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A Cut Above

Author: Rebecca L. Rhoades
Issue: August, 2017, Page 64
Photos by Brandon Sullivan

Artisan and designer Paul Jeffrey has a knack for transforming unyielding wood into sensuous, curved forms that delight the eye. Here, he is seen in his Phoenix shop with a product prototype.
A Former Concept Car Designer Fashions Wood Into Custom Works of Art for Valley Homes

Inside a nondescript, Single-story industrial complex on the southwest side of Phoenix near the intersection of Grand Avenue and I-17, in a neighborhood dotted with manufacturing and distribution centers, automotive parts suppliers and food banks, Paul Jeffrey creates bespoke furnishings and cabinetry for the Sonoran Desert’s high-end homeowners.

Crafted of maple, the Araignée coffee table was named after the French word for spider.
His workplace is equal parts woodshop and art studio—an open space where an array of lumber, from basic oak to exotic wenge, is given new life through imaginative designs, innovative engineering and pride in handcraftsmanship. 

Enveloped by the smell of sawdust and lacquer, with the soothing hum of electric sanders, the pounding beat of hammers and nail guns and the rasping whir of power tools in the background, the designer dreams up everything from occasional tables to made-to-order chairs, floating shelves to massive wall units and custom kitchen cabinetry, but his creations are not the kind you’ll find at mass-production big-box stores.

“We’re not Ikea. We’re not carpenters,” Jeffrey says of his team. “We’re craftspeople. We’re artisans. Our designs are for clients who want luxury.”

For example, his 2nd Chair String collection—four shapely chairs inspired by musical instruments and crafted of walnut, cherry alder, wenge and oak—costs about $4,700 per chair. His $5,400 Araignée coffee table blooms more like an elegant flower than its eponym—the word is French for spider—with each molded petal featuring an open framework of curved maple strips. Even a minimalistic Macassar ebony media cabinet can run $20,000 or more.

Wood samples—including a piece of stripy carved bamboo, which costs $1,200 for a 4'H by 8'W sheet—perch on a shelf in Jeffrey’s office.
“Design is a value,” notes Jeffrey. “What we make is more like art.”

And while Arizona’s luxury furnishings market may seem worlds apart from the blue-collar ways of Michigan’s automotive industry, both are fueled by a zeal for inventiveness and an indefatigable hands-on approach.

Raised in Detroit, the son of an auto factory worker, Jeffrey earned a BFA in industrial design from the city’s prestigious College for Creative Studies. After graduation, he worked at Ford Motor Co., conceiving concept cars that showcased the company’s vision for the future. “We were charged with finding the next thing,” he says. “We weren’t concerned with what was on the road at the time. We didn’t care where the engine or the wheels went—or if it even had wheels. We were focused on what was to come.”

But life at a leading auto manufacturer meant conforming to corporate expectations, a notion with which the free-spirited Jeffrey grappled. “I don’t golf. I missed the Christmas parties. But those are things you have to do,” he says. “You have to play by the rules. And I realized that even though I was very successful, I was never going to be able to grow because there is more to it than just having great designs. You have to fit in.”

Created in collaboration with interior designer Jeannie Lusk, the three-door Baseerat buffet's contemporary look of amber bamboo inlaid with palm panels, all within a red oak frame, reflects the juxtaposition of positive and negative spaces seen in a bamboo forest.
So in 1996, Jeffrey headed to Los Angeles, where he struggled to find a purpose and identity in one of the nation’s largest creative arenas. “I didn’t have the savvy needed to get into a big market where there are a lot of sharks,” he recalls. “I didn’t know my way around, and I just flailed about for a couple of years and made a mess of it.” Broke—financially, mentally and spiritually—he and his now ex-wife moved to Phoenix to be with her parents. “I had hit rock bottom. But I had a gift. I just had to figure out what to do with it.”

A chance encounter with an engineer from Mexico, who understood how to turn Jeffrey’s experimental designs into eye-catching yet functional pieces, sowed the seeds for what has since become Paul Rene Furniture & Cabinetry.

“It was a brutal transition to go from cars to furniture and cabinets,” Jeffrey remembers. “Just learning that curve—understanding what the high-end client expects and the language that they speak—was a challenge. I didn’t know that the bottom of a chair needed to be as attractive as the part you see or that the back of a cabinet needed to look as good as the inside. There was no one to tell me that.” But through hard work and plenty of trial and error, the artisan slowly perfected his craft.

