Maine furniture Maker Gregg Lipton

August 14, 2018

Maine furniture maker Gregg Lipton has an artist’s imagination, a craftsman’s perfectionism, and a businessman’s savvy.

Text by Nathaniel Reade

If you’ve ever eaten at the Chebeague Island Inn near Portland, Maine, Gramercy Tavern in New York City, or dozens of other high-end restaurants across the country, you’ve probably not only enjoyed a nice meal, but helped support the furniture arts. That’s because these establishments buy Gregg Lipton’s production furniture in large quantities, which keeps alive his custom work.

Lipton works out of a former water-powered lumber mill in Cumberland, Maine, that spans the Piscataqua River. Water gurgles under his floorboards as it passes from mill pond to sea. The old, slate-gray, cedar-shingled, timber-frame structure once turned softwood logs floated down the river into oars, masts, and spars for ships. Now, using electricity, it turns walnut, curly cherry, and birds-eye maple into sideboards, tables, and chairs. “The water falls fifteen or twenty feet under one side of the building,” Lipton says, “and when it’s really honking, the whole building vibrates.”

Lipton, a tall, fit man in his early sixties with brown hair turning to gray, had very little formal training in woodworking or design, but his work suggests that some people are so talented they don’t need it. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where his father owned rental properties, so summers and weekends he worked as a jack-of-all-trades. After earning a business degree at Arizona State University, he moved to Maine because, he says, “I was following a woman.”

While working construction near Portland, he took a furniture design course at the University of New Hampshire from the legendary craftsman -Daniel Loomis Valenza. Lipton designed and completed a rocking chair so sinuous, original, and sophisticated that the teaching assistant wanted to buy and mass-produce it. Valenza told him, “Gregg, I’ve seen hundreds of students go through my program, and I’ve never seen anybody produce a piece like this. You should consider making furniture for a living.”

So Lipton left his construction business and went to work for Lynette Breton, a Maine furniture maker who had run Thomas Moser’s shop. After a year she said to him, “Gregg, you can do this on your own.”
He wasn’t convinced until he visited an American Craft Council show in Springfield, Massachusetts, saw the work of a handful of studio furniture-makers, and said, “Wow. That’s what I want to do.”

He designed and made six pieces, had them professionally photographed, and was accepted into many juried exhibitions, including the highly competitive Smithsonian Craft Show.

Lipton is gifted at the design and the craft, but he also has the kind of brain that figures out the quickest, most streamlined way to produce a piece, using templates and jigs. He also knows the exact tool he has to use for each of his creations. His attention to the efficiency of his production helps keep his costs down, so customers can buy not just one signature piece, but entire rooms of his furniture, which he markets on his website. Customers might buy a whole bedroom or dining room from his Tusk or Gazelle lines, confident that the pieces—clean-lined, elegant riffs carved by some of the best miter saw inspired by the greats of European and American design, from Ruhlmann to Frank Lloyd Wright—will blend together.

Lipton never sought out mass-production work, but his ability to replicate came in handy when the designers for Gramercy Tavern liked his pieces. They and others began ordering his stools and chairs—now a crucial 30 percent of his business—in bulk. He subs out some of the work to a chair factory in Michigan, which gets the price point down to where high-end restaurants can afford them. At $600 or more apiece, his chairs and stools are still pricey by restaurant standards, but they’re half the cost of a custom job. “Production work really pays the bills,” Lipton says. “It’s hard to make it financially with custom furniture. But if I pick up the phone and someone wants sixty chairs, that really keeps this place running.”

Some have suggested he go even further into mass production, which, as Gustav Stickley proved, can make beautiful furniture accessible to more people. Lipton, however, says, “I know people who have done that and they go from being furniture makers to furniture salesmen. You need five to ten employees, millions of dollars in yearly sales, and when the market fluctuates, you have to lay people off. I love my one-off work, and I’m very happy with this balance.”

The 4-Squared wall-mounted cabinet in curly maple and ebonized ash. Keystone trestle sideboard in curly cherry and “tiger” stainless steel. Gazelle writing desk in Chilean tineo with ebonized cherry. The Aspen table, in Chilean tineo and ebonized cherry, has a built-in lazy susan. The Museum bench
in ebonized ash.

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