Effortless is one way to describe Joe's furniture creations. Artistic is another. A custom furniture builder for the last few decades, Joe's work is in homes across the United States and it has been featured in Architectural Digest and Fine Woodworking. Joseph Schwarte Custom Furniture is art you can sit on.


[Koziol]: Hello, you are with the Driftless Makers podcast. And I'm Kate Koziol, Executive Director of the Platteville Business Incubator. And today we have the opportunity to talk to Joe Schwarte of Joseph Schwarte Custom Furniture. Welcome, Joe. 

[Schwarte]: Hi. 

[Koziol]: So tell me, what do you do? 

[Schwarte]:Pull a rabbit out of my hat a lot of times. 

[Koziol]: That's a good trick. 

[Schwarte]: These days I'm focusing more on, I've always liked chairs, kind of collected chairs and now I make them, and that's what I'm focusing on currently. 

[Koziol]: If the listeners haven't had a chance to see Joe's work, it is stunning, like impeccable quality, beautiful design. To me it is like a piece of art you can sit on. Now I know you've had many episodes of your life and you worked construction and you were in the service. Tell me a little bit on how did you came up with this iconic chair that I'm thinking of one of the ones that you're making currently. How did you come up with that design? Was it a process? What was your inspiration? How did you get to that? 

[Schwarte]: I'm not sure which chair you mean, but the ones that I've sold recently are the stool, I hate the word, with a perch that actually was inspired by Emil Jay Paidar and Sons Barber chairs as a boy the sitting in the Barber chair, the Barber pushes your head down to shave the back of your head. Emil Jay Paidar and Sons, Chicago, IL. I can still see that. And so when I built a stool, I thought I'm going to put a foot rest on it but the basis of anything I'm trying to do is to strip the structure to its minimum, so as to be lean and sculptural and comfortable. So that's that stool, the chair, one of the chair. You might be thinking of the lounge chair that I had a friend, a Chicago artist at Paschke, and he would say, you know, if you're going along and think everything's hunky Dory, you need to challenge yourself. And that chair came about when I wanted to make something that looked like a calligrapher's character. 

[Koziol]: Oh, I can see that now. 

[Schwarte]: And so in profile, the frame of that chair, it looks like to me it just has that characteristic. And I showed it to Bernice, her mother, when she was alive at the time. She was Japanese and I said does this mean anything bad? She said no it's OK. So, the challenge of it was it has these curved tapered components and so making the joinery in these curved tapered pieces these half lap joints that that was my challenge and and it worked out. 

[Koziol]: Yeah, it's lovely. There's something almost clean and simplistic but almost of a bygone era like a gem that you want to keep. You know it's a classic but yet fresh. You have your furniture nationwide, a collection here and there. I know you were based in Chicago for quite a while. You probably have a lot of, you know, clients and associates down there. how did you get started in furniture of this kind of sophistication? 