Faced with carved bamboo that is deliberately cut along its dark core, this dresser’s 15 push-to-open drawers appear to merge into a single flat surface.
“Paul’s designs are classy and unique, and they stand out,” says Rupali Drewek. She and her husband, Dave, hired Jeffrey to conceptualize and build cabinetry for a kitchen remodel in their Phoenix home. “We had had several contractors give us ideas on how we could redesign the space, but none of their designs were very special. When Paul came over, I could tell by the way that he was looking at our home and lifestyle and giving us ideas that he was a very artistic person. He creates pieces that make a statement without being too flamboyant.”

When Christy Radovcic moved into her Scottsdale abode, she knew that she wanted to do something with the 25-foot-high wall in the great room. “There were two perfect openings on either side of the fireplace,” she says. “I wanted to build bookshelves with a ladder, but I got a lot of pushback from contractors who said they couldn’t do that or didn’t want to.

“My husband found Paul’s website and saw that he specialized in built-in cabinetry—but more than just your average everyday projects,” she adds. “Paul really seemed to get a feel for my decorating style and my personality. With his design expertise and his partner’s engineering abilities, he was able to create something that grabs your attention. He turned a wall of shelves into a piece of art.”

When building custom display units, Jeffrey tries to capture the essence of the room, seeking a design element that can be copied and abstracted. For this 25-foot-high wall of shelves, he mimicked the rectangular shape of the doorway, turning it on its side and stretching it through the fireplace.
That ability to put himself in his clients’ shoes and study the architecture and subtle nuances of the space is his “secret sauce,” Jeffrey notes. “When I was conceiving cars, I was able to be very free, and I use that same sort of thinking when I meet with homeowners. It’s important for me to become one with the client, to see things from their perspective and to incorporate environmental cues. I try to absorb the space and figure out a way to create a design that will be harmonious with it.”

As the Paul Rene brand continues to garner recognition from high-end customers who are seeking that noteworthy, one-of-a-kind piece for their homes, Jeffrey is once again looking to the future—and to the preservation of the artisan-made industry. “When I went bankrupt, I didn’t have anything, but I did have a desire to create,” he says. “What drove me was the thought of my dad. He worked in a factory, and he put me through college by working with his hands. When I became an adult, I saw the disappearance of manufacturing.”

Jeffrey examines the curved form of a prototype for a custom bench.
Calling himself a socialpreneur, Jeffrey wants to help bring back high-quality craftwork to Phoenix and the rest of the U.S. He regularly gives tours of his workshop to underprivileged students from impoverished areas of the Valley, and he hopes to one day soon open a school that will teach custom woodworking. In fact, it’s one of the reasons his offices remain located in a lower-income neighborhood on Phoenix’s west side. “This is the type of community I sprang from,” he tells customers who ask why he hasn’t moved to a tonier address. “I need to be embedded here. I need to be an example. I’m going to stay in this hardscrabble side of town because I’m accessible to the people who I think need a role model.

“Perhaps I was destined to suffer what I did, because now I can teach others,” he adds. “My art has become a mission.”

The remains of an active woodshop.

Jeffrey notes that this entertainment unit is one of his favorite pieces. “When I looked at the empty room, all I saw was squares—on the wall and on the floor,” he says of his inspiration. “So I grabbed a piece of paper and just started drawing a bunch of squares. I wasn’t thinking about a cabinet; I was thinking about the shapes.”
Blue sketches, which are then converted into CAD drawings, are a signature of Jeffrey’s design process. This sketch is for a custom home office.

The single curve at the base of this Macassar ebony and clear alder shelving unit echoes the arch of the adjacent doorway.
The face of this cantilevered media cabinet is kirei board; its shell is stained clear alder. The metal shelving unit that floats above it was designed specifically to showcase the homeowner’s collection of figurines and pottery.

When it comes to creating high-end furnishings, no detail is overlooked. A copper-tone nameplate adds a luxuriant touch to a chair leg.
Jeffrey’s sketches for a one-of-a-kind spalted sycamore bathroom vanity with a cement vessel sink.
Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Jeffrey confers with one of his craftsmen.

Carved out of knotty alder, the Aloe Transitional Dining Table is an homage to the fleshy desert plant that’s known for its rejuvenating properties.

Part of the 2nd Chair String series, this sculptural seat is crafted of cherry-stained alder and maple with wool boucle cushions. A hidden metal frame strengthens the delicate armrests.

Currently in production in Jeffrey’s workshop, this alder kitchen cabinetry features an inset designed for storing its matching ladder.

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