Furniture Maker Tod Von Mertens

Text by Nathaniel Reade

I’ve looked at a lot of artist-made furniture in my day, at museum shows, galleries, and individual studios, but I’d never nearly fallen down as a result—until Tod Von Mertens lifted that packing blanket.

Von Mertens is a New Hampshire-based furniture maker with a deep voice, a soul patch, and the physique of a rock climber. As we strolled through his vast studio in Peterborough, admiring the grain on thick, tree-length slabs of locally sourced walnut, oak, and maple, he lifted the padding around a chest of drawers, and I staggered backward like Redd Foxx on Sanford and Son. The piece had hit me, and I needed to sit.

Von Mertens grew up in Peterborough, making gifts for friends and family in his father’s wood shop. His father built the first house he lived in, and much of their furniture. “Most of the work my father does is volunteer,” he says. “If somebody needs a dining table, he makes it and gives it to them. I loved being part of that generous spirit.”

Von Mertens refers to his father’s work as “almost-fine furniture.” When his father offers to help in the shop, he says, laughing, “I have to keep an eye on him. He’s got that old Yankee attitude, ‘It’s good enough.’” He points to two plywood boxes, ready for shipping to London, England, which contain a dining table and forty kitchen-cabinet doors. “But I did let him make those packing crates.”

Perhaps the most important thing he learned from his father, he says, is the attitude that you can make anything yourself if you want to, from beds to houses to arc welders. “That encouragement of ‘I can do that,’ got me where I am today,” he says.
Von Mertens studied photography at New York University, learned to weld, and dared to mix materials in unique ways. He projected images onto sculpture, he combined a loveseat with a dresser, he mixed metal with wood. He says, “I’ve always like the dichotomy of hard and soft.”

For fifteen years, he ran his own metal-fabricating shop in Seattle, making fine lamps, fireplace tools, railings, and chandeliers for designers and architects, while making furniture on the side. Eight years ago, he decided to take two more daring leaps: he and his family moved back to Peterborough, and he began making furniture full time.

His work today is a distillation of that dichotomy he loves. The chest of drawers that nearly knocked me over has a simple metal frame of rolled steel, fabricated in his shop. The legs and pulls are shiny, the case burnished and sealed so that it looks like dark gray slate.

This frames the drawer fronts, which are made of figured big-leaf maple. But this looks like no other maple you’ve seen before. Its colors aren’t the standard yellowy-tan; the grain swirls in and out and around with tones of blue, black, white, brown, and gray. Von Mertens has jumped over the ordinary to create what looks more like a beautiful, abstract, three-dimensional, multi-layered portrait of a boiling, crashing sea.

The enhanced colors and grains of the wood aren’t the result of a tint or stain. It’s a chemical reaction Von Mertens developed over three years and tested on every type of wood that grows in North America. “It’s very finicky,” he says, “almost like alchemy.” Every batch of wood behaves differently, and he applies the formula after the piece is constructed and sanded, so sometimes a finished work is ruined.
The effects he creates, however, are clearly worth it. Oak, for instance, develops complex patterns of black, gray, and brown. Black walnut adds purple tones, and maple adds blue-gray tones, like water or stone.

He also composed the boards of big-leaf maple on the chest of drawers the way a painter would. He placed a book-matched, arrow-head-shaped splotch of darker heartwood in the center left. The asymmetrical placement makes the piece more dynamic and active. He’s right when he says that it “takes it from a noun to a verb.”
But which verb? Amaze? Soothe? Smack in the head? It’s probably best to see Von Mertens’s work in person and decide for yourself. And bring a chair—in case it makes you weak in the knees, too. •

Editor’s note: To see more of Tod Von Mertens’s work, visit todvon.com.