[Schwarte]: Oh yeah, that's. You know, I'd have to invoke Kiki Friedman's The Unnamed Arrow never misses. It was totally unplanned. It was about survival and doing whatever was necessary to survive. I was a father at 20, and then I was a single dad, and my sisters helped a lot. But at some point I had to face my responsibilities. And so I was doing any kind of job I could. And after I was in the army, I went to art school on the GI Bill. But I quickly realized I'm not an artist. To me, an artist is someone who can draw and paint. But I had those yearnings, creative yearnings and. But in the meantime I started doing woodwork, changing sash weights in apartments in Chicago and hanging shelves and setting locks. And then I got a job with a plumber and I was a laborer for a plumber. I learned a lot. But in the then the recession of 75 along and the plumber owned a bar in Chicago at Broadway and Devon and they were opening it. Come on down. And he sent me down there to help build it. And then because he knew I always wanted to work with wood. I wanted to get into some clean dirt and be careful what you wish for. But so and so and then I it just that's where it started and it's always been word of mouth and it's just been just passing. Something good always seemed to happen then eventually you know doing carpentry with a partner and he went to school became an architect and just working on my own. Then a fellow came to work with me, Tim Anderson, and he had worked in a cabinet shop before. Now I'd applied to Washburn trade school in the early 70s. I was in service 66-68, and then when I came out I worked and went to art school briefly. Tim came on the scene and he'd actually worked in a cabinet shop, right? I I applied to Washburn Trade School to go to cabinet making school. And by the time I was accepted, I had my son and I could not be down there at 7:00 AM, and he was seven years old. I had to make sure he had matching socks and all this to go to school etcetera, etcetera. So I was just working flexible hours. And this fellow I worked for, the plumber, he let me do that. But then I got these other carpentry jobs on the side, but I still wanted to make cabinets, still wanted to get the credentials. I didn't get a college degree. Looking back, I mean, I felt it very keenly, my lack of credentials. I didn't have a union card, didn't have a college degree, none of that. But Tim worked in a cabinet shop and he showed me efficient ways to build cabinets. And also it was very encouraging with the things that I wanted to build, my designs, and he helped a lot. And by the time Washburn came around and said they had a space, I was already doing some things and I couldn't, you know, go what is it, 10 or 12 weeks where you don't, you don't pay, you don't pay anything and then come up with 1200 bucks for tools and such. So I passed on my opportunity to go to Washburn, but eventually learn these different skills and then with other just remodeling projects in the course of a project, you know, we'd have the architect's plans and such. And I remember this one shot this, this porch in Evanston and look, and I asked the client, I said, well, you know, do you really like this? And she said, well, you got a better idea. And I said, well, yeah. And so I we, we built this revised porch that was much, much cleaner, much cleaner. And that was Liz Hartley, and she's a friend to this day. And she was an interior decorator as well. And so she got me going with a lot of clients work to design things. 

[Koziol]: So, yeah. And those custom pieces, those one-of-a-kind pieces those sit and really fit for this purpose I think would have great draw. 

[Schwarte]: Yeah. But you know as Sammy Kahn says, you know what comes first the words of the music, first comes the phone call. And that's how a lot of things at least built in things or porches or something like that. But other ideas came because somebody asked, and if if it's just picking things out of the air to build that came along later. 

[Koziol]: You've had a circular and twisting career path, and things have taken you in different directions. What would you say is your greatest challenge over your many years of work and life and planning? 

[Schwarte]: I’m terrible at planning. 

[Koziol]: In fact, you're late for something else right now. Yeah. 

[Schwarte]: And that was actually something that would drive Tim crazy because he's a really intense artist and he wants to know everything I'm going to do beforehand. And I tend to jump in and start sorting things out. I wing it a lot. But that is kind of the most fun winging it for me. 

[Koziol]: and to see how the woods, I don't know, maybe speaks to you, it is too high falootin. 

[Schwarte]: But yeah sometimes it works like that, but the first really successful piece, well actually not the first but the one that got published as a carpenter. The most interesting part of the building to me or the most exciting part I should say, is when it's in its minimal simplest state. When it's just frame just the the skeleton of it and so that kind of led to thinking of an exoskeleton for a chest of drawers but also it's really once again not so much planning but serendipitous because I was in a men's group and this friend Steve Austin, he had a a big outfit called Dura Weld in Lake Bluff, IL. And Steve was a businessman but he had the soul of an artist, and he enabled me to design things and have them fabricated in steel. So the frames for the original these dressers were steel. And so that was pretty cool. Is that a, is there a name for that, that chess, that piece I well, at the time I called it AP 38 'cause it had twin balloons. 

[Koziol]: That's a lovely name. 

[Schwarte]: Yeah, right. It was, yeah. You know, I was building tables that were called Kagas or you, you know, these Japanese carriers sunk it in a way. I was naming things after war stuff, you know? Yeah, yeah. 

[Koziol]: And where, what was the publish in Architectural Digest? Woodworking something?

[Schwarte]: Woodworking Design Book Five, yeah, September of 89. Yeah, look that one up

[Koziol]: Is it still in production or is it are still pieces or can you still buy one? 

