Early cave dwellers prided themselves on keeping their homes clean, well-organized and ready for any surprise guests. Rock and log seating, all the rage, came only in natural colors and, if worn out or broken, could be hurled at something or burned for heat. Not a pleasant scenario, but considering our evolutionary path has led us to ready-to-assemble department store furniture, which can be also hurled or burned for heat, how far have we really come up the home furnishings ladder? Well, thank the powerful and wealthy, whose demand for stylish comfort over these thousands of years has brought into existence ... The Furniture Maker. Whether it's made from stone, metal, wood or plastics, we all have a need for furniture. We sit on it, eat on it, write on it, lay on it, store things in it, put things on it, paint it and move it around. And so, we tend to pay more attention to functionality than aesthetics. The job of the furniture maker is to balance both function and design, to create an object of purpose that is visually satisfying.

Enter Joseph “Joe” Schwarte, furniture designer, builder and artisan. Every furniture maker that I’ve known has their own uniquely recognizable style, and so does Joe. To fashion, shape and mold the ingredients of one’s life to make that style is the real art.

Joe didn’t start out to be a furniture designer. As a youth growing up in Chicago, he worked in small grocery stores arranging products and building store displays for the owners. He joined the armed services. When done, he returned to Chicago. He wanted to be an architect but wound up as a go-fer in an art studio (a good thing) and with thanks to the G.I.Bill went to art school. But, fatherhood at age 20 left him no choice but to enter the work force to support his son. There he became a pipefitter and learned to work with metal. He created small-scale sculptures from what materials were at hand (another good thing) and with the help of a friend who owned a metal fabrication company was able to take his small mock-ups and turn them into full-scale sculpture. Eventually, he would wind up in the construction field remodeling homes, which led to cabinet work, which ultimately led him to furniture making.

When you first see Joe’s work you notice the brevity of form. With simple clean lines, the pieces appear to be composed of more space than mass. A favorite of mine is a “stand at” writing desk. When I noted its aerodynamic wing-like form, he laughed, “I’ve always loved airplanes. Thanks for seeing that quality.” His chairs, with names such as Natis, Reed and Harper also display an “in flight” style that looks like they’re gliding through space. His narrow Antelope table barely touches the ground with its tapering delicate legs. Maple, ash, cherry and walnut woods are carefully matched to their function within the overall design. It is a difficult challenge that the furniture maker faces, and Joe pulls it off with great success. His side table Seven, constructed of steel, glass and wood, was selected in 2005 for the International Contemporary Furnishings Show in New York City. In 2012 he was selected for a solo show at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield.

Although a native of Chicago, Joe has resided in Gays Mills for the past 19 years. There he has developed a community of supporters and followers of his work. With loggers and sawyers providing him unique pieces of wood for his designs, he continues to create functional sculpture for his Chicago clientele. Joe Schwarte has mastered his style.

An opening reception will be held from 6-9 p.m. June 8. Studio Gallery 1311, 1311 Market St., La Crosse, is open weekends and by appointment. For information, call 608-799-1184 or visit www.sg1311.blogspot.com.