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Furniture Maker

By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page H01

By age 16, Keith Fritz had already won two statewide woodworking prizes, including one for an elaborate Chippendale secretary complete with a dozen secret compartments, which took a year to complete.

Today, with Fritz just weeks shy of his 28th birthday, his exquisitely made furniture -- fresh takes on designs from the 18th and 19th centuries -- can be found in the homes of several of America's leading boldfacers, among them Bill and Hillary Clinton and actor Chris O'Donnell.

Keith Fritz in his Washington workshop. (Len Spoden For The Washington Post)

In October, he provided two tables and a mirror for the National Symphony Orchestra's Decorators' Show House, which drew more than 18,000 visitors.

On Jan. 7, two round tabletops and six mirrors -- their graining meticulously aligned, their surfaces stained and polished to a high gleam -- will hang like art on the walls of the Strand on Volta Gallery in Georgetown for a five-week solo exhibition.

However, the strongest measure of this cabinetmaker's talent may be the commissions from local design professionals seeking custom pieces for their own homes.

"His work is so high quality and has such a refined design that it is art," says Jerry Harpole, an architect and designer whose 60-inch round dining table, black laurel with ebony inlay, was just finished in the Fritz workshop in D.C.'s Petworth neighborhood. "Besides, he's a very nice guy."

Designer Frank Babb Randolph, another pleased possessor of a Fritz dining table, enjoys "running into the furniture shop and working closely with him. I like to say, 'I want that faded mahogany to look even more faded.' I don't like anything to look new, and when you are buying most tables from manufacturers you are not there at the place of refinishing."

Georgeous dining tables remain the Fritz signature.

"Most furniture today is made of cheap wood with a lot of color sprayed on," Fritz says. "A lot of woods I use, most people have never seen. A big company like Baker couldn't do what I am doing. There is just not enough out there and it would be too expensive."

Expensive, indeed. A 74-inch marble Makassar ebony table with sterling silver inlay for a client in McLean, can retail for up to $30,000. Those who cannot afford such luxe might prefer his mirrors in wooden frames graced by trefoils, stars or pierced circles, which cost $3,200 to $3,800 at Hunters & Gatherers in Kensington.

"I use veneers over Baltic birch. It won't crack or warp. Some veneer is really cheap, but we do it just like Biedermeier and Federal veneer work. It's all done by hand out of trees so rare that it is a lot more expensive than solid wood," says Fritz.

His father and grandfather -- farmers and accomplished woodworkers in the flyspeck southern Indiana town of Siberia (one stop sign, no traffic light) -- taught him the finer points of transforming large trees into splendid furniture.

When he was in high school, the state's lumber and tool industries ran an annual furniture-making competition. Fritz entered for the first time at age 15 and took top honors for a Victorian-style chifferobe, which is part dresser, part closet. The Chippendale desk won first prize a year later.

But Fritz was already pursuing a powerful vocation. He began studying for the priesthood at nearby Saint Meinrad Archabbey and two years later came to Washington to attend Catholic University. He set up a workshop in the seminary basement and in his spare time refinished an altar, made a lectern and added wainscoting to the chapel.

After graduating in 1999, he made a major decision to shift gears. "I love the Catholic Church, but I felt my calling was furniture making. My talent is in woodworking."

He opened a workshop on Capitol Hill, taking on residential and ecclesiastical work. In the following year, Fritz began his most significant commission, a pair of intricately carved lecterns for St. Vincent Ferrer Church on New York's Upper East Side. They took two years to complete.

As business grew, fueled solely by word of mouth, Fritz bought an old hardware store for $130,000 and set up shop in "the barest inhabitable building on Georgia Avenue," he says. For the past three years, he has milled solid lumber and worked on vintage veneers in the basement. On the main floor, he and three artisans build, sand and stain furniture (three other craftsmen work at their homes). The second floor houses an office dominated by a green-painted wooden pie safe acquired by his great-great-grandfather in the late 1800s, and the living quarters for Fritz and two friends.

But his dreams go far beyond Petworth. He has organized an informal group of local young design talent that meets periodically to socialize and hash out such issues as difficult clients and helpful software. He hopes to open a factory back home in Jasper, Ind., to make fine Keith Fritz furniture.

Some time into his 40s, he says, he will dip into his "stash" of walnut and cherry planks made from trees felled a decade ago by his father and grandfather on the family farm.

"I am saving this wood until I get even better. . . . I will save it for another 15 years because you only get wood like this once in a lifetime."

To Watch in 2005

Architects: Marcie Meditch and John Murphey
Landscape Designer: Edward Colahan
Interior Designer: Celeste Davis
Retailers: Tamara Schulman and Gloria de Lourdes Blalock

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