[Schwarte]: Well, I don't make the steel frames anymore subsequently. So that was in 88-89 I came up with that. And then I was applying to this contemporary furniture fair in New York in 2004. I sent in a piece and then they said send in some other things and I sent in just a snapshot of that dresser and they they didn't want the piece that I was submitting, but they wanted the dresser. So I had to quick find a way to build it without steel and I did. And so that that was pretty cool and built a few of those. But then just during COVID, a fella in Boscobel wanted a dresser and he saw that and he said I want one of those. So I refigured it and I built it with using more economical materials. Baltic Birch plywood, which I really like. I like making drawers. And yeah, I used to when I was a carpenter. I used to like cutting stairs when I was building cabinets. I like making drawers. Now I like making chairs. So I get these fetishes for a while or these things I want to pursue? And it's and I don't want to do anything else but. 

[Koziol]: And making stairs alone is tough. Well, you got to get that right. 

[Schwarte]: Well, it was when I first started. But what is it? It's Stanley Bedzynski. I think Stanley Stanley Bedzynski. It's a little thin book. That's all you need to know, right? 

[Koziol]: And a speed square. No or no speed square? 

[Schwarte]: Oh, yeah, that. Yeah, they've got a speed square. Well, I, I, we didn't have a speed. I just had the fray of the square and then the  I'm forgetting the terminology but the nubs you screw onto the your framing square to set the run and rise. 

[Koziol]: Yeah. Which is why I I refer to in house talent when things need to be built cuz right. Yeah. I'm not a good builder. I dream that I want to be and I mess around a little bit. But yeah, my husband Dave is much more talented at that stuff and it seems like every project that I start, I drag him into it. And the projects he starts, he never drags me in, like he never needs my advice. I don't know what that's about, but you know your gifts are elsewhere and he as he wishes they were far, far, far elsewhere. So if someone you know, let's say is getting started now, is there something like is there any advice that you'd give your younger self like I wish I would have or I should have started…

[Schwarte]: Saved money. 

[Koziol]: Save the money here, you've heard it here folks, folks, save some money. 

[Schwarte]: It comes in handy later. But I think, well, it's, I can't imagine there's so much information available now. I mean so, so much and so much visual information. You don't have to read anything, just you can Google something on how to do it and you'll find out. For me, I and I still refer to our Tayfrid Joinery TAGEFRID. He was a contributor to fine woodworking from the get go and his book on joinery is all you ever need to know. But that's a book and if you can read that and understand it, it's good. But I can't imagine not looking at YouTube and how to do something if you want to know and these days if someone was starting out but I mean other than practice, practice, practice, right. 

[Koziol]: Well, there's a little bit of that. You know, you can. I think YouTube is marvelous. And we, you know, hold in our pockets phones and, you know, can connect to anyone and learn about all sorts of things. But then you've actually got to make some sawdust at some point in order to, you know, see how it really works. 

[Schwarte]: Working the techniques, you know, those are the things you work on. You have to work on techniques. But if you're thinking of how to design things, For me, design came easy, Structure came easy that was intuitive. And then so how to use that and then embellish it? Or just to use it to design something, I guess find something that comes easy and don't distrust it. That's something that came easy. I distrust it. As I look back on it, if structure came easy, I thought I must be doing something wrong. 

[Koziol]: OK, right. 

[Schwarte]: But it's at some point you have to recognize what you're good at, right? 

[Koziol]: And I think a lot of business owners, no matter what line they're in, often times they're very good at two or three or four or five elements, but they're not so good at three or four others. And they distrust themselves maybe on where they're strong and then on the opposite side they don't always ask for help where they're. 

[Schwarte]: When I was first doing this and working with Tim, that was a very fertile time because working with someone now I don't. And so not so fertile. 

[Koziol]: So you talk to yourself. 

[Schwarte]:I do. That's Studs Terkel. He wrote a book talking to myself. 

[Koziol]: Yeah. 

[Schwarte]: But that's Terkel as my personal savior. 

[Koziol]: Yeah, he's pretty cool. He commented and observed and reported back and didn't really hold a lot, a lot back. Kind of just let it fly. And was really a storyteller. 

[Schwarte]: I met him several times. 

[Koziol]: Really. What was he like? 

