Against the grain: Keith Fritz left the path to the priesthood to create divine furniture

Once on his way to the priesthood, Keith Fritz instead learned his real calling was turning out divine furniture.

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By Annie Groer
Sunday, April 25, 2010

On a raw and dreary February morning, former Washingtonian Keith Fritz wrestled a heavily padded tabletop and base into the tony Washington Design Center, where clients can pay as much for a chandelier as they would for a low-end BMW.

The table wasn't just another piece of fine furniture. With its round 64-inch-wide top and three curved legs on silver paw-foot casters, it represented more than 125 painstaking hours of work: sawing, sanding, gluing, planing, scraping, filling, staining, sealing, polishing, waxing and buffing. It symbolized Fritz's recession-tossed dream of proving that a tiny Indiana town with one traffic light could produce swoon-inducing furniture for designers from Dallas to New York and, in the process, help nudge a corner of the American heartland toward economic health and artistic fellowship.

***

On that Monday not far from the U.S. Capitol, Fritz, 33, was wearing jeans, sneakers and a Brooks Brothers shirt -- one of many high-quality hand-me-downs from well-dressed designer pals familiar with his frugality and indifference to fashion. Sitting on the floor of the elegant Michael-Cleary home furnishings showroom, shoulders hunched up around his ears, he began attaching the tabletop to its base. After several minutes, he wriggled out and unfolded his 6-foot frame to inspect the surface, which was bathed in the bright glow of the chandeliers, sconces and lamps of the showroom's lighting gallery. Fritz, who has blue eyes and a monkish fringe of hair, peered down at 16 near-identical pie-matched slices of American "cathedral arch" walnut veneer, bordered in a thin circle of ebony. He smiled broadly.

When two local interior designers had told him they needed a table to anchor their dining room in the 2010 D.C. Design House, Fritz built this one for them on spec. It would stay at Michael-Cleary, Fritz's Washington showroom, which is open only to the design trade, until late last month, when it would be moved to a 1905 Georgian-style red brick mansion in Chevy Chase. From April 10 through May 9, it would be seen by thousands of home decor devotees who would come to ogle the efforts of 21 designers who had worked their magic on 20 rooms and newly landscaped gardens.

Although Keith Fritz Fine Furniture samples are also in showrooms in New York, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Atlanta, Fritz's deepest roots outside Indiana are in Washington. It is here that he met his first decorators, architects and designers; snagged his first important clients; and came to believe he could, indeed, earn a living making furniture. It was here, too, that he learned that real estate could subsidize art.

A few feet away from Fritz in the Michael-Cleary showroom, the ever-dapper Tony Carcaldi, 69, leaned back in his chair. He was also smiling. Carcaldi is a salesman who has seen hundreds of furniture lines during his 37-year career. "The quality is impeccable; his finishes are phenomenal," he said of Fritz's work. "When I found out this kid came from the middle of Indiana, that he was in the seminary, I said, 'No way.' But, my God, the kid really has it."

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Fritz's gifts were recognized early. By the time he was 16, he had won two statewide woodworking contests, the latter for an ornate bow front Chippendale-style secretary with a dozen secret compartments that took an entire obsessive year to complete. "I'm ADD and hyperactive," he said. "When I was young, I learned to quilt from Grandma. My mother taught me to sew, and I can crochet. I could concentrate and focus on math when my hands were busy."

He has been doing woodworking since he was a kid. He learned the basics from his father, Robert, a carpenter, and from assorted shop teachers, but "when I started talking about bombe chests with ball-and-claw legs, I lost them all. So I'm pretty much self-taught. I read Fine Woodworking magazine and a ton of books."

In 1995, he entered Saint Meinrad College, a small Catholic liberal arts school near his tiny Indiana home town. He hoped to become a priest for the Diocese of Evansville, an hour away. Two years later, with the college about to close, Fritz transferred to the seminary at Catholic University on a full scholarship, to continue studying for the priesthood. A self-described "naive, innocent, clueless seminarian from a rural Indiana farm cocoon," he immediately set up a woodshop in a CU basement and, in his spare time, refinished an altar, made a lectern and added wainscoting to a campus chapel.

By the time he graduated in 1999 with a philosophy degree, Fritz had switched vocations. "When I was growing up, the Catholic Church was my God, and then I got to know the hierarchy better, and I disagreed with a lot of things: that priests should be celibate, that women should not be ordained," he said. "It's kind of hard to be a priest when you don't agree with what you are supposed to be preaching. I had a number of priest friends who told me I had a real gift for woodworking and if I became a priest I wouldn't have any time for it."


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