New Texas, November 2001
The Family That Rocks Together
Everyone who buys a Weeks rocker is told that, if it is not the most comfortable and best constructed rocking chair you have ever experienced, I will refund the purchase price and pay the skipping both ways. None have come back. -Gary Weeks
One of life’s great pleasures is a beautiful thing that is also useful. Chief amongst such objects is the tree. One craftsman who gives trees their due respect is Gary Weeks, and a tree that ends up in his able hands could know few finer fates.
Gary Weeks & Company is a Wimberley, Texas firm that has made superb furniture since 1992. Exemplary dining tables, chairs, end tables, and stools are part of their repertoire, but their place in the Arboreal Hall of Fame is reserved by the Weeks rocker. Besides its immediately arresting aesthetic charm, the rocker does something very unique: it fits almost everybody. The moment you sit in one, and unavoidable “Ahhhh!” escapes your lips, and your first is that this hardwood rocker is more genuinely comfortable than most sofas. Your next thought is how to avoid having to get out of the chair.
It took Gary some time to his rocker design just right. He measured and teased dozens of people until every back nestled naturally and immediately against the lumbar curve of the chair’s splats (vertical back supports), and based the rest of the chair on a classic rocker patterns, Shaker and Scandinavian furniture ideas, and inspiration derived from the human form and function. He then built specific sanding machines, tools, jigs, and fixtures to help make the chairs. Ultimately, however, the Weeks rocker is a handmade work of art, each with its own spirit.
That spirit is always informed by Weeks’ own, as he works on every piece of furniture his company makes, and has since it opened in 1992. “Before we started, I was in the construction business. I had the rudiments of a shop for cabinets and so on, and started, I was tired of the building business and wanted to do something where the highest quality was more important than the lowest price, which was not usually the case in commercial building. I wanted to make something really fine. After thinking about it for a good while, I came to the rocking chair, which has this home and family connotation to it, and it just made sense.”
Originally from Dallas, Gary graduated from UT in 1970; “If there was a place like that somewhere now, I’d be there,” he smiles with a gleam in his eye. “Those were special times.” After graduation, he was headed to Law School until realizing it was not his calling, and then with a friend opened the 29th Street Food Store, a natural foods place they eventually sold to the Good Foods people.
Weeks then began a long stint in the building business, and along the way stared the family that is now the backbone of the business. His wife Leslie works in the office and showroom (the firm’s straight-backed Wilson chairs bear her maiden name); his oldest son Austin manages the shop, and Gary works on “the process, the furniture, and the business.” His other son Zachary loves working in the shop during Summers home from school, and daughter Aubrey also works with the family when she can. Wood seems designed to be a Weeks family hallmark. “My Dad was a fireman, and also a carpenter,” says Gary, “and I guess that’s where I got my feel for wood. My son Austin has really taken to our work; he loves it, and he’s really, really good at it. In fact he’s faster at the work than I am.”
The firm began at the Weeks’ old ranch home near Wimberley, and is now located beside the Blair House on RR 12, where the Weeks clan is putting the finishing touches on an impressive green-built compound. “We’ve put up all these buildings in the past year,” says Gary, his penetrating blue eyes looking at the workshop, showroom/office, warehouse, and new house--a huge chunk of work.
“I’m pretty tired,” he laughs. “They’re all as green as we could make them; they’ll consume a lot less energy than the standard structures we could have put up. We also made careful use of sloping site to protect its easily eroded surface; drainage is configured to direct flows to check dams, waterways, and terraces. I believe that not one baseball cap of soil has left this site since we began our erosion control, and we’re soon going to be harvesting all rainwater from the roofs.”
Weeks is that notably rare furniture maker who seeks to minimize his environmental footprints at every level, particularly in his choice of wood, most of which is certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). The council is an independent, non-profit, international organization that sets standards for sustainable forestry,” notes Gary. “It means a lot to me to have their tag on my work; they’re the ‘certified organic’ of wood products. We use their cherry, maple, and mahogany, and hope that soon all of our wood, including the walnut and mesquite, will be certified.”
Weeks’ work is clearly inspired by a reverence for wood. “I’m moved most by he way that trees provide for us, and make us happy,” he says; “my spiritual response to the wood comes from that whole picture. I love working with wood. I can see the shape of a tree in a board, and I make sure the grains in our chairs are kept as symmetrical as possible. When you look at one of our chairs, the grain patterns reach the brain, even if you’re not conscious of it. Each chair is a vehicle for displaying the grain, which is why every chair has its own character.
“Furniture making suits me: it’s deliberate, direct and tangible. Chairs are very different from cabinets and such, however. It’s a big step from doing rectilinear work to dealing with all those curves, but the challenge is inspiring, and the wood is, too. A lady once told me that the spirit of a tree speaks to each person differently, and I believe that, While working, I like to think about the people who will be sitting in the chairs we make. What we’re trying to do is make people happy, and the chairs are just a vehicle for that.”
Such concern informs all aspects of Weeks’ work, and the resultant quality is tangible. His furniture is obviously heirloom quality. “Our furniture is built to last, and is an investment that will provide value for many generations,” says Gary with pride. “Some of the many nice stories connected to our work come from Renaissance Women’s Center in Austin who bought 15 of my rockers for their birthing rooms, and I’ve had a lot of women tell me they’d had wonderful moments with their newborn children while sitting in my chairs.
“One time at a party , a woman came up to me, almost in tears, and said, ‘ I had maybe the finest moment of my life while sitting in one of your chairs, rocking my newborn grandchild.’” Gary smiles. “That’s a good thing to hear. We’re building chairs, but we’re also building a community of people.”
Weeks’ furniture is in homes, offices, libraries, hospitals, and other public spaces, spread across 40 states and several European countries. What a surprising joy it is to sit in one of Gary’s rockers by chance, and I feel the craftsman’s quality (I had such a moment at Wimberley blacksmith Jimmy Harwell’s studio, and was immediately hooked).
Hand craftsmanship means a lot more labor--each chair takes 178 steps to complete--but also a lot more quality for the lucky chair owner. The chairs are machine-sanded with 80-grit, then 100, 120, 180, 220, then hand-sanded with 320, 400, and 1,000 between three coats of hand-rubbed oil finish.
And how much does one of these beauties cost? About $1,500, which, for a chair that will be in your family for generations and will make all of them feel mighty good indeed, is in fact a bargain.
“Our furniture ranks with the finest studio work in the country, while our prices are substantially lower,” says Gary. “I think we make the most comfortable rocker in the ‘studio art furniture’ world, at less than half the price of any other comparable chair. I’ll stand this chair beside any other in the world, especially for the value in this price.” Weeks & Company makes about 120 rockers a year, in addition to the other chairs and tables. “We’re trying to make as many people happy as we can, while keeping it a family-sized business,” says Gary.
In addition to the Weeks clan, there are four other employees, all of whom work about 30 hours a week, “which is a sensible work-week,” Gary smiles. “Only Austin and I work 40 hours or more. Usually more.” Weeks has worked hard every step of the way; it took him six years of chair-building as well as doing construction on the side to get to the point of living just from furniture, a moment marked by an award in 1998 for fine furniture craftsmanship using sustainable harvested wood.
If there’s something Gary and family are not doing right, it’s hard to find. A trip to the workshop and showroom reveals a world where calm and grace aside, the Weeks’ gorgeous and friendly pooch Ruby leading the tour. A sense of gentleness and love flows from the family, and their work clearly reflects this. We sit in the showroom in comfortable chairs, marvelling at the depth of the wood’s grain, highlighted by the setting Hill Country sun, they will take care of you.