By Laurie Paolicelli
“Chairs are my passion and my livelihood. Since 2002, I have built Windsor chairs and taught chairmaking full-time. I have never had a ‘real job.’ For this I am thankful.”
Some people are so artfully distinctive that they seem to have a soundtrack for their lives and the moment you meet them you can hear it. Elia Bizzari’s soundtrack is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” from the Coen Brother’s film. That’s what I heard when I met him, anyway. He is equal parts bluegrass, country, gospel, blues, and folk – in other words, all of American music is wrapped up inside him.
Elia Bizzari makes chairs, American Windsor chairs, by hand. He works with maple, poplar, hickory, and oak. He understands wood and what wood can become. The first thing he built was a rabbit trap when he was ten years old, but he didn’t stop there. Now his chairs sell for (approximately) $1500 a piece, and are available on his website. He also has chairs for sale at Grove Park Inn Asheville.
Elia was raised in Chatham and Orange Counties, homeschooled, and supported by enthusiastic parents who built sheds for him to work in. Thanks to his mother’s advocacy, he met the iconic Roy Underhill, host of the mega-popular “The Woodwright’s Shop,” which also led to an introduction to Curtis Buchanan. Curtis became his mentor five years. Buchanan makes Windsor Chairs in much the same way they were made 200 years ago, and Bizzari learned everything he could from him.
“I slept on a cot in the loft of his shop, cooked on a portable burner, and walked my dirty dishes through the garden to the basement sink,” he says. “Ours was a relationship built on trust, not on words or papers. For five years, Curtis’s shop was my part-time home as I learned the chairmaking trade.”
Bizzari started when he was seventeen and left when he was twenty-two, an apprenticeship from boy to man.
In 2013, Bizzari built his custom-designed chair-making shop, 100 feet from his home in rural Hillsborough. It’s a chairmaker’s paradise: big windows to light the shop and a woodstove to heat it, oak floors for comfort and double doors to let the outside in. Elia’s shop was featured in Fine Woodworking Magazine in the fall of 2015.
“My first shop was under the hickory tree in my parents’ yard,” he says. “My bench was a picnic table. I made a woodpecker doorknocker and a rabbit trap, but I caught no rabbits. My parents bought me my second shop when I was 16. A 10-ft. by 20-ft. prefab structure, it was mostly plywood and 2x4s, with a small window at one end and double doors at the other. It was plenty big enough for a chairmaker, and it served me well for 10 years or so. When I bought my own home outside Durham, N.C., I knew I’d be building a freestanding shop. In the meantime, the 10-ft. by 12-ft. spare bedroom became my workshop. I worked full time in that room for two years.”
Except for wood chips in the bed, it worked fine, but it was never his dream shop.
“In my opinion, the single most important feature of a shop is the most overlooked: light. The light in your shop should be as good as any light your work will be seen by once it leaves the shop. Working in a clean, uncluttered space increases my efficiency and enjoyment, but it also creates a welcoming environment.”
Indeed, his shop has turned into a gathering spot, a place to have parties, concerts, and dances. “In modern society,” Bizzari says, “work is most often separated from play. The act of making a living is isolated from the joys of family, friends, and neighbors. Where thousands of Facebook friends can become meaningless in their ubiquity, people seem to yearn for personal connection. Maybe my shop is a window to a world where that connection was part of daily life.”
Life in Hillsborough
Life is good for Elia Bizzari. He will be married in April at a local farm, and he teaches workshops to folks who come to Orange County from all over the country to learn about the art of making Windsor chairs. He and his sweetheart, Morgan Barlow, love to dine at Panciuto in Hillsborough and visit the Hillsborough Farmers Market and Dual Supply Hardware. “We like to swing dance, hang with friends, and for fun, I love to Contra dance at Carrboro Century Center, grab dinner at Vimala’s, and just hang-out at home.”
Bizzari lives in two different centuries at the same time: the 18th, when the beautiful Windsor chair was ubiquitous, and the 21st, where you can dance for a couple of hours and grab some of the best Indian food in the Triangle. Nice work if you can get it, and Bizzari has.
Life is good in Orange County, NC.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.