Expert Craftsman Makes Furniture For Powerbrokers

Keith Fritz says when he was growing up he wanted to be a farmer, a priest and a furniture maker. Now he says he’s done all three. Fritz explains how he went from the seminary to becoming one of the country’s most sought-after furniture makers. Having carved out his career making furniture for the D.C. elite �" including U.S. presidents �" Fritz has taken his craft back to his home town of Ferdinand, Indiana, where he oversees a community-oriented furniture studio. His story is featured in this week’s Washington Post Magazine. Host Michel Martin talks to Fritz about his story and his passion for the craft.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, which we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. This week we meet a man named Keith Fritz, whose handmade furniture graces the homes of a high-powered clientele that includes the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

But Fritz's path to his work was an unusual one. And let's just say his motivation for making all those fancy pieces for rich people calls to mind another famous carpenter. Keith Fritz joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. KEITH FRITZ (Keith Fritz Fine Furniture): Thank you. It's very nice to be here.

MARTIN: Okay, so I'm being a little cute in my introduction, but that's a long way of saying that you had actually planned to become a Catholic priest.

Mr. FRITZ: When I was a little kid, there was three things I wanted to do. I wanted to be a farmer, I wanted to be a priest and I wanted to be a furniture maker. And in some ways I guess I kind of do all three. In seminary I did altars and did woodwork for different priests. And they encouraged me to do my art, to build furniture because, you know, they're so overworked and they don't get to do those things.

MARTIN: Was that a sense of loss for you when you - or a sense of grief, or were you - when you decided to change course and do carpentry full time?

Mr. FRITZ: No, not at all. When I was a little kid, I grew up seven miles from Saint Meinrad Monastery. And when I was growing up, some of my best friends were the priests and the monks. And I admired them and I loved what they did. I wanted to be like them. But then as I became older, I began to disagree with how the church was run. I think women should be priests. I think the church would be a much better ran organization if women were in the leadership.

And if you disagree with things, it's very hard to preach them or to teach them. And I felt that I could do what I was called to do by living my life and building furniture and having a community of craftsmen and artisans and offering people a good job. I mean, I've helped a lot of people do what they love to do.

I took this old factory, the furniture company had went bankrupt and we bought the old factory and I had my furniture company in the back, but we've redeveloped the front and turned it into a small business development center. There's...

MARTIN: This is back in your hometown.

Mr. FRITZ: Yeah, in Ferdinand, yeah.

MARTIN: In Ferdinand, Indiana. And I was going to ask you about that. In a way, you're kind of a one-man economic development agency, although you don't really see it that way.

Mr. FRITZ: I kind of see myself as a leader of this community. And there have been so many little miracles. I know that divine providence is working because...

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. In a way, your faith still informs your work.

Mr. FRITZ: Oh, sure. Sure.

MARTIN: In a way, do you feel like your carpentry is a form of ministry?

Mr. FRITZ: Well, yeah. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere in southern Indiana. And to get to build furniture for presidents, there are so many little miracles. I really believe that the talent, the woodworking gifts and the different people I've gotten to meet and the relationships I've gotten to build is divine providence. The people in our community love building furniture. And so many of the jobs have went overseas.

MARTIN: I just want to mention that for people who listen to this program regularly know that we've done a lot on the unemployment situation in the country and Indiana has one of the highest rates in the country. And your community, below the national average.

Mr. FRITZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: But still pretty high, it's close to 10 percent.

Mr. FRITZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: So, you are providing jobs, ongoing jobs, an array of different kinds of jobs with the work that you do.

Mr. FRITZ: Yeah. I think it's a miracle that I got to do work, you know, for the clients that I've gotten to work for. And I think that's meant to be because people need to have a job that they love and that they enjoy. So many people have this creative desire to build. Most furniture today is built in factories. It's mass produced, it's made by machines. We're building one piece at a time by hand.

There's so much love that goes into each piece. There's so much soul. And I think that, you know, letting people do what they love and what they enjoy is a wonderful thing. And that, you know...

MARTIN: The author of the piece, Annie Groer, she mainly talked about some of the tables that you have made. Do you mainly do tables or other things?

Mr. FRITZ: Dining tables are our specialty. We custom tailor the tables to fit the room, how the family lives, how the family entertains. A table is a very personal thing. And it's something that people want something very special that'll be handed down, you know, through the generations.

MARTIN: How much do your tables cost? What about the range?

Mr. FRITZ: It depends. It depends upon how much work is in them. Some of them can be less than $10,000. Some of them can be $30,000. It depends upon the amount of work that's involved.

MARTIN: Well, I do have to ask, finally, I just can't resist, though, you started out kind of as a servant to the poor, really, as a priest, it's part of your, sort of mission. And the work that you do is unavailable to people who -unless they're very wealthy.

Mr. FRITZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I wonder if that's ever weird for you.

Mr. FRITZ: The thing is, is so many successful people, politicians, like to support American craftsmanship, like to buy things that are handmade. And what a great thing to support local craftspeople and local artisans. I mean, I don't see it as inaccessible. I see it as, you know, supporting.

I don't have very much of my own furniture. It's in our showrooms. What I have is a lot of hand-me-downs, things I made in high school, you know, antiques. So I can't, you know, I mean...

MARTIN: That's like a shoemaker whose children have no shoes. You're a furniture maker with no furniture. That's kind of weird.

Mr. FRITZ: Well, I have old things that I've recycled and - I made an apartment for myself above the coffee shop and the factory and I got old doors from the monastery and refinished them, and old shelves. I mean, so it's, I like to recycle.

MARTIN: Keith Fritz is a furniture maker and economic dynamo of Ferdinand, Indiana. If you want to read the piece about him, and we hope you will, it's in this week's Washington Post magazine. It was written by Annie Groer. We'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to the programs page at NPR.org. Click on TELL ME MORE. Keith Fritz, thank you for joining us.

Mr. FRITZ: Thank you, Michel. It's great to be here.

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