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Meet Eli Cleveland of ESC Furniture in Charlestown

Today we’d like to introduce you to Eli Cleveland.

Eli, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
Looking back, I have always loved putting things together and taking things apart. Fortunately, my parents were very encouraging which meant that my friends and I were always cooking up some project in the basement or back yard. I went to college at the University of Georgia, but stayed hands-on with woodworking. My apartment became a workshop. Friends would come over with an idea for a piece of furniture and we would set to work with basic tools and some wood from Home Depot. In my last year of school, I started taking a very serious look at my future. I was earning a degree in Math and was headed into insurance, but I found myself rushing home to work on whatever I had going in the “shop.” I did some research and found the North Bennet Street School in Boston. The school’s history and reputation impressed me and again, luckily, my parents were encouraging.

NBSS is the oldest trade school in the US and has, since its founding, sought to place students in the trades as they graduate. The Cabinet and Furniture Program focuses on time-tested methods, but also taught me to visualize and design new projects. While I was there, I was immersed in American antique furniture for the entirety of the two-year program. I came to appreciate the forms and techniques that I had previously thought of as stodgy or boring. Beyond that, I also appreciated the approach that the instructors used. The step-by-step progression and the problem solving appealed to the part of me that loved math in college. Each project was a puzzle that I had to simultaneously make and solve.

After graduation from NBSS, I moved into the shop of Thomas J. MacDonald. For our first two years together, we built commissioned pieces and produced video podcasts. During that time Tom was positioning himself to host a television show for WGBH. With the retirement of Norm Abrams from “The New Yankee Workshop,” Tom and I joined with the producers at WGBH to create the show “Rough Cut: Woodworking with Tommy Mac.” As it turned out, we were not as prepared as we had thought. Nonetheless, we put our heads down and produced season after season of new projects. I spent five years working behind-the-scenes (and sometimes in front of the camera) during which I helped build 13 projects each year. The production schedule was demanding but I learned a lot about what I was capable of in the shop, especially under pressure.

Towards the end of my stint with the show, I found time to start taking commissions in the off-season. These started small with simple repairs, jewelry boxes, and picture frames, but they slowly grew over time. My decision to move on from Rough Cut was directly tied to my good fortune in finding work. In 2012, I founded ESC Furniture and by 2014 I was ready to leave the show and take commission work full-time. Since then, I have done work for clients all around Boston, Harvard University, Brandeis University, and the old and new State Houses, among others. I have stayed connected with North Bennet Street School, as well. In 2010, I started substituting for the instructors. Later, my role was expanding to teaching part-time in the program from which I graduated. This year I have added some Continuing Education classes to my slate, too.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
From the inside, it has felt like an unbearable bumpy road. Recently, though, I have been able to reflect on my nine years(!) in the industry and count my many fortunes. When I first moved to Boston and attended NBSS, it was a huge moment that I didn’t fully understand. I had grown up my whole life in one house. I went to UGA, which I loved, but was also where my whole family had attended college. Moving away and pursuing something new was important for me personally, but pushed me to grow faster than I had imagined. My family had been so generous, encouraging, and patient that I knew I had to make this work. I poured myself into furniture and into work until I reached a breaking point. I had to find a way to grind things out in the shop (and it is definitely a grind for me) but still be able to sustain myself indefinitely. Graduating from NBSS, I had to VERY quickly understand how to run a business, how to price my work, and most importantly, how to stay sane. I spent a number of years struggling to reconcile my views of my work (slow, flawed, expensive) with the client’s view (refined, valuable, but still may be a little slow, haha).

At some point, I recognized that I needed to put more focus on my health and my relationships. As it turns out, that investment in myself immediately reflected in my work. Growth as both an individual and a maker required discipline, humility, honesty, and patience. I had spent years working to separate my work and home lives but instead found this very fundamental connection. I still face the expected struggles of juggling shop time with administrative duties and properly valuing my time, but I feel more equipped to deal with them.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about ESC Furniture – what should we know?
I design and build custom furniture for clients ranging from individuals to large institutions. One of the ways that I have stayed busy is by avoiding a specialization in a certain style. My work runs the gamut from large to small and historic to modern. My specialty is in customization and quality. Even the simplest project is going to be executed at a high level. Also, I try not to dictate to clients what their options are. I consider it my job to do the behind-the-scenes problem-solving. When a client has a vision, I want to give them exactly what they are looking for, without imposing any compromises.

I am most proud of an outdoor swing that I built for an exhibition at the Fruitlands Museum. About 10 makers were invited to view pieces from various properties managed by the Trustees of Reservations. We were then tasked with building a new piece inspired by the original. A corner cupboard caught my attention, partially for its design and partially for its provenance. It was from an estate owned by Mabel Choate. At a time when women were expected to stay behind the scenes, she was building a legacy in the form of the gardens at Naumkeag and the Mission house on the property. I designed and built a swing that paid homage to her story. It combines my research into her life with details from the original cupboard. The result inspired someone to purchase the piece and donate it to the Trustees to be exhibited on Mabel’s estate. Having my own design strike a chord with others is a supremely validating moment.

Recently, I have really started to find my voice as an individual maker. I have become comfortable enough with various forms and techniques that I don’t feel as reliant on them in my own designs. I can reach for inspiration outside of woodworking and incorporate it into my furniture.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
I think my reflective approach has been the biggest factor in my success. I am constantly assessing both my own process in the shop and the way I interact with clients. It’s important to not just complete a job, but also to learn from it and respond accordingly.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Christie Jackson, Conversations in Craft, The Trustees, Anthony Tieuli, Lance Patterson

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