[Schwarte]: Oh, if you were going to interview him right now, I would be interviewing you, right. Right. And I'd be crying maybe. No, no. Actually, I have a great stud struggle story. OK. Do you want to hear it? 

[Koziol]: Go for it. 

I'm once again, it gets back to these credentials. I was working in this house, this Walter Burley Griffin house in Evanston a a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, and I was doing some work on a staircase and oh wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. I met Studs during the Blizzard of 79 and I've been listening to his radio show, and I took the train downtown. There was a Blizzard and I liked playing hooky. When Jeff was in school, I flipped the train downtown and I go to the Art Institute. I like taking public transportation in a storm and I but this time I took the train the Metra because it stopped in Rogers Park and I found it. So I'm in the metro station downtown and I see this guy with, you know, arm full of books and he's and he's running into the the men's room and I say and I'm like, that's that's terrible. And so and I didn't follow him in and I waited for him to come out and he comes out and then I forget exactly what I said. But you know, I'm a big fan all this, all this. And then of course he starts interviewing me and what do you do? I said, well, I'm a carpenter. So you're like a union Carpenter. No, no, I'm not. And and then he, you know, he was very polite. But then so I'm working in this house in Evanston and they're Northwestern professors and they have a house guest who is an author. And I have Studs used to be on 10:50 WFMT weekdays. And the radio is on, Studs is on. And this house guest is walking down the hall and she goes, that Studs. I said yeah. And so she says, I said oh she says I'm, I'm meeting him tonight. And I said, oh gosh, well, and I told her the story, how I met him. And then I I told him I was a Carpenter. And when he heard I wasn't a union carpenter, I felt like a door closed in his mind. And he made the excuses but skipped off. And I said I always wanted to tell him that I couldn't be a union carpenter because I had my son, blah blah son, all this. And she just said do tell him. And so I wrote him and within you know a fairly short time I got a response, you know this, you know. And so I just thought that was a really cool prize. I still have that letter. Of course so and and I would see him now and now and again and you know, and he had an uncanny recall. He remembered people, but when when he died, it was Halloween and I was driving in from the coming in there. I just crossed the line into Wilmette on Halloween of whatever year he died. It's probably at least 10 years ago now, but they were soliciting stories. I don't know what I'm thinking. I pull over and I call the NWFMT and I say this is Joe Schwarte. And I got a circle start and I told them about the encounter at the train station and all this and I said and I later wrote to him but he was much later that son that I was raising, he went on to be a carpenter, a union carpenter. And I thought that that was a nice connection, kind of came bring everything full circle. And so, the next day I had an appointment to look at a job in Evanston. And I pull up in front of the place a couple minutes beforehand and they were playing some of the tributes that people phoned in. And I pull up to the curb and I hear my story and I was like, Oh no. But yeah, I listened to it and it was like, yeah, it's not so bad. And when I got home, I had a call from from a client down on Lakeshore Drive and she's, Joe, I heard your interview and it was fabulous. So I felt pretty good about that. 

[Koziol]: That's interesting. The happenstance, connections and meetings and you know, and even preconceptions that some people have that union is good and non union, oh, you don't make the cut. But people take different paths and different avenues and they have different pressures on their life. And, you know, I think what you said before about, like, you know, be proud of what you've done and don't discredit things that come easy to you. That's great advice. 

[Schwarte]: Cool. 

[Koziol]: Final question. And then I'll let you get on to the rest of your day. You've passed. I'm gonna give you an A+. What are you most proud of? 

[Schwarte]: My kids. My sons. 

[Koziol]: Yes, of course. Yeah. Isn't that amazing? Yeah. Yeah, well, this is Kate Coleziel. We have had the pleasure of talking to Joe Schwarte of Joseph Schwarte Custom Furniture. If you have not seen his exoskeleton piece or any of his other pieces, go find them. His work is lovely and he is equally charming. So if you're pursuing design or you're pursuing carpentry, whatever, just, you know, as Joe wisely said, follow your passions and even if you don't have a plan, just keep moving ahead. Thank you, Joe, for joining us.  

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