Personality Profile – Peter Kramer
Even though this would be more of a Business Profile, we decided to call it a Personality Profile because I think that a little bit of Kramer’s personality is in every piece of furniture that he creates. Peter Kramer’s name has resonated with me for the past ten years every time I ventured into Rappahannock County. This past month I had the chance to meet the renowned furniture designer and maker. At 76 years old, this man has the enthusiasm and humor of someone much younger. Meeting Kramer was like seeing someone you had known your whole life.
Kramer’s life began, well, 76 years ago in a small New Jersey town about 30 miles outside of New York City. As a child, Kramer began working with his father’s hand tools, and then one day his Sunday school teacher invited him to join him at his wood working shop. This is where his first real taste of making something with wood began. “We bought four feet of lumber and worked at making 3 foot-stools. They weren’t great, but it was the first thing I ever made and I got great pleasure out of it!” he tells me. “We had a ready market for our foot-stools, and immediately sold them to our mothers.”
Years later Kramer would visit his brother-in-laws hardware store and work in his shop. Here Peter’s skills began to develop. He began to design and make his own furniture. As he developed his skills Kramer also entered Rutgers University. Even though he was entered in an academic program at the University, Kramer began to realize that his heart was in designing and building furniture. He set up an appointment to discuss his future with his guidance professor. The advice was that ”wood working is a great hobby, but no way to make money!” This was a turning point and he realized what he wanted to do with his life.
“By reinterpreting traditional elements-exposed joinery, hand-planed surfaces and painted designs – Peter Kramer creates furniture that looks traditional but sets its own contemporary style.” – Architectural Digest
At age 31 Kramer found himself and his wife in New York City where he was making furniture and selling what he could. He wanted to sell more so his wife recommended that he call Bloomingdale’s. “You can do that?” he exclaimed…and he did. He called the giant department store and asked for the buyer. He arranged an appointment to show some of his work. The meeting went well and the buyer agreed to purchase a few pieces for resale in the store. Soon the store was ordering more pieces. An executive wanted to set up a display of about 40 pieces of Kramer’s furniture. He agreed and began bringing pieces to the store. He delivered a large hutch to the loading dock and went to park his car. When he got back to the loading dock he found a man admiring his work. “How much do you want for it,” the man asked. “What will you give me for it,” Kramer countered. The man gave a number and Kramer was thinking of a much smaller number. “That is when I realized what I was worth,” he says.
“…. Mr. Kramer has created an extraordinary collection of reproduction furniture…He puts his own interpretation into everything he makes but the realism is there in the softly glowing finish and the had planned surfaces…” – The New York Times
It was about this time that Kramer almost brought his budding career to an end. While working one day, he accidentally cut off two of his fingers, the pinky and ring finger. “I thought that my career would be over, however, after my hand healed I went back to work.” He was in his shop one day and picked up an old wooden plane. He removed the metal blade and began to sharpen it. “I put a great edge on that blade,” he says. Taking the plane to wood he realized how easily it shaved the wood and he just wanted to “keep on going.”
After one year of working with Bloomingdale’s, Kramer wanted to relocate to the country and really start to produce. The Kramer’s’ relocated to a small farm in Amissville in Rappahannock County. This was back in 1970, and there was very little in the area. Needing stickers for his license plates he had to make the drive to Washington, Virginia. As he drove through the small town he fell in love with the old buildings and country charm. He soon sold his farm and bought a building in town, hired workers to help him and launched the business we know today.
“It is this attention to detail, the hand-planing of carefully selected wood, and the instinctive concept of each piece that sets Kramer’s furniture in a class of its own.” – Cape Cod Life
This northerner adapted to country life easily and soon he had as many as 8 woodworkers working with him. Still doing all of the design work, the extra help made it possible to produce a lot more pieces of custom ordered furniture. In 1976 Kramer was elected as mayor of Little Washington. Two years later a small gas station was converted to a small restaurant. This was the beginning of the Inn at Little Washington. “My first meal there was a chicken dinner that cost $14.95. Two years ago he, his wife and son went to the Inn for his son’s high school graduation dinner. The cost was $1200.00. Times have definitely changed.
“…honest, purebred American Furniture…the kind you find in museums…” – Furniture World Daily
At the hay day of production – 1973-2008, Kramer’s business produced a lot of furniture. They produced over one thousand models of the chair pictured in this article – every one was by hand. Kramer designed and built the bar at Tula’s Off Main in Little Washington as well as the interior of the Thornton River Grille in Sperryville, VA. He also built a number of pieces for the Inn at Little Washington and they adorn the rooms today. One of Kramer’s special woodworking skills is to cut a board down the middle, but not all the way through, then gently open it up as if opening a book. You will get a larger board with no telltale cut and the patterns of the wood are fascinating. When I asked Kramer what his secret was, he replied, ”It is all in doing something that you really like to do.”
“Kramer’s furniture has been widely admired. The pieces are sturdy and well put together…imaginatively decorated.” – Washington Post
Today Kramer’s business has been scaled back; after all he is 76 and will be 77 the middle of this month. “Time to slow down a little,” he says…but then again…he still has that 120 year-old plane.
Written by: Bob Tagert