Leaving a stretch of farmland along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the car pulls up beside a workshop nestled beneath towering chestnut oaks. A frisky German Shepherd darts from the woodland in welcome, pressing its nose against the car window. As it trots away, three guinea hens vigorously follow in line. Massive logs piled next to the workshop glimmer with a silvery patina in the pale autumn light—deepening the sense of having entered a charmed natural realm.
This is the world of Vicco Von Voss Furniture and Timber Framing. It’s the place where salvaged trees are transformed into sculptural, sinuous furniture and hand-hewn posts and beams. It’s the site where each one-of-a-kind object that’s produced has been designed and constructed, as well as milled, dried, cut and polished. And it’s the workshop where age-old techniques of fastening and framing live on—as in the 1,000 wood pegs that hold the building itself together.
“My work is about giving respect back to the tree and where it came from,” says Von Voss, sitting in the open office of his barnlike workshop, overlooking heavy machinery and hand tools arranged below. “If a tree takes 80 years to grow, it is my responsibility to design and build a chair that will be comfortable and last that long. Form and function should work together,” he notes, “or it’s not sustainable. What I’m creating is not just for clients, but also heirlooms for their children.”
Von Voss’s commitment to sustainability is a way of life on his five-acre property south of Chestertown, where his workshop, home, edible garden, barnyard animals and beekeeping operations are located. Nearly all the wood he selects is gathered locally from fallen trees—familiar cherry, walnut, and maple set off by more exotic yellowwood, ginkgo, mulberry, and pear.
Outside his workshop door, he uses a sawmill to cut the logs into slabs—some several hundred pounds each. Others are sliced into boards, which are dried outdoors on racks. “The drying time for a typical three-inch slab is a decade,” Von Voss observes, adding that wood scraps are not wasted, but tossed into a nearby furnace that heats his workshop and home. “Milling my own wood takes a lot of time and energy,” he says. “However, I like to be in control of my materials.”
Those powerful exertions preface the mighty creative energy expressed in Von Voss’s dynamic designs, which range in utility from a small tabletop poised on elongated legs of gazelle-like grace to his own two-story, timber-framed house, with its rounded roofline designed to mimic the canopy of surrounding trees.
From inside the house looking out, a tranquil scene at the tip of nearby Island Creek is framed by a pair of book-matched maple timbers that naturally bend toward each other. The woodworker’s wife, Jacqui, calls their home’s handcrafted aesthetic “my dream house…like living in a piece of art.”
Whether building a piece of furniture or a timber-frame structure, Von Voss applies the same traditional construction methods, based on mortise-and-tenon joinery in which two pieces of wood fit together—one project, the other cut out. “It’s just a question of scale and refinement,” he says about the differences.
Each project also reflects Von Voss’s reverence for the cycles of nature embodied in the wood’s core, along with the spiritual relationship between craftsman and material. When starting a new design, he reflects, “I look at a slab of wood and see a straight edge here, a curved edge there, a beautiful grain pattern that has the terrain of the earth; those will determine the design. Instead of trying to manipulate the material, the journey is more about stepping back and listening to the wood, letting it guide me to what it wants to become.”
For one major new residential commission, Von Voss searched for months before finding the perfect specimen among stacks stored in his workshop. Pulling out three small slabs cut from the final curly-maple flitch, he showed how the pieces will be fitted together, carved, manipulated and polished to a glass-like sheen to suggest the flow of a river. The client, who has moved away from the shore, wants to recreate the feel and touch of the waterfront; the extended piece will start out as a mounted wall shelf, and turn a corner before transitioning to become a tributary-like stair rail. “It pushes all the boundaries,” Von Voss explains, “an art installation that will also serve as a functional handrail.”
Later, on a tour of his completed works on view at Carla Massoni Gallery in Chestertown, he points to examples of his latest explorations in mixed media. Collaborating with metal artist Blake Conroy, Von Voss constructed the shapely table and two shelves, laser-cutting indentations into the wood, then inserting Conroy’s bronze, brass and copper cutouts. All parts seamlessly merge in pieces finished to a silken surface.
Tall and lanky with well-defined features and dressed in traditional work clothes, Von Voss is the very model of a classic woodsman. Born in Germany, he learned to carve wood at the knee of his grandfather, a forester. Following the career path of his father, an international businessman, Von Voss grew up on several continents. When his parents finally bought land near Chestertown, his destiny took a different turn. “I fell in love with this area,” he beams.
He graduated as an art major from Washington College in Chestertown in 1991 and then returned to Germany to complete a three-year woodworking apprenticeship.
Before purchasing his current property, Von Voss lived there for eight years—in a cabin without electricity or running water. “Above my bed was a big window, and I would look at the stars at night and wake up looking at trees,” he fondly remembers. “Living like that affects the way you interact with nature. Woodworking helps you understand what the life of a tree is like,” he reflects while gesturing outdoors to the changing season. “When trees turn colors like right now, it’s magical.”
For more information, visit vicco vonvoss.com or call 410-708-4698.