Furnishing a future
Once on his way to the priesthood, Keith Fritz instead learned his real calling was turning out divine furniture.
Former Washingtonian Keith 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 that took an entire obsessive year to complete.
He learned the basics from his father 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," he said.
In 1995, Fritz, seen here putting the final luster on a table in his factory in Ferdinand, Ind., entered a small Catholic liberal arts school near his tiny Indiana home town. Two years later, with that 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, 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."
His big break came that summer, when he cold-called influential decorating partners Rob Brown and Todd Davis. They initially had Fritz make a dining table for pioneering HIV/AIDS researcher Robert Gallo. Then they went after Hillary Rodham Clinton. "They borrowed a few of my pieces to put in their own Georgetown house for her to see," Fritz said. "The Clintons love American crafts, and I ended up doing their dining table in Chappaqua."
Fritz enjoys making deliveries. In fact, he considers personal service, including delivery and set-up, almost as important as his craft. "I pack and drive all the pieces myself, because the worst damage to furniture takes place once it leaves the factory," he says.
By 2000, acquired a building in Petworth, but soon found that the costs of maintaining the shop and producing his work exceeded the money that work was bringing in, despite several bold-name clients. In 2005, he sold his building and moved back to Indiana. He still visits D.C. to make deliveries to clients. Here, he sets up the walnut table with showroom owner Matthew Costigan.
There, he felt certain, he could launch a successful business in an area boasting some of the country's best hardwood forests, sawmills, veneer dealers and journeyman woodworkers whose German Catholic forebears, like his own, had brought with them a strong work ethic.
This is the Chippendale-style secretary he built when he was 15.
He first moved into an old 7,000-square-foot corner dry cleaning shop he'd bought for $175,000 in Jasper. By 2008, he had outgrown the space and relocated to a larger space in Ferdinand, 20 minutes away.
Inside the current furniture facility are clean, well-lighted workrooms where several men in boom times, and perhaps just one when things are slow, spend their days making furniture, one piece at a time. Other artisans work from home in nearby towns. Fritz said his most talented craftsman, who works 50 hours a week, makes less than $40,000 a year. "These people want to work for me, even at my lower wage, because this is the kind of work they really love. And remember, the cost of living here is so much lower than in D.C."
With 35,000 square feet on two levels, Fritz had far more space than he needed, so he went the mixed-use route. "I got help finding tenants and financial backers. I got help with construction design, building codes. Everyone pitched in," he said.
Here, he's at his work space on the factory's second floor, which contains none of his own pieces. "I put all my samples in showrooms," he said. "Right now, I can't afford to take them out of circulation."
Even with tenants generating $48,000 a year in rent, Fritz has posted either meager profits or moderate losses in recent years, with the rising cost of labor and materials and the downturn in the market. He believes he can ride out the recession and ultimately earn a 5 percent profit without expanding beyond his six showrooms. "I don't want to be larger than 10 employees and five outside contractors, and maybe a couple million dollars a year in sales. If it gets larger than that, then I cannot control quality."
Fritz lives a dual life, one foot permanently in Ferdinand; the other, like the pencil end of a geometry compass, traveling the country in a rental truck to deliver his furniture.
Here are some of the chisels he uses to craft the furniture.
One of Fritz's tables was on display at this year's D.C. Design House.
In Siberia, Ind., Fritz is renovating his 19th century farmhouse, which belonged to his grandparents and three previous generations.
Against the grain (Post Magazine, April 25, 2010)
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