The Artist Within

Looked at from Ninth Street, townhouse 218 presents an unremarkable visage. One would have to be considering it deeply on Google Street View to catch that its big, rectangular front window hints at a strange commerciality in this otherwise residential neighborhood. It’s red-painted brick with black trimmings. Two front doors with separate doorbells flank a stairway to a subterranean mystery.

Either a London planetree or an American sycamore—the latter, though, are far less populous in Washington, DC—blocks what would be the best view of the brickwork above three second-floor windows, blinds drawn. Blinds of a sort that look like butcher paper block the bottom three-fifths of the big, rectangular window, leaving visible only a microwave handle, the kind of overhead light you often find suspended above kitchen islands, and a square of sunlight from beyond a glass door to a fenced-in back yard that would appear to abut the back wall of another brick building, on Tenth Street.

So unlike a woodshop is townhouse 218 that I second-guess the address I’d entered. I go back to the website of Avanti Woodworks, whose proprietor is John Favaloro ’85, and reread the contact information::

Shop Address
218 9th St, SE – Entrance in the rear alley only!

Emphasis mine; punctuation his. I return to Street View. Luck has it that Google’s Autobotic Subaru hatchback had bothered to drive down that running-bond alleyway between Ninth and Tenth Streets. There is exactly one sign to indicate that a business exists in this alley; it’s for a flower shop called Volanni. Next to Volanni is a six-foot pine plank leaned against a pale brick exterior wall behind a neat arrangement of seven full trash bags that look like Crows candies. Next to the them is a door. Above the door is a hand-painted metal sign drilled into a rotted two-by-four:

REAR 218 9th St.

Inside, I’m told, is “a thousand square feet, maybe,” of shop space, though Favaloro admits to being shaky on the dimensions. Over the phone, he describes for me the layout:

Essentially, you enter the shop, and I have my planer and jointer to the left of me. The table saw to the right of me. You get beyond that and then I have my shop table that I build everything on in that area. And then there’s another, like, doorway, and behind that doorway is where I do my spraying.

He has the colloquial charm of a solitary artist. (Short of agreeing to be interviewed, he responded to my introductory email, “I’ll hear what you have to say.”) But he politely refuses my efforts to get him to talk about the aesthetic aspects of his woodwork. I’d prepared dilettantish questions about “the juxtaposition of natural and unnatural elements” and “the influence of other cultures” in his furniture designs.

“Jesus Christ,” he responds. “I want to give you a good answer, but I can’t, because a lot of those pieces, it wasn’t me who designed it.” He later reiterates: “My woodworking has been for other people. There are other woodworkers who have made their own line of furniture and have done it that way. I haven’t necessarily done that.”

In this way, he self-styles as more of a workhorse than an artisan. He wakes up at 4:15 every morning to be in the shop by 5 to start his eight-hour shift. For seventeen years now, he’s worked alone. “It’s just me,” he says, “and I like it that way.”

Favaloro was born in Winchester, Massachusetts, and raised in Medford and Concord. Having found his affinity for woodworking in high school shop class, he saved his money to buy a Shopsmith Mark V, a five-in-one machine, and started “light woodworking, as it were,” in his parents’ garage. He graduated Concord-Carlisle Regional High School a semester early, in 1979, and worked the next two years at Konz Woodworking.

That Favaloro learned his trade at the (disputed) site of the “shot heard round the world” and now practices out of the carriage house of a nineteenth-century Capitol Hill townhouse, building custom cabinets to be installed in the same is, he says, “just a coincidence.” As is it a coincidence that he studied history for four years at AIC. His relocation to DC after graduation was for reasons unrelated to woodworking: “I disliked Ronald Reagan.”

His first job out of college was canvassing in support of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, a major amendment to Superfund. After Regan signed the act into law in October of 1986, Favaloro and a friend spent the rest of the year and part of the next backpacking Mexico and Central America, the latter then a conflict region, as the US-backed Contras warred with the Sandinistas for governmental control of Nicaragua. His parents, “naturally, weren’t thrilled” about the timing of the trip. He saw Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and, on the advice of area expats, even Nicaragua—and found that US media had exaggerated the extent of the fighting.

