By Jane Leder
Photos by Marta Garcia
“I was exposed to unusual furniture as a child, but I didn’t see it that way,” says S. Lloyd Natof, whose boyhood home in Virginia was filled with the lamps, buffet tables and other furniture of his great grandfather Frank Lloyd Wright. ” I thought my friends’ homes with all that neo-Colonial stuff were the ones with the unusual furniture.”
Natof never met Wright, who died in 1959, six years before Natof was born. Still, if talent is in the genes, it’s no surprise that he, like his famous ancestor, has become a furniture designer with a singular style. From his second-floor atelier in Chicago’s West Loop, he custom makes tables, beds, bookshelves and other pieces – just a handful a year – that are stunningly beautiful objects with exotic grain patterns.
As a boy, he visited Taliesin, Wright’s estate and studio n ear Spring Green, Wis. where the architect imagined and tested ideas. For Natof – whose grandmother was Wright’s daughter by the first of his three wives – Taliesin was and remains a sacred place, “Taliesin is profoundly beautiful – the architecture, the setting,” he says. “My jaw is on the floor the entire time I’m there. Even as a young kid, I felt deeply privileged to be a part of the community in my small way.”
The idea of becoming a furniture maker never occurred to young Natof, who had a musical bent. That changed in 1986, while he was a flutist majoring in jazz studies at DePaul University. He needed furniture for his apartment and, short on cash, set out to make a bookcase and a futon frame.
Though armed with tools his father had given him for Christmas, he didn’t know the first thing about furniture making. He read everything he could on the subject and rented machinery at a nearby outlet. “All the work was very simple,” he says, “and I somehow muddled my way through.”
Natof was hooked – and suddenly playing the flute for a living seemed a lot less appealing. “Working with my hands was seductive,” he says. “I could spend all day building furniture, but I couldn’t spend all day practicing the flute.” And there was something else: “Furniture making is a tangible medium; you have something to show for your effort. But once you play a piece of music, it disappears. Ultimately, I found furniture much more interesting.”
Just shy of graduation, Natof dropped out and set up shop in his current 2,000 square-foot workshop on West Monroe. Since then, he’s built a healthy business making furniture on commission. “I’m doing just a handful of really special pieces a year,” he says. Some are built-ins that can take months to finish, others are elaborate dining tables that can run up to $20,000. Since 1995, he has specialized in using veneer, which he handpicks, to create pieces of distinctive beauty. “I look for grain that is unusually swirly, non-linear, or striking in some way. I’m less interested in furniture that looks like boards put together. I want it to look like a sculptural object.”
A glance around Natof’s workshop reveals a range of samples, from expensive, detailed pieces such as a bubinga veneer two-door tansu (above), based on an early 19th-century Japanese design ($5,325), to simpler forms from his J-Line that sell in the range of $1,000. All of Natof’s pieces are topped with exotic, lush wood veneer such as laurel, African mahogany, bubinga and Indonesian rosewood.
The technique of adding a thin layer of wood to another material has a long tradition, stretching from the Egyptians to the reign of Louis XIV to the Art Deco period in the 20s. “There’s a lot of crappy Ikea furniture made from veneer,” Natof says, “and then there is veneer furniture on display in the Louvre.” Natof is drawn to veneer because it allows him to wrap the wood around corners and otherwise capitalize on its flexibility and expressive grain patterns to create objects of art as well as function. On some pieces, such as a buffet with laurel veneer ($5,120), he takes the design even further, cutting the veneer into brick-shaped pieces. On others, such as a sideboard made of bubinga veneer (see photo on previous page), with African mahogany legs and ebony pulls ($4,980), Natof allows the distinctive grain of the veneer to speak for itself.
What would Frank Lloyd Wright think about his great-grandson’s work? “That’s an interesting question,” Natof says. After some musings about Wright’s own furniture, Natof proffers a conclusion. “I think Wright would be surprised at the attention that I pay to small details, but would definitely appreciate the craftsmanship.”