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A Fine Furniture Designer With Perfect Table Manners

March 26, 2009 By:
David C. Friedman, JE Feature
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Philadelphia is famous for much in history -- Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Benjamin Franklin to name a few.

One thing it is not well known for, but should be, is the creativity that goes into the art of furniture design and craftsmanship. For the past 15 years, Joshua Markel has been attempting to correct that.

An accomplished furniture maker and designer, Markel is also the director of what he believes is an unusual exhibit: The Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show (www.PhilaIFS.com; 215-387-8590) of designers and makers, which celebrates its 15th annual showcase from March 27-29 at the Cruise Ship Terminal of the Philadelphia Naval Yard.

"In the 18th century, Philadelphia was at the center of the furniture-making industry," said Markel, who has lived and worked in Powelton Village near the University of Pennsylvania campus since he enrolled at Penn as a freshman in the 1960s.

"The notion of the designer craftsman in furniture, particularly since World War II, is largely an American phenomenon. There are practically no furniture craftspeople anywhere in the world except the United States."

A fundraising gala is scheduled for the Saturday night edition of the exhibit; it will benefit the Woodturning Center and the University of the Arts.

"The purpose of the gala and the focus of a special exhibit in the show is the central role the Philadelphia area played in the post-World War II craft furniture renaissance," said Markel.

The gala will feature an illustrated talk by Mark Sifrri, a woodturner. Among those included in the exhibit is the late Wharton Esherick, one of the pioneers of the renaissance whose home in Valley Forge is also a museum, which will benefit from the fundraiser.

A dozen designers will be represented in the exhibit, which is being curated by Bob Abiel, owner of Moderne Gallery in Old City

The furniture-making bug first bit Markel after graduating from Penn with a degree in architecture in 1964. While he was at Penn, Markel became actively involved in politics.

Designs on ... Designs
"Five years after college, I was an anti-Vietnam War organizer," he said. "But as the war wound down, I looked for something that was design oriented."

He found a place in Powelton Village called the Community Education Center, still in existence, which had a shop open to the community. "On a lark, I designed and made a chair for use in our dining room and found other people really liked it," he recalled.

He started making more chairs, which he brought to the shop to sell, says the "self-taught furniture maker." That blossomed into a full-time business with two other employees and a shop near 40th and Market streets.

"After I while, I began to realize that most of my work went into supporting my employees, so I trimmed the business down to a one- man operation and moved [it] back to" Powelton Village.

For a while, Markel and a friend, furniture maker Bob Ingram, exhibited at what he termed "conventional craft shows," which included jewelry and wearables, with a sprinkling of furniture designs.

"We both went through that circuit and found that most of the attendees were at the shows to buy jewelry and those who came to look at furniture could not make a rational decision."

They developed an idea for a craft show devoted exclusively to home furnishings. "We both called anyone we knew in the business and got 62 artisans to commit," he said.

Thus, in 1995, the first Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show was held; the 15th show will feature approximately 58 exhibitors, 5 percent to 10 percent of whom are Jewish. One of the exhibitors will be Peter Handler, who has been with the show since its inception and, said Markel, "makes furniture out of aluminum and upholstery."

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