He returned to DC in 1987 and worked as a caterer for the next six years. At some point during that time, inspired by a retrospective on Chinese furniture at the National Gallery of Art (“It got the juices flowing”), he retrieved his Mark V from Massachusetts and began woodworking again in his off hours. His first finished piece of furniture was a chest of drawers that he still uses.

He left his catering job in 1993 to work full-time as a furniture- and cabinetmaker. Six months later, he severed his left index finger just below the second knuckle. “You freak out a little bit, but you keep marching on,” he says in a residual non-rhotic just-outside-Boston accent.1 Once his hand healed, he worked in the same capacity for another woodshop, in the suburb of Rockville, Maryland, until he saw a classified ad for rental space in an established shop just a three-minute walk from his house in DC. He kept that space for another year, building a client base by advertising in circulars and saving up money to buy his own machines. In 2003, he opened his current shop, in what was once a bread bakery, behind townhouse 218.

His most successful client relationship was with the interior designer David Mitchell, whom Favaloro met in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession. Despite a sharp decline in demand for such luxury items as custom furniture, he says, “I had a great year.”

The market for high-end interior design having since all but dried up as a result of next-day shipping, Mitchell has pretty much “left the business,” catering only to the fewer and farther between clients who, as Favaloro puts it, “still pay the way they used to”—like the Virginian for whose newly built Montana mansion he made thirty-four custom pieces.

Otherwise, Favaloro says he now mostly builds cabinets—built-ins, entertainment centers, office cabinetry—for residences. Of late, he bemoans, “all I ever make are white cabinets. White is the in color. I just can’t talk people into doing something else.” He adds: “Veneer is the best thing in the world to me. So white cabinets, they’re boring, in my opinion. But that’s what people want, and that’s fine. People need storage.”

Months after our conversation, after I’d written most of the preceding text, I scanned my notes for something that might serve as an ending and realized I’d forgotten to ask Favaloro why he named his shop after the Italian adverb for “come in”—a strange choice, I thought, for someone so hermitic.

“No,” he tells me during our follow-up phone call, avanti is more of an imperative directive. “It means ‘come on, let’s go’—like, ‘Avanti, avanti!’” His mother came up with the name.

The rest of our seven-minute call is a far cry from our earliest correspondences. Once brusque, self-deprecatory, and a little suspicious, Favaloro now volunteers information about his latest projects—the ones that aren’t white cabinets. He describes his more “offbeat” commissions, like the turtle terrarium, the aquaponics system, and the custom cabinetry for “one of those little buses” that the owner was converting into an RV. He details his collaboration with the artist Miguel Perez Lem, whose photographs, printed on aluminum, Favaloro glued to the doors of a credenza, veneered in royal white ebony, which, in his words, “harmonizes both photographs and wood.”

“Those were the things that I thought of to add just to give the profile some more body,” he explains, sounding for the first time like a willing interviewee.

Shortly after I hang up the phone, Favaloro sends me four rapid-fire emails. The first two contain photos of the shop (which I’d asked for) and of commissioned pieces, like the slate blue terrarium, whose base cabinet doors feature cute little turtle-shaped knobs. Another email shows all thirty-four pieces—end tables, stools, stand-alone armoires—he built for the Montana commission.

The last features an adulatory testimonial from a couple for whom he built an entertainment center: “John is an artist, a perfectionist.” I start to understand what they mean when he returns an initial draft of this profile, which I’d sent over for his approval for publication. The document is riddled with edits, notes, and rewrites, all in red font. The first four paragraphs—save for the first sentence, which he’s made edits to—are entirely crossed off. “To me, they just don’t belong,” he writes between apologies in an email that’s overly careful not to hurt my feelings. He asks me to mention his website, avantiwoodworks.com, and to add the following to the paragraph about his work routine: “I put my noise-cancelling headphones on and listen to podcasts or audiobooks. I’m a happy man.”

He signs off as usual:

Ciao,

John

 

1According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, table saws claim more than four thousand digits, on average, annually. This to partially explain his nonchalance.