For 25 years, John Lesch has been the definition of perseverance. As the owner of a one-man furniture shop in St. Louis, he has seen the best of times and, yes, the worst of times. But due to his original designs, strong technique and numerous commissions from the Chicago market, he has managed to survive.
His shop roots are in an old brick building in the Soulard section of St. Louis, an artsy area just a few blocks away from the Mississippi River. And although he works alone, he does share his shop space with Lita, his rescue dog and loyal companion. He epitomizes the notion of a one-man shop.
"When I got out of college, I had a degree in anthropology from DePauw [University in Green Castle, Ind.]. My first real job was working with handicapped adults in a shelter workshop and they did some woodworking there and that's how I got into it. And I did some stuff in college. If you look back, you could say this guy had some inclination toward working with wood."
And then the spark was lit.
Moving on, on and on
"Before I got married, I went to a school in North Carolina, Catawba Community College in Hickory, N.C. It was totally geared toward the industry, teaching you how to run all the machines, but I think the intention was performance."
While in school, Lesch worked for a small company in Shady Grove, N.C., that made frames for upholstered furniture. Then he headed north and attended the Studio Art Furniture program at the Worcester (Mass.) Arts Center from 1983 to 1984 and apprenticed for Bob March.
"He was influential because he was the first person who was doing what I wanted to do. He was only about five years older than me. He even built his own house out in the country."
Lesch and his wife took turns going to school, and his next stop was Bloomington, Ind., where his wife was a painter and took classes at the University of Indiana. For the young woodworker, it turned out to be a rough few months and then a case of being in the right place at the right time.
"The guy I worked for, he would build these solid top tables and screw it all in so the wood wouldn't move. The pieces would come back six months later with cracks in it and he would say, 'Well, we didn't screw it down tight enough. We'll re-glue it and screw it down tighter.' We had a different way of looking at things. So when I left that job I started working on my own."
Luckily, he found a one-man shop to take over.
"There was a woodworker, who had been living in Bloomington, who moved out at the exact time that I was moving there," he recalls. "He was living on a small farm and turned a barn into a woodshop. I bought a Craftsman table saw for $200, and a new Hitachi planer, which I still have, and a couple of other things. Tool-wise, I don't have much, but I never have."
Windy City connections
Once Lesch had completed several spec pieces, he started knocking on gallery doors in Chicago. But his inexperience showed.
"One gallery owner asked, 'How much do you need for that piece,' " says Lesch. "I gave him some ridiculously low price and he looked at me and said, 'Well, yeah, we'll try and sell that.' So that is how I got my start up there. I started in a gallery called Manifesto, which is still there, and the owner was just getting started. Then I got connected with a couple of clients, including a company called Niedermeyer, which hired me to build a piece."
Through the Sawbridge Gallery, Lesch made more connections with Chicago designers and legendary art dealer Bud Holland. Even after moving to St. Louis in 1988, Lesch has maintained his Chicago contacts. The majority of his work continues to be commissions from the Chicago area.
"For a while, I had a couple of designers who I was working with in St. Louis but, compared to Chicago, it always came down to a struggle with the pricing," says Lesch. "At the end of the whole thing I'd feel like I just barely broke even, and the client would still feel like they paid way too much, so nobody was happy. In Chicago, it's not about the price; it's about [the clients] getting what they want."
Lesch estimates he's one of about 10 custom furniture makers in St. Louis. But despite the good odds, residents of the Gateway City often shop elsewhere for their big-ticket items, he says.
"They have this mixed-up idea that you have to go to New York or Chicago to buy good art. So if they're going to invest in art, they're not going to buy it in St. Louis. The people who spend their money on art are few and far between, and they are doing it partly because they might like the work, but mainly because somebody said that it is a good investment."
Lesch has operated as a one-man shop for most of his career, although at one time he had three employees. The current recession has changed his business dramatically.
Owner of: John Lesch Design
Primary sales area:
Years as pro: 25
About business: “I guess my advice would be don’t get in too far over your head, like if you are starting out. Try to keep your expenses as low as possible so that when you get in tight spots you’re not facing everything on a $10,000-a-month overhead where it only takes a few months before you go under.”
"This is the worst year yet," he says. "From 2006 to 2007, my income went down 50 percent. I lost another 50 percent in 2008.
"But from 2003 to 2006, I was doing pretty well. When our first daughter was born in 1993, I put a lot more effort into getting consistent connections. Rather than doing the gallery thing, I tried to find people that would keep me busy on a regular basis."
Since he works in St. Louis and sells in Chicago, he's usually forced to work through a designer or gallery. When times get tough, as they are now, there is always the tendency to second-guess.
"I think if I had initially focused on building a reputation in St. Louis, that might have been something that [developed] through word of mouth. There were a couple guys in St. Louis for a while that had a regular following of customers and they worked directly through their customers."
A cautious approach
If money wasn't such a key consideration, Lesch would build Art Deco and Nakashima-style furniture. However, the Chicago market has a strong demand for Frank Lloyd Wright, Prairie-style furniture.
"There would be two directions that I would go if I had no worries about where the next job would come from," he says. "One would be kind of an Art Deco design. The pieces I'm working on are copies of a [Emile-Jacques] Ruhlmann [French Art Deco designer] easel that he did. They involve a lot of veneer work and are pretty time-intensive. The other thing that I've played around with is more of a Nakashima idea, a sensibility where the focus of the piece is a solid plank, usually the top of a table. It would be as close to the natural form as would make sense."
His designs incorporate some inlay, a bit of carving, and some metal work from a neighboring shop. His shop's equipment is as modest as the building he works in. For the most part, he's content with the solitude of a one-man shop, his tight group of connections in Chicago, and the belief that the economy will eventually turn around.
He's simply taking things month by month, which seems to give him peace of mind.
"Two or three years ago, it got to the point that if I continued to let everything upset me, I was going to be miserable the rest of my life. That's not to say that I am the happiest person in the world, but at a certain point I just thought that it doesn't really matter what I do because it isn't going to really change things.
"If I was giving advice to young people and they had their heart set on doing something like this, I'd say don't let it get to the point where, if everything changes, you can't afford to keep going. Five years ago, when things were good, I thought things were going to continue the way they were."
Contact: John Lesch Design, 1007 Russell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63104. Tel: 314-772-4233. www.johnleschdesign.com
This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.