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Paul Jeffrey Raises Furniture Design to an Art Form

2022 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner - Paul Jeffrey

After years of searching, a furniture designer found his inner artists. Paul Jeffrey

By Becca Hensley | Photography by Rob Ballard, Estevan Medina

“Hammer by hammer, step by step got me here,” says furniture and custom cabinetry designer Paul Jeffrey, whose animated, soul-stirring, deliciously curvy chairs, tables and other bespoke, handcrafted functional art pieces might be a metaphor for his personal journey—a quest to live life meaningfully on the edge and to create art outside the box. “I didn’t know anybody who could guide me on my way here,” he says. “Now, it’s my duty to teach others, to show them the path forward, to give them permission to honor their inner artist.”

Long before Jeffrey appeared on HBO Max’s “Ellen’s Next Great Designer” as a contestant last year, Paul Rene Furniture Design, an artist’s-atelier-meets-furniture-workshop, was on a sublime trajectory. “The show validated us, but we didn’t need it,” says Jeffrey, who had garnered worldwide accolades already for his inventive work. He’d reached a point in his hard-won career where clients appreciated the uniqueness of his visions, his forward-thinking creations, his fine craftsmanship and passionate approach. 

“Wow” and “Holy cow” are just two of the exclamations of delight that Joel Claptick has heard in response to the various pieces Jeffrey has created for his home during the past decade. But the client praises the man just as much as the work. “Paul is diligent, an excellent communicator and a man of his word,” he says. “While his inner sense of design and style are strong and defined, he always makes a point of gathering feedback regarding the overall direction and details of a particular piece. I have personally found that I can be as involved as I would like or not like to be in the overall process, which for me, ultimately, provides an important emotional connection to the finished pieces.”

1. Paul Jeffrey 2. Jeffrey carefully selects a slab that best expresses the story of his design. 3. Involved in every step of production, Jeffrey hand-saws a 3-inch-thick rosewood plank.

Interior designer Lawrence Lake touts Jeffrey’s ability to creatively mix materials and combine juxtaposing finishes. “Paul is a rare resource in furniture making,” he raves. He cites Jeffrey’s work on a commission for a commercial collaboration. “He designed, crafted and delivered four stunning metal and wood desks that were the focal point of the project,” Lawrence explains. But, again, the applause for Jeffrey always comes back to Jeffrey. “Above all else, he is a good man, with honest intentions and a desire to create for others. Great qualities for a furniture designer.”

Jeffrey grew up in Detroit, where his father worked on the automotive line. The rebellious young son left the strict household to join the army, where he excelled thanks to his disciplined upbringing. But after three years he returned to Michigan in search of something more profound. He found it while earning a BFA in industrial design from Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. One perk of the program was a study-abroad segment in Paris, which Jeffrey says exposed him to “a whole new world,” instilling in him the French concept of art de vivre, a joy and longing for life, which clearly continues to infuse his projects today.

‘The Power of Collision’ writing desk was featured on “Ellen’s Next Great Designer” reality competition. Jeffrey was one of seven contestants.
The completed piece

When Jeffrey returned from his months overseas, he was offered a prestigious position with the Ford Motor Co., joining a handful of artists designing concept cars. The free-thinking studio of futuristic dreamers seemed, at last, to be the right fit. But, Jeffrey’s sense of belonging to something changed when he attended a lecture on low-income city living, which focused on the notion of the best and brightest leaving their communities behind. “That was me,” he says, “I couldn’t let this idea go. I began to question my purpose in life. I wanted to help, to be part of something bigger than drawing cars.” This led him to Los Angeles, where he planned to be a conduit of the change—and not the problem.

“LA was a disaster,” he admits. “I lost myself. When my father visited me, I was in the lowest of places. He later said he thought I was ‘road kill.’” Along with losing his purpose, Jeffrey lost his fortune, due to an ill-fated investment. With his marriage on the rocks, he rallied, and relocated to Phoenix on the invitation of his in-laws, who’d offered to help temporarily. They soon grew weary of Jeffrey’s creative yearnings and underpinnings. “I’d started to draw again and began to dream of making furniture,” he says, though he took a job at Walgreens to make ends meet. He’d started to learn the business of woodworking, something he called his “side hustle.” He hadn’t realized how important his artistic pursuits were to him until the pharmacy store chain offered him a managerial position. He knew he had to choose. He declined the job offer and was fired. Some might say that set him free.

1. Jeffrey created this custom bookshelf  for a client born in South Asia. 2. The designer frequently begins a project with a sketch before 3D printing a prototype for the client’s design evaluation. 3. When designing this custom shelving unit, Jeffrey was inspired by the opening of the pages of a book. 4. A preliminary concept in Paul Rene Furniture & Cabinetry’s signature indigo blue hand sketch technique. 5. Designs are further refined using 3D computer renderings.

More determined than ever to find himself—and help others achieve their artistic and soulful goals—Jeffrey realized that everything that had happened to him along the way had given him purpose, despite how difficult his journey had been. Each wrong turn had value. “It’s like I was in the womb, learning, fully embracing my inner artist,” he says. “I knew this was my destiny, but did I have the courage to strive for it?” He remembered how his father had said to him: “Son, I don’t want you to grow up to take a job. I want you to grow up to create a job.” He swore he would somehow fulfill his father’s dream.

One day, he strode out without a plan, resolved to make something happen. In a moment that feels like TV’s Mr. Rogers reminding us to “look for the helpers,” Jeffrey harnessed his intuition and said to himself: “If I am going to do this right, if it’s going to be more than my side hustle, I need to find woodworkers.” He began driving and intuitively stopped at the first shop he found which, as fate would have it, was filled with furniture-making artisans at work. “I’ve got to believe there are no coincidences,” he says, recalling that he managed to communicate in rudimentary Spanish that he was a furniture designer in search of skilled craftspeople. Soon, he had a crew.

“Above all else, he is a good man, with honest intentions and a desire to create for others. Great qualities for a furniture designer.”

—Lawrence Lake, interior designer
1. This contemporary coffee table was crafted of alabaster, rosewood and high-gloss wired mercury supports. 2-3. A concept sketch for a wood dining table custom-designed for a Caymen Island client, and the finished piece, made of blond oak with steel accents. 4. This midcentury modern-inspired built-in office includes an integrated cone-shaped trash receptacle.

Today Paul Rene Furniture thrives. Working joyfully outside the box, Jeffrey’s designs take postmodern motifs to new dimensions, attracting a discerning clientele, pleased by the profound aesthetics his functional art brings to their homes and businesses. Interior designer Sandy Black has worked with Jeffrey for several years on a variety of projects. “Paul’s work gives you a sense that the designed piece is in motion, not just sitting stagnant in the space,” she says.

As for Jeffrey, he’s determined to support others on their paths to honoring their inner artists and to help show them the way, as no one could for him. From opening his studio to underprivileged students wanting to learn the woodworking trade to teaching classes online at an international arts school, he is committed to giving back and imbuing the world with as much creative fuel as possible. Paul Rene aficionados will be delighted to know that he’s preparing to launch his first limited-production product line. “We think it has the potential to make a little noise in the world of high-end art, design and furniture,” he predicts. A mix of organic and angular shapes, with postmodern, contemporary, rustic and sculptural influences, the collection will feature stand-alone pieces, built-ins, and upholstered seating.

When asked how he comes up with his groundbreaking designs, Jeffrey just shakes his head. “I love the process,” he says. “You know, I just love the process.”
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