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Builder of dreams : Nipomo woodworker turns ideas into treasures

By Ken Frye on Jan 12, 2013 at 10:46 AM in Exhibits/News
Santa Barbara News Press

republished from Santa Barbara New Press 
email: Dave Mason, [email protected] 

Builder of dreams : Nipomo woodworker turns ideas into treasures
Ken Frye adds the finishing touches to a liquor cabinet at his Nipomo studio. The cabinet, which features a diamond pattern that Mr. Frye favors in his work, will sell for $45,000. He built it in the style of French designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879�1933).
Builder of dreams : Nipomo woodworker turns ideas into treasures
Mr. Frye made this dressing table from madrone burl and European pearwood. It sells for $45,000. Mr. Frye figured out the mechanics, including the crankshaft, springs and musical recording, for this jack-in-the-box. Mary Barrette of Nipomo created the porcelain doll that rises in it. It sells for $20,000. Mr. Frye created the Macassar ebony paneling around this fireplace in Montecito.
Builder of dreams : Nipomo woodworker turns ideas into treasures
Ken Frye hand-planed a piece of wood at his Nipomo studio. Mr. Frye is surrounded by his pieces, varying from an East Indian and California walnut cabinet, left; a madrone burl and European pearwood dressing table, center; and a liquor cabinet, right. He holds his jack-in-the box.
Builder of dreams : Nipomo woodworker turns ideas into treasures
Starting from top: This European pearwood cabinet is among the furniture made by Mr. Frye. It's priced at $18,000. PHOTOS COURTESY KEN FRYE Mr. Frye carved this Gothic cabinet from East Indian rosewood and California walnut. It's priced at $35,000. Mr. Frye likes using diamond patterns, such as the one on this liquor cabinet priced at $45,000. PHIL KLEIN/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS Mr. Frye's love letter cabinet features European pearwood and a parquet diamond pattern and is done in the style of French designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. It sells for $60,000. Mr. Frye made this table, with a quilted maple top, at his Nipomo studio. It sells for $7,000.

Woodworker Ken Frye will spend hundreds of hours creating furnishings and interiors that challenge what people think wood can be: a jack-in-the box in the shape of a circus tent; a jewelry box that looks like a pillow; paneling and trims reminiscent of an Irish pub.

Whether building something for himself or for someone else, Mr. Frye likes to build dreams.

In the process, he wants to blow people away.

"A lot of the enjoyment of my work comes from the opportunity the client gives me to create something beautiful— to take my client's vision and turn them into reality," the 41-year-old woodworker from San Luis Obispo told the News-Press by phone from his studio in Nipomo.

The Covina native, who drives regularly to Santa Barbara to sell his pieces to interior designers and architects, said 99 percent of his works are commissioned. "They give me the idea of what they want, and I get to make it. Sometimes they make it extra challenging, and they can't find anyone who can figure out how to build it.

"I had one client, a Pacific Palisades architect, who wanted a custom leather bar. I had to expand my horizon," Mr. Frye said.

"I do everything from chairs to tables, liquor cabinets and entire (wood) interiors for amazing homes," said the woodworker, who charges $5,000 to $50,000 for each of his pieces.

He puts in a lot of time, working about 60 hours a week. He said he'll spend 200 hours on a single liquor cabinet to perfect it.

"I can't live with something that's not right," he said. "I have a reputation. ... I want to blow people away. I want them to see something they've never seen before."

"To me, being surrounded by beautiful things helps nurture the soul and creates an environment that's pleasing to live in," he said. He makes furniture that varies from what he called "refined medieval" to Art Deco and nouveau (French for "new").

Mr. Frye, who moved with his parents to Nipomo in 1986 from Covina because they wanted to escape the Los Angeles smog, fell in love with woodworking when he took wood shop at Arroyo Grande High School, where he graduated in 1989. He recalled making things such as a sheet music cabinet and laughed because of how far he has progressed since then.

In lieu of college, he trained for 3,200 hours from 1989 to 1992 in private lessons from James Krenov, a prominent Russian woodworker and author (1920-2009), in Fort Bragg in Northern California.

