From Timber to Tabletop

by Amy Chovan

Woodworking artists derive form and function from nature to craft one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture.

When I see pieces of wood lined up against a wall, I merely see pieces of wood. They may be different colors or have varied grain patterns, but they’re little more than milled lumber to my eyes. But when woodworkers take in the same scene, they envision chair backs and table legs. They see what can become buffets and libraries, decorative tables and fancy storage solutions. They know that a plain piece of walnut—after cutting it this way and sanding it that way and applying a clear coat finish or stain—can be transformed into a simply stunning table.

These are the craftsmen and women who make the furniture we rave about. Here in central Illinois, James Pearce and Jennifer Costa are two of these talented artists, creating one-of-a-kind pieces that are high-quality and functional, and look fantastic at the same time.
Sawdust in the Blood
It seems that woodworkers are often immersed in the craft from an early age. Pearce is a fourth-generation woodworker. “There were times when three generations [of my family] were working in the shop together,” he recalls. That was where he learned the most about woodworking—it served as his apprenticeship, if you will. Pearce got his start in the woodworking business in second or third grade when he made nameplates for his classmates, charging 50 cents per letter. Since these early beginnings, he has grown in his craft, earning a steady stream of work from clients who heard rave reviews of his workmanship.

Most of the work James Pearce does is for private use, but he has worked on some major projects around town that you may have seen. He built all of the display cabinets for Perpetual Jewel in the Holiday Inn City Centre. Over 800 square walnut tiles went into the project, and at one point, Pearce had six people sanding them at the same time. You can also catch some of his work at I Know You Like a Book in Peoria Heights, where he built furniture modeled off of French design. If you like what you see, you can contact Pearce by calling (309) 303-6885.

Costa’s grandfather was a cabinetmaker, and her father, though not a cabinetmaker by trade, possessed all the knowledge and skill of one, which he was able to pass down to his daughter. She recalls that she has always enjoyed making things, and said that one of her first projects was helping her parents remodel their house.

Metalwork, however, was the field Costa chose to pursue in college. It wasn’t until graduate school that she got into a woodworking program, but once she did, she found that she really enjoyed it. That’s not to say that she left metalwork behind—instead, she works with both, a pairing which came about while she was working on a steel piece. “I wondered what adding a wooden accent would do to it,” she explained. She liked the effect so much that most of her current work is a combination of the two materials.

Pearce, on the other hand, likes to work with one material at a time, and much prefers wood. While many of Costa’s wood-only pieces are composed of different colored woods that create patterns and contrast, Pearce takes another approach. “When it comes to furniture,” he said, “I’m more of a purist and tend to do all of one material or all of another. I don’t typically like to intermingle types of wood. I don’t care for the contrast.”

But contrast is exactly what Costa goes for. To achieve the colorful designs often found in her work, she uses exotic woods, such as redheart, yellowheart, purpleheart, Brazilian cherry, zebrawood, marblewood and lacewood. Pearce, on the other hand, typically sticks to locally grown hardwood. He is a self-proclaimed “walnut junkie,” but also uses other locally grown woods, such as ash, maple, cherry, hickory, birch and cottonwood. Much of the walnut he uses comes from trees that have been removed from area properties or fell due to storm damage. He likes the idea of purchasing the wood, creating the piece and selling it to a customer all within the same community, and has all of his wood milled locally as well. “If I’m going to make a piece of furniture,” he said, “I’d rather use local resources than outsource.” But if a client really wants a credenza and hutch composed of teak or Brazilian cherry, Pearce is happy to accommodate the request.

One of Pearce’s clients came to him after purchasing property on which he was planning to build a home. On the land, however, stood several cherry trees that needed to come down to make way for the house. Being both environmentally conscious and appreciating the idea of having furniture made from the land on which he built, the client asked Pearce to make a dining table out of the trees that were removed. After drying the wood for three years, Pearce was able to make the requested table, which is about four by 10 feet! 
A Natural Look
Neither artist uses much stain these days, preferring the natural warmth of the wood itself. Pearce said he would much rather use woods that contain the tones desired by his clients. “It’s a far better piece if you’re not disguising wood with stain,” he noted. Instead, he applies a clear coat finish—a mixture of oil and varnish—to his pieces. “It’s a durable finish and gives a great look.”

