N.O. artist replicates nature’s designs
By Melanie Torbett
“Trees have a yearning to live again, perhaps to provide the beauty, strength and utility to serve man, even to become an object of great artistic worth.” — George Nakashima, American furniture designer
Paul Troyano may live in the heart of New Orleans, only steps away from the hubbub of Canal Street, but the natural world is never very far from his mind nor fingertips.
This talented craftsman doesn’t often get a chance to roam Louisiana’s forests, yet he has spent a lifetime working with wood and fashioning unique products that replicate Mother Nature’s designs. One look at Troyano’s tables, with their sinuously-curved legs that mimic vines and branches, and you know this is no ordinary woodworker.
“I do live in the city, but take my inspiration from nature,” said Troyano as he lifts a small table to better show legs curved like tree branches. Shunning the straight legs that most tables and chairs sit upon, he focuses on the question, “how would nature suspend a table?” His response: Mother Nature would craft asymmetrical supports made of thin strips of wood, glue them together and bend them to suit her fancy.
So Troyano has done just that, and customers from all over the country find their way to places like Ariodante Gallery and RHINO Gallery in New Orleans, as well as regional craft shows and festivals to see, touch and buy the artist’s wares, which also include lamps, chairs, bowls, utensils, boxes and even finely-carved, wearable wooden bow ties.
Free-form, irregular shapes typify Troyano’s creations, and that’s by choice. “Nothing in nature is perfectly round or perfect,” he says. “I like imitating nature.”
Troyano also likes using wood from trees that are indigenous to Louisiana. “Louisiana has a good variety of trees to choose from,” he says. “I prefer domestic woods, as they contain a wide range of beauty and workability.”
An inveterate recycler, Troyano says he often “picks up wood” from all around New Orleans; downed trees, wood reclaimed from old homes, discarded furniture, even trashed pallets are transformed into fresh, functional products under his hands.
Working in his small backyard shop with an array of both hand and power tools, the craftsman uses myriad species of both soft and hard woods, including pecan, cherry, walnut, mulberry, cypress, pine and others. Tallow, avocado, pear, magnolia and camphor are also put to use, depending upon the project. Stacks of lumber fill spaces beneath his house as well as along the walls of his workshop. To help keep track of the wood inventory, Troyano’s son Daniel made a map of the wood that lies underneath the house; he’s also learning his father’s craft and helps with sanding and heavy lifting around the shop.
Often, multiple wood species go into a single product; for example, bowls and cutting boards often get a layered treatment. Troyano says he “loves contrast,” and may combine pieces of up to five different kinds of wood to make one bowl, typically favoring a shape that is rectangular or oblong rather than round, which is then finished off with a smooth lip.
The idea of bending and laminating wood strips together to fashion furniture legs was first introduced to Troyano when he attended a Colorado workshop years ago conducted by Sam Maloof, the renowned American woodworker and designer who People magazine once called the “Hemingway of Hardwood.”
“He used his eye to shape a chair and also showed us how to use laminating as a technique for bending wood,” recalled Troyano. He points to another 20th century contemporary furniture designer, George Nakashima, whose legacy as “father of the American craft movement” has similarly influenced his own design ethic and style.
To make the elegantly styled legs for his tables, Troyano uses a band saw or table saw to cut six or seven 1/8-inch strips of wood, which he then glues together and, using templates as guides, bends and clamps the legs into the desired shape on a jig. With an eye on what a vine or branch would look like if nature made it, the craftsman finishes sculpting the leg by hand and applies shellac or polyurethane. The legs then are attached to the table, chair, or coffee table that awaits their support.
Years ago, Troyano seemed headed for a career using his hands when he began disassembling clocks at the age of six or seven, he recounts. Aided and encouraged by his father and older brothers who used and taught him how to use hand tools, he started making small wooden items like bowls and giving them away as Christmas gifts. Having spent a fair amount of his childhood playing in the woods near his New Jersey home, Troyano’s affection for the natural world grew. His carpentry and construction skills also advanced, thanks to the time he spent in an apprenticeship with a carpenter and cabinet maker in New York City.
He met his wife Sue, a native of New Orleans, in New York while they were both working in a Catholic Worker hospitality house serving the urban homeless. “It was a heck of an experience, and had a big impact on my life,” he says of the simple existence they lived in that Christian community. There he cooked and served meals for hundreds of people, had supervisory duties and helped renovate a five-story homeless residence in Manhattan. Troyano also crafted a number of functional items for churches in the city, including an altar.
A desire to be nearer Sue’s family eventually drew the couple and their children to New Orleans 24 years ago, where they continue to live in the Mid-City area. Both Troyano and Sue work at a Metairie Park Country Day School not far from their home, where she is employed full-time in daycare and Paul teaches students in woodworking classes part-time.
Troyano not only teaches his students how to make simple wooden objects, but he also brings them outdoors on “tree walks” around the school campus to recognize tree species and learn more about the wood they handle.
“I try to challenge the kids and get them to be creative.”
The woodworker’s own creativity is easy to see in his finished pieces. For example, an October visit to the RHINO Gallery, a local artists’ cooperative shop on the second floor of the downtown Canal Place mall, reveals a chess table you won’t find at any furniture store. For this piece, Troyano has inlaid cherry and holly and trimmed it in maple for the game board, then set it atop a small cherry and pecan table supported by four gracefully-curved legs. The game pieces are no less unique: for this $3,000 table Troyano has hand turned and carved a dozen round wooden peace signs and an equal number of small, cylindrical “weapons of mass destruction.”
Nearby stands a Troyano floor lamp made of cedar salvaged from a discarded armoire once used in a New Orleans home, topped by a free-form rice paper shade made by Sue Troyano. The base of the lamp looks like a highly-polished chunk of wood picked up off the forest floor, while the post resembles a slender tree trunk. A number of Paul’s smaller pieces like bowls, cutting boards and utensils, are offered at the RHINO gallery as well, at lower price points.
The fine-grained wooden bow ties that Troyano makes typically draw curious looks from shoppers at RHINO, as well as at craft shows and festivals like this fall’s Blues and BBQ Festival in New Orleans where he displays and sells his creations. He says he started making them after a fellow often seen riding a tricycle and wearing big bow ties around town asked him whether he could make a wooden tie for him. Troyano took the challenge, and now chisels and hand-sands smaller versions out of a variety of wood species, pricing them at $50 to $70. His daughter Ruby makes the adjustable elastic straps that fit neatly into a slot in the back of each tie.
“They are pretty fun, and they get a lot of attention,” he said. “I’m always looking for new ways to create.”
Other unusual items are the rough-hewn log boxes that Troyano makes from small, four to six- inch tree branches. To fashion each box, he cuts off the bottom and two ends of a branch to get the size he wants, cuts off the top, hollows out the piece and adds a hidden hinge in the box top. The result is a functional box that appears to be a little bark-covered log.
And what could be more natural than that?
In addition to his pieces that can be found in galleries or at festivals, Troyano accepts commissions or custom orders for furniture.
(For more information, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. or through the website: http://livingfurniture.us.)
(Melanie Torbett is a forest landowner and frequent contributor to Forests & People magazine.)