New Jersey is home to an extraordinary array of artisans. Meet some of the men and women who have turned passions into careers combining fine art and home decor.
Thomas Newman has carved out a reputation as an enthusiastic but soft-spoken creator of fine custom beds, tables, and specialty cabinets, making them the old-fashioned way—with care and by hand.
In his studio, as he runs his hand across a plank of wood, Newman can tell you everything about it—where it came from and even who logged it. He chooses wood that others might throw away—pieces with swirling patterns of distinctive graining that remind you that the wood was once alive.
Newman’s passion for wood started in the 1970s when Hoboken was lined with secondhand furniture stores, where Newman would buy some of the better pieces, then restore and resell them. But the story of how he went from Hoboken hand-me-downs to European high style involves a trip to France and a book.
Newman was inspired by the antique furniture he’d seen during his travel in France; later, he began to sell his restored furniture in Manhattan. Before long, Newman determined to make furniture that would be as beautiful as the pieces he was restoring.
The answer to how came in 1981, with Adventures in Wood Finishing by George Frank, which suggested that the beauty in antiques comes from something more than age and patina. The book introduced Newman to what he calls alchemic wood finishing—a world of techniques and folk wisdom that predate modern chemistry. Newman made a pilgrimage to meet Frank and ended up becoming a protégé. He later developed a friendship with the Clark family, in upstate New York, whose Catskill farm and 1920s sawmill began to provide the wood that he needed. Today, Newman takes logs whole, so he can “book-match” their slices to create mirror-image patterns in their surfaces. His finishing methods take time: Each varnish is brewed to suit the particular piece of wood he’s using and then applied in four hand-rubbed coats to bring out, Newman says, the “depth, glow, and aliveness” of the wood.
Initially, Newman’s “studio” was the 8-by-12-foot porch of his Hoboken apartment. Today, Newman and his two full-time employees fill two loft spaces in the Newmann Leather building, which covers a square block and is home to light industries, architects, painters, and antique refinishers.
It is here that customers and designers come to look at work that has been featured in publications like Architectural Digest and House and Garden. (Newman’s tables can be seen at Howard Kaplan Design in Manhattan.) Visitors to Newman’s loft see works in progress; a few samples to guide their custom choices; eclectic artwork on the walls; and complete logs, in slices, lying flat in a homemade dehumidifier.
In a year, Thomas and his employees complete 75 to 100 museum-quality pieces. Given their near-perfection, that seems like just about a perfect number.
Thomas W. Newman, 321 Newark Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030, 201-963-9108; thomaswnewman.com.
Judy and John Leong
Growing up, Judy Leong heard her father say that his hobby of working in stained glass offered him something beautiful to look at every day. That sentiment stuck with her.
Years later, Judy and her husband, John, shared a similar passion. During the week, they taught school, but on weekends they made stained-glass wares. By the late 1970s, when they were in their late twenties, it was a time of bright colors and modern design when many people wanted to try their own hand at stained glass, and there was enough interest in their work to allow them to quit their day jobs. In a new studio, Judy and John taught classes and worked on their own designs.
Then, in the 1980s, people began to rediscover the value in old homes and the fine craftsmanship that so many of them displayed.
New Jersey, with its great number and variety of old homes, was rich in stained glass. Soon Judy and John were being asked to restore stained glass windows to their former glory, and that work became the mainstay of their growing studio.
Today, in addition to its commissions for new work, Studio J restores hundreds of windows each year, from an individual piece in a private home to all the windows in a church or synagogue. Projects like these offer many challenges for the Leongs and their two employees: Some require complex removal of a window by a deft and experienced hand, and others demand finding the right match for something no longer made.
In their driven search for a perfect match, the couple will contact their friend and mentor, Richard Kurtz, an expert collector and restorer who operates out of his barn in Stewartsville and may have an old piece to salvage. They’ll also contact Steven Stelz, of Flemington, a renowned stained-glass artisan and restorer of Tiffany glass.
No matter how difficult their search, the effort is worth it when an old piece is restored to its original majesty.
For Judy, however, it’s the glass itself that has the magic. She describes how she cried when she had to sell a particularly unusual piece of brown-and-yellow bull’s-eye glass. Judy and her husband are, as she says, “addicted to glass.”
Studio J, 1233–1239 Main Avenue, Clifton, NJ 07011, 888-772-5282; 973-772-5282; studiojglass.com.
Arletta Tell and Mark Romanoski
Arletta Tell and Mark Romanoski give homes unique character through decorative art painting and murals that can transform spaces and give walls Old World charm.
Ten years ago, Tell was a real estate agent, doing decorative furniture painting as a hobby. “I never expected it to go beyond that,” she says. Then, a customer who had purchased a piece of her painted furniture wanted her to tackle a wall. Never having painted on such a large scale, Tell was hesitant, but her customer insisted.
“I knew from that moment that this was what I was going to do,” Tell says. What followed was a frenzy of study, research, and experimentation.
Tell met Romanoski, her creative partner, through a mutual friend, and the two ended up taking classes together. Romanoski can’t remember a time when art wasn’t part of his life. In addition to drawing, he’s always loved comic books and fantasy-related material. After classical training with many art teachers, including Peter Caras, himself a protégé of Norman Rockwell, Romanoski became an illustrator.
That training and experience proved ideal for working on big canvases. It’s also ideal for working with clients: Tell and Romanoski can turn one client’s New Jersey wine cellar into a piece of Italy or another’s ordinary ceiling into a halo of clouds. They can also custom-tailor their faux finishes, wood graining, or Venetian plaster to a client’s sense of color and style.
Romanoski says, “We’re both very fortunate; we love what we do.” He quotes a piece of wisdom once shared with him: “Each day, leave your work on a happy note so you can’t wait to get back to it in the morning.”
From the testimonials of clients whose homes Tell and Romanoski have transformed, it’s clear that those are words that they live and work by.
Artistic Alternatives, Hillsborough, NJ 08844, 908-431-1895, www.artistic-alternatives.com.