Published September 1, 2010. Written by Rebecca Falzano
David Moser is the principal designer at Thos. Moser, and this is not his father’s furniture
David Moser arrives at the Thos. Moser showroom in Freeport with his latest creation in tow and a twinkle in his eye. Just completed at the company’s Auburn shop, the New Harbor chair is a sculptural work of art—all smooth cherry, buttery leather, and sleek curves. The summer shoppers on Main Street are poised to storm the showroom just to catch a peek, or so it is easy to imagine. He sets it down on the floor, and the air seems to change around it. “This is yummy,” one shopper coos, sinking in. She has no idea she’s only the third person outside the shop to sit in it. Moser watches quietly from across the room—he is, like the furniture, anything but self-aggrandizing. Throughout the afternoon, a few others trickle in and unwittingly fall in love with the piece, right in front of the designer’s eyes.
The twinkle that lives in Moser’s eyes is familiar—it’s like that of his father, the celebrated Thomas Moser who started a furniture-making business nearly forty years ago in a converted Grange Hall in New Gloucester. The formerly one-man operation (if you don’t count his wife, Mary, who was the bookkeeper) has since grown to about a hundred cabinetmakers, six showrooms across the country, and a reputation that extends far beyond Maine’s borders.
David was only 8 years old when his father started Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers. He spent his days roaming rural New Gloucester barefoot and not coming home until after dark. “It was the perfect time for a boy,” he says. “Our neighbors had oxen and an outhouse. In a way, I feel like I’ve been able to straddle two different centuries; New Gloucester in 1970 was more like the nineteenth century, and today you wouldn’t dare let your kids hitchhike into town.”
This little boy who once picked flowers from a cemetery and gave them to his mother is now 45. He is also Thos. Moser’s principal designer, an artist, and—just like his father—a visionary. As much as the business has evolved over time, so too has the company’s aesthetic, which Moser has been instrumental in shaping—and re-shaping—over the years.The youngest of four brothers, Moser has been making things with his hands for as long as hean remember. First in clay, then on paper, and now in wood, stone, and steel. Moser had a host of tutors, and although his father imparted a portion of the lessons to his sons, David learned mostly by figuring things out with his own two hands. “I’m sure I was learning from my father, but with the father-son dynamic, I wasn’t as receptive as a pupil. We were in this perpetual state of antagonism all the time, which kind of worked,” he grins.
While he was pursuing a career in finance during his younger years, Moser had one of those self-proclaimed “what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life?” moments, which led to a brief flirtation with cultural anthropology. He joined the Peace Corps and lived in Africa for a year and a half. “It was my way of getting into a culture that I wouldn’t have been accepted into any other way.” Yet it wasn’t the experience Moser was hoping for. “I thought I was going to be accepted into the community, but I wasn’t. I learned a lot about myself and my ability to find peace with myself though.”
Eventually, Moser gave in to his childhood passion for making things with his hands. “I’m very fortunate that my father was in the furniture business because I don’t know that I would have come to it naturally,” he says. “I think the older one gets, the harder it becomes to deny your innermost wants and desires.”
Moser started designing furniture a little more than a decade ago, and it wasn’t long before he started challenging some of the foundational ideas of the family business—like the joinery they were using. “I couldn’t achieve some of the forms that I wanted to with only our traditional vocabulary of joinery. So we responded with CNC machinery, automation, and twenty-first-century adhesives and fasteners.” By expanding his personal design horizons, he expanded the company’s as well.
Many designers and artists work within very defined artistic parameters. They have a definitive material, a medium. The opposite is true of Moser. He has a variety of mediums. And while furniture is a tried-and-true passion of his, sculpture in clay and stone allows him the kind of expression furniture can’t provide. “When I’m working with clay,” he says, “there’s such an immediate response—it’s a very spontaneous and willing material. There’s a direct link from mind to hand. When I’m working with wood, on the other hand, there are steps between what’s going through my mind and what comes out of my hands.” Sculpture is more freeing to Moser; the element of pragmatism is not required. “
Art can stand by itself; it doesn’t have to justify itself,” he says. “Design on the other hand—that has many, many masters.”
As Moser’s immersion into different materials and modes of expression deepened, so too did the Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers catalog. “What was once an often-pigeon-holed genre has turned into a much broader, harder-to-define aesthetic,” he says. A good example is the Kinesis chair. Its complex compound curves and a star-shaped bronze base tested not only Moser’s tactical design skills but his persuasive abilities as well. “It took some convincing on my part because of the complexity of getting a cast-bronze finish into the company’s design vernacular and infrastructure. Overcoming that hurdle was very difficult, but once we did there was yet another chapter in our organization of acceptance and willingness to do something with different materials and different forms. We opened up our willingness to change.”
Today, the Thos. Moser aesthetic doesn’t easily fall into any one category, but is a culmination and confluence of many different intellectual traditions—from the modernist movement to eighteenth-century furniture reforms to Asian influences. “It exemplifies simplicity, which is deceptively difficult to achieve well,” says Moser. “Our aim is timeless design, not timely design.”
Moser’s almost feverish passion for his craft—regardless of the medium he’s working in—is tireless. He’s just come from a senior-management meeting during which he spent two hours doodling a stool—just one more idea in his ever-expanding arsenal. Next, he’ll go to work on a sculpture in stone. Adding to his roles as designer and sculptor, Moser is also co-owner of Hurley Travel Experts, operated by his wife, Pamela, and is the father of a little girl. And before the summer is over, he’ll have worked on a number of new endeavors, including design concepts for Portland-based Sea Bags and a commemorative lounge for car manufacturer Rolls-Royce.
“I often wonder whether I’m a good designer, or if I’m just frenetic,” he says in a moment of self-doubt. He quickly rebounds. “Someone once said life is best lived in serial fashion. I am perpetually redesigning all the time. Not myself personally, but the way I express myself.”
“Who’s ‘someone’?” I ask. “My father,” he smiles.
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