David N. Ebner's love of wood began when he was 8 years old, living in Buffalo.
"When I was in Little League," he recalls, "one of the first things I made in the basement workshop was a baseball bat." With his father's helped, he turned a piece of hard rock maple on a lathe to shape it. And the younger Ebner was hooked. "As soon as I was tall enough to get my hands over the top of the workshop table, I kind of took it over."
He spent years learning and perfecting his skills, and it was a while before his "studio craft" furniture was "discovered" by art lovers. Even in leaner times, his devotion to working with wood never wavered, and Ebner pieces can now be seen in major museums and in the homes of collectors.
Ebner fans praise his design aesthetic that transforms furnishings into objects of art without sacrificing functional use as tables, chairs or cabinets. Some of his work can be seen at an exhibition, "Material Process and Forms, The Furniture of David Ebner," at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, on display through Sept. 28.
"David's exquisite furniture explores his interpretation of the ways art and function can coexist," says Kathy Curran, the society's executive director.
Ebner was single-minded about woodworking, during high school, through college and graduate school. The only jobs he would take were with "people I could learn from." A 1968 graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, Ebner worked under the tutelage of legendary wood sculptor Wendell Castle and followed up with advanced study in London. After a two-year stint in the Army, he joined Long Island's elite artists in 1973, settling into the Village of Bellport.
Hearing about the East End"An Army buddy had told me about how the East End welcomed artists and sculptors. It sounded like the ideal place to live and work," says Ebner, now 68. "I came and looked and never left."
About seven years ago, Ebner relocated his operation to a former shipyard in Brookhaven hamlet and lives in its detached residence. "It's only a stone's throw away from Bellport," he says, "but this place has so much more space for me to live and work." His once-dilapidated home, now completely renovated in the spirit of its Arts and Crafts-era origin, is a showplace for many of Ebner's decorative favorites -- reproduction William Morris wallpaper; leaded glass accents and corbels inspired by the vintage East Hampton railroad station. "Art you can live with," he calls it.
In the vast workshop, light pours from a bank of skylights onto a maze of industrial saws, sanders and racks of hand tools. There is specialized equipment that cuts and shapes wood, including some Ebner made himself, such as a steamer for bending rigid boards.
The first major recognition of his work came in 1975 with the inclusion of his walnut stool in the permanent collection of the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution's National Gallery of Fine Art in Washington. The "Renwick Stool" was one of 133 items chosen out of 14,800 entries in a nationwide competition, according to the museum's catalog. "It was an incredible honor. It's a part of history," he says.
Years later, as an ode to the Village of Bellport's picturesque bay, picket fences and lush lawns, he created the Bellport Collection, a suite of white-painted, indoor-outdoor mahogany furniture. Its centerpiece, a chair, helped elevate Ebner to wood sculptor stardom after it was among several of his pieces selected in 1991 for a major exhibition of contemporary studio furniture mounted by the former American Craft Museum in Manhattan (now called The Museum of Art and Design).
Although recognition was on the upswing, financial rewards were disappointingly slow. "Those early years were tough," says Ebner, a bachelor. "Hand-crafting furniture is very labor intensive and time consuming."
Peanut butter sandwichesMoney was tight, but he wouldn't give in to more lucrative jobs. "If I had a family, I couldn't have managed, but I was determined to stay with it. I even turned down offers to build custom cabinetry for contractors," he says. "I always managed to get along by keeping my overhead down; there were a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, too, but I would never quit. There was always some income; like I would go to craft shows and be able to sell enough $2 cutting boards and trays to make ends meet, along with some more pricey items. And over the years, the pricier items began to sell better at galleries and auctions."
Success has meant an end to $2 cutting boards and craft shows for Ebner, who now sells much of his own work online (davidnebner.com), or from his Brookhaven studio.
While his sculptural designs often border on avant-garde, Ebner also designs whimsical signature pieces. His scallion coat racks, for example, are conversation starters in many affluent homes. Often, he lets nature guide his designs, using spiraling sassafras saplings that have been artistically reshaped by invasive vines. He calls them "twisted sticks" and transforms them into candlesticks and embellishments that add amusing flourishes to one-of-a-kind pieces.
Ebner's works are at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Pritam & Eames Gallery of Original Furniture in East Hampton. The gallery's upcoming book, "Speaking of Furniture, Conversations With 14 American Masters," devotes a chapter to Ebner, singling out one of his library ladders.
Gallery owner Bebe Johnson says, "David has never dropped his focus on making furniture that combines sculpture with functional qualities. This blend is . . . David's especial contribution to the studio furniture movement."
Ebner's original furniture -- some in signed, limited editions, some even cast in bronze -- found its market, with prices ranging from $2,000 to $40,000. "Deceptive numbers in view of the exorbitant costs of fine wood, commissions and other production expenses," he says.
His works often find their way to private collectors and celebrities. Actress Glenn Close fell for Ebner's scallion coat rack. And actress Isabella Rossellini purchased a "twisted stick" bookcase. Artist Malcolm Morley furnished his converted church residence with numerous "Ebners" and also purchased a mahogany music stand -- another classic Ebner piece -- which Morley donated to The Museum of Art And Design's permanent collection. He calls Ebner, who is a neighbor, "the Chippendale of our time."
After three decades as a master furniture maker with more than 1,400 items in circulation, a hardcover book, "David Ebner, Studio Furniture" (Schiffer Publications, $39.99) is scheduled to be published in November. For Ebner, it's all the more reason to continue his art.
"I enjoy the process where you get to conceive something, engineer it, make it and even market it," he says, explaining the lure of his craft. "You're not fragmented. You get to participate in all aspects of it. It was a great way to spend your time and see the results of your efforts."
An Ebner Exhibit
An exhibition of works by David N. Ebner is on display through Sept. 28.
WHAT"Material, Process, Form: The Furniture of David Ebner," 20 pieces by the craftsman on exhibit
WHERESuffolk County Historical Society, 300 W. Main St., Riverhead
ADMISSION Adults, $5; seniors, $3; under 17, $1; family, $10.
HOURSWednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Also, 250 bird paintings, journals and awards are in an exhibition, "Dennis Puleston: Explorer, Naturalist & Artist," honoring the late conservationist.