Woodworker reinterprets the design world’s most enduring style
Finding beauty in the fabric of everyday life is the hallmark of Arts and Crafts culture, and what could be more mundane than a simple box? Brevard woodworker Tom D. Sims is known for his meticulously designed and handcrafted boxes, although they were a later development in a decades-long devotion to wood that began during college in his native Kentucky.
The boxes came along many years later, when Sims’ job with an auto-parts manufacturer brought him to Western North Carolina and a Craftsman-style bungalow in Hendersonville. “It had a very small workspace that required me to adjust my products to fit the available space,” Sims explains. “So I started making keepsake boxes.”
They’ve grown popular enough that one regular customer, a Hendersonville developer, gives them as gifts to buyers who purchase a building lot.
Sim is a longtime adherent of the Arts and Crafts movement, born in the late 1800s as a twofold reaction against Industrial Revolution mass production and Victorian frippery. Spreading from decorative arts and textiles to Mission furniture and Craftsman architecture, the enduring style prizes simple lines, natural materials, and the skills of the artisan.
Sims professes a deep attachment to the traditions of Roycroft, an early-20th-century artistic community in Western New York that gave the Arts and Crafts movement a distinctive font, color palette, and other motifs. His own work — not only boxes, but framed wall art, clocks, hand mirrors, and larger pieces like cabinets and benches — also draws on the legacy of architect brothers Charles and Henry Greene, whose Gamble House in Pasadena, California, became a landmark of the style and an important factor in Sims’ own artistic growth.
“I visited the house during a business trip to California in early 2000 and fell in love with their designs,” he says. He was particularly struck by the way the Greene brothers avoided the angular, bulky forms of the signature Stickley style by incorporating the curves and undulations of Asian designers. The late Japanese architect George Nakashima and master crafter William Ng, who runs the School of Fine Woodworking in Anaheim, California, became important contemporary influences on Sims’ designs.
Other Greene and Greene followers who have inspired him, he says, are Darrell Peart in Seattle and a local Black Mountain woodworker, Brian Brace.
“My designs are often influenced by other woodworkers, but I never copy others’ designs. And I always hope other woodworkers gain that influence from my work for their own designs.”
A trained draftsman, Sims keeps a sketchbook of each design as a reference for frequently ordered items. He favors brighter woods for his pieces, particularly the reddish-brown African Padauk, and says he’s careful to use only sustainable woods from trustworthy sources. “I try to pick woods that complement my designs, and often design around the uniqueness of the wood,” the artist says, “although woods like Padauk are vibrant when first finished but often turn dark and lose that beauty.”
To offset that characteristic, he incorporates local species such as cherry and white oak. “They turn dark with aging, too, but their patina becomes more beautiful,” he notes. Other woods that find their way into his pieces are sycamore, Tiger Maple, and walnut, much of it sourced from regional suppliers.
He also likes to include handmade mosaic tiles and stained glass, often scouted at the annual National Arts & Crafts Conference, held at the Omni Grove Park Inn (and going virtual this year). Many of his frames hold the exquisite, delicately colored tiles of Burnsville crafter Tzadi Turrou, or come from New York’s Mission Guild studio. Sims also frequently collaborates with stained-glass artists and tilemakers at Brevard’s arts cooperative Number 7 Gallery, where he’s a member.
Patina and fine texture lend graceful flourishes to Sims’ bespoke sushi plates — made of cherry and maple and presented complete with chopsticks — and everyday items such as cutting boards and even tissue boxes. A backless oak seat features hickory-wood splits, hinting at Sims’ occasional forays into basketry.
He has always kept a home studio. “A day in the workshop is a relief from the exasperating world,” he says. “It always puts me in my happy space.”