Libby Schrum builds beautiful things with universal appeal

“Proportion, curves, edges, transitions—those to me are an art form,” she says, describing her furniture as solid, but with lightness, and hard, but with softness. “I look at my pieces and think, ‘I’ve made decisions about every single detail.’”

She once had an instructor who said that if you want to be a successful furniture maker, you need to build things that are simple to make but look really complicated—rather than build things that are really technical and difficult to make but look really simple.

Almost everything Schrum makes goes contrary to that advice.

Siblings bench. Courtesy photos

The one notable exception, she says, is her signature piece: the Siblings bench. And even that is far from fast furniture. It takes at least 10 days to make one of these benches, using traditional joinery instead of nails, and they go for $3,800.

“I don’t make a lot of pieces over and over again, but I have made this piece several times,” Schrum says.  The bench, which features side-by-side dips that are just the right size to sit in, was inspired by Schrum imagining herself sitting next to her sister. “There’s something about it, something about the proportions. It has a movement to it with the undulations and the waves.”

Custom requests to modify the Siblings bench design—for a more compact version for a smaller living space or a three-seater for three siblings—have nudged Schrum back into the creative problem-solving mode she loves, keeping the work fresh.

Jewelry box
Jewelry box

It was through general art classes that Schrum first discovered her love for furniture making. She had just graduated from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, with a degree in sports management and, with her father becoming the university’s next president, she jumped at the chance to take a year of all art classes. For a design class, she designed a bed, which led to an independent study to design and build a coffee table.

“I had never thought of furniture as art before,” Schrum says, “but I just got the bug.”

She looked for somewhere to study furniture making in more depth and found a three-month class in Maine at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport. She went from being a student to having an assistantship to being an artist in residence, all within a year. From there, she went to Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned a master’s degree within a class of five furniture designers, all women.

“People think of this as something that men do,” Schrum says, adding that potential customers at trade shows sometime assume that her father is the furniture maker when he helps out in the booth. “But I’ve been in a number of situations where it was all women.”

For the past eight years, Schrum has been working out of her home-based studio in Camden. Most of her work starts by talking with a client about what they want in the piece of furniture they’re envisioning.

A shelf

“My design process isn’t always the same,” she says, explaining that she might start with sketching or creating a model—it all depends on the piece. “It’s fun when you have a project that really pushes you, and that’s always the best feeling, when you get it right.”

The design phase can take a day or two or up to a couple of weeks.

“Figuring out what line of grain is going to work with the form of the piece is hugely important to me,” Schrum says. “You know you’re successful when it goes unnoticed. You don’t realize that a piece sings until you put it next to one that screeches.”

Schrum has been known to painstakingly examine 200 pieces of wood at the lumberyard, buy 10, take those home and look at them in infinite number of ways to imagine the composition to decide with three of the 10 pieces she will mill.

“I try to build things that I think are beautiful but also have universal appeal,” she says.

Teaching is another of her passions—so much so that she works one-on-one with individuals in her studio. They can come for a week to build a table—some come with a specific project in mind—and accommodations are included in a guest apartment above the studio. “To me it seems like a fun way to spend a vacation for someone who is active and wants to learn a new skill,” Schrum says. “It doesn’t hurt that I live in Camden, a five-minute walk from the harbor. I call it studiocation.”

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Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough. She grew up spending a lot of time in her father’s furniture store, surrounded by traditional pieces. But she prefers modern.

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