It may look like plain lumber to most people, but to furniture maker Skylar Morgan, it’s treasure. Sinker cypress dredged from Louisiana swamps, walnut from Indiana (where the color is richer, Morgan says), North Carolina oak, and discarded boards and logs he’s rescued from anywhere and everywhere are stacked high on shelves. Morgan’s face visibly brightens when he talks about wood, the nuances of knots and grain. “Every piece of furniture starts out like that,” he says over the scream of saws. “I always love seeing the raw wood—it still amazes me.”
This fall, more than 15 years after launching his eponymous residential and commercial millwork and woodworking company, he moved his business into a 44,000-square-foot warehouse in West Midtown, doubling his space. There he runs his design studio, factory, and a showroom and gallery open to the public by appointment.
On the showroom floor, find Morgan’s modern but warm dining tables, arced chairs, and gleaming credenzas, which feature inspired forms, little excess, and a quiet beauty right down to the metalwork and leather details, which are handcrafted in-house.
Last spring marked his second year of product releases at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, where he unveiled new styles made to order in a range of finishes and upholstery. Skylar Morgan Furniture + Design has exploded nationally, and the team juggles the furniture requests with major projects including restaurateur Ford Fry’s forthcoming restaurants, a hotel in Portland, residential work with designers like Julie Witzel and Bill Peace, and suites at the new State Farm Arena. His work can also be seen at restaurants like Superica and Le Fat.
Morgan has long dreamed of such a career. When he was a teenager in a small town on the rugged plains of eastern Montana, he spent most of his time in the woodshop. But he wasn’t sure he could make a living that way. It was his father, a fine artist, who convinced him he could—by driving him halfway across the state to meet an artisan woodworker who was doing just that. Then, his mother helped land him a two-year apprenticeship with master woodworker Jeffrey Greene in Pennsylvania. There, Morgan honed not only his skills but also his style. He recalls becoming frustrated that his own designs didn’t look like Greene’s.
“One day, he said to me, ‘you’ve got to stop fighting it—you’re a modernist,’” says Morgan. “I had never heard the word ‘modernist.’ I went to the library and researched ‘what is modernism’ and absolutely fell in love.” His portfolio assignment for Greene was like an epiphany, reflecting his study of Eames, van der Rohe, and Nakashima. He landed in the South because one of his fellow apprentices was from Atlanta, and, as Morgan put it, “I couldn’t sell modern furniture in Missoula.”
This traditional training may be what sets Morgan’s work apart, though he laments that master woodworking is a dying art. For eight years he worked alone; now, the company employs around 15 people, including designers, fabricators, metalworkers, sanders, and finishers. He scours the country for formally trained artisans and has mentored some himself. But he insists on hiring only woodworkers with a background in art (versus carpentry), and they’re hard to find. The artisans he hires—many of whom have more than 20 years experience—are encouraged to leave their own mark on their work. Unlike most big shops, SMFD rarely uses computer-generated machinery. “I don’t want a generic look,” he says. “Each piece looks different depending on who made it.”
Morgan’s attention to detail is evident. He is constantly tinkering (“the finishes are never good enough for me—they can always be better”) and even trained with a high-end handbag maker in New York to learn how to work with leather when he couldn’t find anyone to do it just the way he wanted. Morgan still does the leatherwork himself, though he finds he has less and less time behind the bench, so he arrives at the studio two or three hours early to work on prototypes and special projects. Currently, he’s developing the furniture offerings for 2019, which will include an outdoor sofa and a bed. This is the stuff he dreams about.