Jennifer Costa’s
work can be seen at various galleries and art shows in central Illinois. As an assistant professor of art and the gallery curator at Illinois Central College, her work can often be seen at the Center for Performing Arts on the school’s campus in East Peoria. You can also catch her at the Junction City Art Fair each year, online at, or by emailing

Costa also prefers the natural look—and she takes a natural approach to achieving the desired color or patina in her metal pieces as well. Just as some woods will darken or change color when exposed to sunlight, metal changes color when under the care of Mother Nature. Everyone knows that when metal is exposed to water, it rusts. What most people don’t know are the steps in the color process of rusting—a process Costa employs to attain the perfect color for her metalwork. For example, if you let a piece of metal rust outside for a couple of weeks, she said, it will turn orange. If you leave it out for a couple of months, it will turn brown. She can also speed the process by applying water to the metal herself, or by adding salt water to it.

Her choice of materials is mostly determined by the look and color Costa wants to get out of each piece. Making decisions about structural details and design elements are essential first steps. Deciding whether she wants a piece to be heavy, light or somewhere in between helps determine if she should use wood, metal or a combination of the two. She also considers the easiest way to achieve the desired design, and based on her initial brainstorming, decides how to proceed.

Both Costa and Pearce are inspired by the everyday objects around them. “I glean stuff from all over the place,” said Pearce. “From nature, the things around me, a simple shape, a texture, a color. I love bugs,” he continued, “and have a big collection of bugs in boxes.” That inspiration is unmistakable in Pearce’s Spyder Table (shown on the cover), one of his personal favorites. Merely seeing the table and its eight jointed legs—a definite representation of its namesake—any observer could guess the work’s title.

Costa’s work is also greatly influenced by art nouveau. The flowing lines seen in many of her pieces pay tribute to the artistic movement that peaked at the turn of the 20th century. Characterized by floral and curvilinear designs, art nouveau was a rejection of the Industrial Revolution and academic art that preceded it. 

About 90 percent of Pearce’s work is ordered by clients—“It’s rare to get to build something specifically for me,” he said. The opposite is true of Costa’s workload. Her commissions come mostly from patrons who see her work at art shows or galleries; they like the look of a particular piece and ask her to make one just like it, but in a different size to fit their space. They like the form of her creation, but to make it functional for them, a few alterations are required.
The Functional Art Debate
Pearce is a firm believer that form follows function, constructing each piece of furniture with this in mind. “One of my priorities,” he explained, “is making sure it’s a functional piece and still achieves the art form I wanted.”

Costa, on the other hand, reverses the adage to function follows form. “I am fascinated by form,” she proclaims on her website’s homepage. “I am equally fascinated by function…I like the idea that form can stand independent from function, but I also like the idea that function has to work with form, and form has to work with function. The two have to work in unison.” 

To establish how best to combine form and function, both artists do preliminary work to ensure that the finished work is both beautiful and useful. Before even picking up a piece of wood, Pearce scopes out each project for as long as it takes to get everything right. “It’s a working model in my mind before I ever start building a piece,” he said. Evidence of this can be seen on the whiteboard in his workshop. Covered in drawings complete with dimensions, the board acts as a visual planning space for his projects.

Costa’s preparation varies for each piece she works on. Sometimes it involves making detailed sketches; other times she constructs a model. Because she creates when she’s inspired, Costa may end up with an idea for table legs, but no vision for the tabletop. “When this happens,” she said, “the legs can sit around for a year or two until an idea for the rest of the table comes to me.”

Whether it’s a tabletop or a chair leg, both Costa and Pearce are dedicated to a high level of craftsmanship, always focused on the goal of creating quality custom furniture. When they pick up that first piece of wood, be it walnut or Brazilian cherry, they have the vision to see what it can become by the time they apply the last coat of finish. a&s