Bill Neville likes to talk about energy, synergy and intentionality as much as about form or function. He talks like the artist that he is--by training and temperament--as much as like the designer and craftsman he has become in his years as a furniture maker.
And what a furniture maker he is. His forms may not have the strict purity of those by other area makers like Jim Kirkpatrick, or the quirky inventiveness of the furnishings by sculptors Michael Joerling and Anthony Ulinski, but they have a grace and verve that makes them highly admirable and sought after.
"I like making sexy furniture," Neville says, with a sparkle and a shrug. "I have hands that know how to make."
Originally from Detroit, Neville and his wife, Betty Haskin (an artist who also runs the art gallery at the Duke Eye Center), came to Chapel Hill in 1992 from Nags Head, where he had settled after leaving graduate school at Arizona State University. At ASU, he had done sculpture, painting and multimedia work. "Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Vito Aconti--those were the folks I was looking up to then," he says. But in Nags Head, there is not much call for major earthwork art, and Neville began using his skills to make a living, building not just furniture, but houses and yacht interiors.
"Ever since I started working, I've had all the work I can do," says Neville. "One must be prolific. If I'm not in the shop, I'm not really making it, no matter how much I talk. Work is a blessing. Idle time is the killer. If you have work to do, and the intentions to do it, that's exciting."
Neville's intentions are to make beautiful things that will live after him, and he vigorously carries out that intention. Reverting to a favored theme, he emphasizes that "energy begets energy"--and he is energy personified. Even in conversation, he is kinetic, and his movements, although enthusiastic, have the focused, controlled quality necessary for his kind of precision woodworking.
Neville now runs his business, Caseworks, from a 6,000-square-foot workshop west of Carrboro that he shares with three other furniture makers (Jim Kirkpatrick, Eric Wolkin and Doug Chamblin) and a photographer, Seth Tice-Lewis. Each man has his own business and workspace, but there are shared spaces for major tools and for the painstaking process of veneering. It's that synergy thing: All the woodworkers benefit from their proximity, sharing tools, skills and sometimes commissions. They also benefit from having one of the area's best object photographer's studios right on site. It is here that Neville creates custom tables, chairs, desks, sideboards, and china cabinets, as well as where he makes the components for kitchen cabinets, mantels, stair rails and doors for richly designed interiors.
All sculptors and designers in three dimensions develop personal approaches that reflect something essential about their physical understanding of the world, and often about their spiritual values as well. You see these things in the artist's sense of proportion and scale, in the way he makes relationships within the work, and in the level of attention and respect he shows for his materials. Neville's work has a reassuring sturdiness in the way it sets on the floor--but it also seems almost buoyant. It has a little lift, like a person rising on the balls of his feet. This is sometimes accomplished through the use of the curves and arches that Neville likes so much, and sometimes by the use of detailing around the feet of the furniture. Even the purely rectilinear pieces have a sense of reaching or stretching--of aspiring to grace--and in the curvilinear pieces, this is even clearer. And he plays with the grain, markings and colors of his woods the way a musician plays with melodies and harmonies.
Neville draws inspiration from several sources, most notably Arts and Crafts movement work by designers such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the architects Greene and Greene, French art nouveau furniture from the first two decades of the 20th century and later work by Bauhaus designers. What all these modes of design have in common is a concern with comfortable simplicity, with an elegance that arises from the perfect conjunction of form and function. There is nothing fussy about Neville's work, although he is not at all averse to decorative details. They all seem as necessary as punctuation marks in a sentence. This kind of work is very easy to live with.
To make sure of that, when doing custom work, Neville wants to know just how his client lives. If he's making a desk, for instance, he wants to understand how his client will use it: to pay bills, write letters, do genealogy, follow stocks, write a novel? Will there be a computer on it? Does it need drawers, pigeonholes, doors? Should the base be enclosed or open? Moreover, Neville wants to understand the pattern of use in the room, to better plan the scale and shape of the furniture. The goal, he says, is to give the person behind the desk the greatest possible power and comfort. The design process for other furniture is similar, and the objective is to make the users' lives more comfortable, easier and more beautiful.
In talking about how he's become so successful in his work, Neville likes to paraphrase J. Michael Phillips, the inventor of MasterCard and the author of The Seven Laws of Money: Spend everything you've got doing what you love, for that will create a vacuum that will pull the dollars in. A big china cabinet from him might cost $10,000 or $15,000; a table and chairs runs about $29,000. However, think about furniture in relation to the price and value of cars. A new car might last 10 years and be costing money and declining in value all the while, whereas a piece of handmade furniture will last easily 20 times as long without additional costs--and continually increase in value.
This is not particularly helpful, however, to those of us with good taste and the need for furniture for whom $29,000 might be as much as a year's salary. Neville knows this--and that knowledge, along with the desire to spend more time on art projects, is leading him back to a central tenet of the Arts and Crafts movement and later the Bauhaus: that good design should be available to everyone.
So Neville is currently exploring the possibility of selling some of his designs to industry. Making unique pieces one at a time, by hand, is a very expensive mode of production. Such work is worth paying for, because the handmade will always have special qualities that no mass-produced object can--like Neville's magnificent china cabinet made of wood from a single tree. But most of us would be happy to be able to buy a manufactured version at a substantially lower cost--if it were well-made precisely to Neville's fine design. I'm hoping for that opportunity.
Contact Bill Neville, Caseworks, at 929-6376.