy of chicken-raising fame.

“I’m not sure they’re going to be furniture makers — but who knows?” he says.

The boys, age 10 and 13, spend some of their spare time in the shop behind the studio with their dad working on various projects. An optimist’s pram, a kids’ sailboat made from one sheet of plywood, stands at one end of the shop.

“The boys love to come down here and do various projects,” Fox says.

As for the chickens, the kids entered 11 chickens and 12 eggs into the Topsfield Fair and one of the birds was named the grand champion.
“They were ecstatic,” Fox says.
The chickens, by the way, are kept at a farm in Newbury.
Creating furniture

Fox came to Newburyport some 20 years ago and began his trade at The Tannery before it was a mall, repairing rowing shells. He saw work that a friend was doing, was taken by the pieces and started crafting furniture.

There are three people in his shop, including him, and Fox says all of them learned a lot of their skills right there.

“It’s a different approach than going to school and becoming attached to a mentor,” he says. “In some cases you can identify the school in the people’s work … they eventually achieve their own style.”

Standing in his shop, surrounded by the tools of his trade but not by sawdust — that is collected straight from the sander and sent to a room at the back of the building — Fox can look around at the end of the day and see what he has achieved. He likes what he does.
The auction

The auction preview starts at 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 21 at the Wentworth-by-the-Sea Hotel in New Castle, N.H. The auction is to benefit the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association’s educational initiatives, the largest of which are the Prison Outreach Program and the Studio-Based Learning Program.

Now in its eighth year, the Prison Outreach Program complements the New Hampshire State Prison’s Hobby Craft Program and enables NHFMA members to enter the state prison and offer instruction to inmates who wish to further their furniture-making skills.

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