Ben Forgey at the Lizard Rodeo Lounge in the Range
Café afront two of his many creations: a wire mesh-and-barbed
wire chandelier and driftwood-framed mirror.
New work by Forgey
The product of balance
You would want your furniture made by a man just like this: solid
as a firefighter, earthy in speech, yet thoughtful at times for
the space of eternity, just long enough to await the arrival of
the right word.
His furniture defies labels, except that it is as earthy and ethereal
as the man himself. Self-taught woodworker Ben Forgey, forty-one,
started making furniture for his house after moving out west from
Virginia, carrying only what would fit on his motorcycle.
That was in 1990. He owned a drill, a hammer, and a saw. He had
no background in art or woodworking except “I guess I had
a natural tree house-building temperament,” he shrugs. Finding
no work as an aspiring writer, Forgey busied himself making a side
table, a couch, and finally a chair out of twisted sticks he found
in the arroyo near his home in Algodones.
Fast-forward a few years, to 1995. It isn’t clear how this
happened, because Forgey is one of those rare artists whose work
appears like magic, out of nowhere. After taking a few woodworking
classes in Corrales, he approached the owners of The Range Café
in Bernalillo, offering to make them new chairs for just $40 apiece.
“At some point I figured, if I can make $8 an hour doing
this, shoot, I’m working for myself,” he said. “In
some ways it was like, this is just twig furniture (I’m making),
I wanted to do real wood joinery. But it was also an opportunity
to fill a public room with my design.”
Three months later, he had indeed filled the room with chairs—only
to see half of them burn up in a fire that gutted The Range a month
By this time, Forgey admits, he had bought woodshop tools. So he
set about making The Range one hundred chairs for the current location
on Camino del Pueblo—the ones that are still in the restaurant
and the adjoining Lizard Lounge today. The project took him all
of three months.
“The Range [was created by] these two Midwestern guys who
came out here and made homemade food, so I thought, we’re
going to make homemade chairs. They’re not really hippies;
their sensibility is kind of fun and homey and left of center. So
I designed these chairs that are kind of hippie New Mexican.”
Don’t let Forgey’s homespun manner fool you. He began
the project by researching the history of New Mexican furniture
making, from Spanish Colonial through the WPA—he was a history
major in college. His father wrote architecture criticism for the
Washington Post; his mother was an artist. “They were intellectuals,
I guess, and artists,” he concedes. “So I didn’t
fall too far from the tree.”
Oh, and the reason Forgey was able to make chairs for $40 apiece,
incidentally, was that he had checks pouring in for thousands of
dollars through the Sundance Catalog, where he had sold one of his
chair designs. He had met a representative a few years back at a
craft fair in Tucson, and they put Forgey’s upholstered Adirondack-style
twig chair on the front page. Forgey went ahead and made thirty-five
chairs, which he had stacked on his porch.
“I’d come home and my fax machine would have all these
orders, and I’d box them up.” He ended up selling a
total of forty-five chairs, at $1,000 apiece, of which he kept half.
“I probably spent a couple of months making those chairs,”
he says. “I can’t vouch for how good they were.”
In fact, Forgey won’t vouch for how good he must be, given
what comes naturally. When a friend invited him to Italy in 1995,
he looked up the owner of a company that had once sold fifty of
his chairs. Suddenly he was swept up in the fashion world of Milan,
and spent a year in Italy making furniture at the invitation of
a furniture-maker in Florence.
His chairs, too, belie the art that goes into them. Anyone who
has worked with twisted, fallen branches knows how devilishly difficult
they can be to engineer well. Forgey’s homespun Mexican-style
chairs have the natural look of painted, sanded, and repainted castoffs,
but one glance at his more abstract, sculptural pieces demonstrates
the nuances that go into this faux-finish technique.
Currently he is incorporating Plexiglas and galvanized steel, pairing
incongruous materials in ways that go beyond rustic Adirondack style
to something almost modern—but not entirely. There is always
a natural touch to Forgey’s work that makes the artfulness
appear “just so,” the solid evidence of a magical sensibility
that is more innate than learned.
Forgey traces his art odyssey to a moment on the beach in Mexico
not long after he moved out west. “I was looking out on the
waves and the sun was going down, and I was thinking to myself,
‘I’m a furniture maker.’ It just filled me with
this warmth: I could be happy saying that I make furniture.
“Then after I got back (to Albuquerque) I thought, I’ll
give this ten years and see what happens.”
In a seventeen-year career crafted out of just such moments, Forgey
arrives at saying only that it came naturally.
“I might have become a writer. But when I started building,
boy, it felt natural. My hands, I was much more comfortable with
than my mind.”
His hands, as an expression of the mind that senses when to step
aside and wait, echo the primordial moment when a man first picks
up a branch to build. You would want your furniture to turn out
like this—the product of an effortless balance between intellect
and instinct, engineered and found, nature and art.