"I learned the skills necessary to build museum-quality furniture," said Mr. Frye, who lived in Nipomo from 1992 to 1998. His works have been shown in museums such as, most recently, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.

"I have some Gothic influence in my work, and there's a quite a bit of hand carving," Mr. Frye said. "I completed a very Art Deco Ruhlmann liquor cabinet. He (Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, 1879-1933) was a French designer." (He made the cabinet, which features a diamond pattern, in the Ruhlmann style.)

Mr. Frye likes to use woods from around the world, everything from European pearwood to domestic woods such as cherry and maple. "I like to see the beauty of the wood, the beauty of the grain," he said. "A lot of it is finding the right wood for the right piece."

He favors woods with soft or warm colors such as beige, medium-dark brown or a flesh tone. "What I like about it is that it looks like a soft painting."

But for some pieces, he uses darker East Indian rosewood and Macassar ebony. Again, it's about the right wood for the right project.

His clients like the results.

"We wanted to create a dark, comfortable Irish pub look," said Tim Rooney, who opened Rooney's Irish Pub in Orcutt in 2010. "He (Mr. Frye) was instrumental in achieving that." Mr. Rooney said Mr. Frye did the dark brown woodwork, including the paneling and trims. Everything but the bar.

"He did a phenomenal job!" Mr. Rooney, 55, told the News-Press.

Mr. Frye makes his living on his commissioned projects, but loves to talk about his noncommissioned works, the ones that grow from his dreams. He hangs onto for them for years, however long it takes to sell them. In 2000, he made the jack-in-the-box, putting 400 hours into a piece that sells for $20,000.

The porcelain doll that pops out of the box was made by Nipomo doll maker Mary Barrette. But Mr. Frye did the rest, including the crankshaft, springs and the musical recording.

"The pearwood top was hand-carved to make it look like a circus tent," he said. "That was the idea. It was all done with carving tools like chisels and was very carefully sanded."

On the sides of the box is a feature common to his work, a diamond design. Mr. Frye said diamonds combine simplicity with sophistication.

He stressed he had to give the jack-in-the-box meticulous attention.

Maybe too much. "It almost drove me crazy!" he said with a laugh. "It seems to be a pattern with me." But he said the results are worth the hard work.

Mr. Frye ended up giving the jack-in-the box a vintage look, right down to its porcelain doll. "It could look like it was made a hundred years ago," he said.

For a 1992 European pearwood jewelry box (priced at $15,000), Mr. Frye created a floral design from various pieces of veneer through marquetry. "It's an age-old technique used 300 years ago in Paris," Mr. Frye said.

The wood flower meant creating curves, and Mr. Frye said he learned how to do it. He chuckled. "There's a learning curve to making curves!"

In 1996, he hand-carved a cigar humidor from pearwood (selling for $9,000), and in 1989, he built a hope chest from ribbon maple ($10,000). "I like to keep it simple and clean," he said about projects such as the chest.

The next year, he hand-carved a 5-foot-tall East Indian rosewood and California walnut cabinet, selling for $35,000. "It has a soothing feel to it," he said. "It's almost like a sacred altar." He put in 350 hours into the Gothic piece and created an ornate pattern on its door.

In 1989, Mr. Frye made a jewelry box that looks like a pillow, using chisels and a hand planer to shape the wood. "The wood is naturally quilted," he said of the quilted maple piece, priced at $7,000. "It has a wonderful texture."

He added he takes delight in making wood look like something other than wood: the jewelry box as a pillow, the jack-in-the-box as a circus tent.

"I like to stretch my imagination. I try to push the envelope each time. It keeps me from getting bored."

Jan 13, 2013 Arrow1 Down Reply
Ken Frye

hey, Ken!!!

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Dec 31, 2023 Arrow1 Down Reply

Hi Ken - we left before saying good bye last night and curiosity got the better of me this morning. Your woodwork is stunning and incredible! WOW! 🤯
Happy new year and maybe we’ll see you around the neighborhood again. Christa