Can a Computer Make Better American Furniture?



“It’s funny that the things that end up in a showroom are just like, failures. That’s a — I don’t know, I guess the front leg of that chair. It had a little too much, right there.” Adam Rogers points to a small bulge of walnut under the leg’s integral tenon, a misshapen lump made by errant CNC programming. The leg is a test piece from Rogers’ Thos. Moser Hartford Collection chair. He places the piece back on the showroom wall. Rogers is visiting New York City to receive an Architizer A+ Award for in Residential Furniture for the Hartford Collection, his third collection for the brand. Bearded, bespeckled and soft-spoken, Rogers looks equally prepared for Greenpoint, Brooklyn as Auburn, Maine, Thos. Moser’s headquarters. He’s not one for awards shows. “I don’t think we’re quite high enough on the billing to be allowed to talk, which is just fine,” he remarks, turning back to the walnut.

“So the concept is that we take a big piece of solid wood and use pretty high-tech machinery, a five axis — it’s actually six axis CNC machinery. We take a solid stick, kind of turn it on a lathe and pull it on the machine and do a lot of handwork for this. We kind of redefine what a visible joint might be.” Moser furniture is not known for CNC machinery. The company, at the helm of self-taught furniture maker Tom Moser, is known for purity in woodworking — no stain, little machinery, just hand-crafted shaping that manipulates premium wood from top mills into artful American furniture. Moser’s work is characterized by sweeping curves and sculptural, yet traditional, expressions of wood. Rogers is fresh blood to the company, the first non-Moser to take the title of Director of Design. “I have a genuine respect for and a connection to the romantic approach, but I also understand its role in the evolution, I have a healthy respect for the history of Thos. Moser and what got us here, but I think it’s just a segue.”

“To Tom it’s this gee-whiz technology. He says, ‘Why don’t you just go press some button?’ I say, ‘Well, there’s a lot more to it than that.'”

Rogers comes from the world of commercial architecture. Trained on CAD drawings and the practicality of bearing capacities, he spent five years on large scale architectural projects before scrapping corporate architecture and pursuing a graduate degree in woodworking. At Thos. Moser, both sensibilities fire, and he doesn’t back away from fighting for the beauty of a CNC’d piece of wood. “To Tom it’s this gee-whiz technology. He says, ‘Why don’t you just go press some button?’ I say, ‘Well, there’s a lot more to it than that.'”

Photo: Matthew Ankeny

CNC machinery provides precision, the kind needed for the kind of mortise and tenon joint that’s the defining feature of the collection. The machinery allows Rogers to emphasize the joint itself, and to emphasize the capabilities of the machine. The joint, which looks like a tree branch cavity joined to a horizontal rail, is simple and, most notably, straight. The Hartford Collection is defined by straight lines, angularity. Moser’s take? “There’s things he likes and things he doesn’t like. He’s the first to tell me that this [side table] is a dog, but it’s actually my favorite piece I’ve designed,” Rogers said, pointing to a small side table that’s a perfectly circular button top over three triangular legs. “So what are you going to do? People seem to like it. It’s not that he’s wrong, it’s just that we have different perspectives.”

To Rogers, the brand’s coming-of-age is due, and he’s ready to see the maturation through. “We continue to explore new machinery, technology, techniques, even materials; specifically, we’ll start to employ natural material, stone and things like that. Those are all, kind of, a bit taboo at the moment.” He offers a small smirk under his beard. “Some people are all on the computer screen and they want to, you know, make one jump from the computer to the CNC machine and have a product. Some people are romantic; you know, build, build, build, iterate, iterate, iterate and then produce products. We try to strike that balance, and I guess — chicken or egg — I’m the guy leading that sensibility. The organization has evolved that way, but I had some role in that.”

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