By Ben Swenson
Sallie Plumley’s best work begins long before her hands begin to fashion hardwood boards into objects of form, function and beauty; before she even makes the first pencil stroke on her drawing board.
It begins with her visit to the space where the piece will sit, taking note of her client’s personal style and family history, because, as she says, that piece of furniture “is part of their story, not mine.”
Since opening Sallie Plumley Studio in Richmond in 2017, Plumley has created some of the finest custom furniture in Virginia. Working out of a shared space in the Chamberlayne industrial district, the 27-year-old uses mostly locally sourced, naturally dried wood to create masterpieces that can cost upwards of $5,000.
She has fashioned everything from chests and bookshelves to clocks and cutting boards, most of them commissioned pieces. She recently created a dining room table for a North Carolina beach house that incorporated the owners’ decades-old collection of shells and shark teeth.
She loves making tables. “They matter,” she says.
Plumley, a child of rural eastern North Carolina, was close to her grandfather, George Bailey, a prolific amateur woodworker. She remembers fondly the dining room table he made for the family, imperfect as it was with a crack that ran the entire length. Being at that table helped her become the woman she is today, she says. Tables are made for kinship and fellowship and the realities of life. Breaking bread. Homework. Paying bills.
Bailey died when Plumley was 15. And though she inherited his tools, Plumley didn’t consider woodworking as a profession until discovering the Department of Craft and Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. There, she was drawn to the idea of creating objects that are three-dimensional, functional and beautiful.
She toyed with ceramics, but eventually made her way back to wood. After earning her degree, she spent a few years working for one of the most respected furniture makers in Richmond, Harrison Higgins.
As a designer, Plumley is something of a dreamer; she sees promise in dull raw materials, redemption in ruin. Both within the studio and outside of it, she values sustainability. You won’t find her in the aisles of big-box stores looking for lumber; she sources wood secondhand when she can, finding gems that were forgotten in old barns and garages. It’s not an easy gig. Creative bursts of inspiration happen between long hours of sanding and varnishing.
But the effort results in furniture that clients rave about. Anne Waleski chose Plumley to help her renovate her river house. Plumley made a mantle, kitchen island top and bar.
“The types of things Sallie makes are going to be part of your life for a long time,” Waleski says. “Knowing something about the person who makes them and building stories around that is important.”
When Paige Harris got married two years ago, she and her wife asked Plumley to make a walnut stereo cabinet. They have since bought a hand-carved walnut frame for a large freestanding mirror, and are planning to commission a third work.
“Sallie is incredibly gifted in many ways,” Harris says. “She works hard to create warm, thoughtful pieces that anchor and embrace spaces.”
Virginia has a centuries-long tradition of fine woodworking (see: Colonial Williamsburg’s cabinetmakers). Here are some who continue to do the work.
The brainchild of salesman-turned-salvager Beau Stephenson, Woodfellas proves that recycling can be remarkable. Among the products and services that Woodfellas offers are accent walls from repurposed pallets and other “upcycled” wood, shiplap walls and ceilings, and custom furniture that breathes new life into old materials.
Goold Furniture & Design, Virginia Beach
Owner Philip Goold, a competitive surfer, specializes in creating furniture that incorporates novel features and blends contemporary and traditional styling. “I don’t copy anything,” he says. “I design on my own terms.”
Clore Furniture, Madison
The Clore family has been crafting hardwood furniture in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains since 1830. About half of the company’s business is ladderback chairs, according to company president Troy Coppage, and American-style household furniture is always popular. Business remains strong even though people today grow up in a disposable world, says Coppage. “There are still plenty of people that appreciate the quality of local, handmade products.