David Pickrell uncovered a new talent early on in his retirement: Welding steel with exotic woods, he designs and builds minimalist furnishings and garden structures that are both sturdy and functional. “I don’t call it a hobby—I don’t like that word,” says Pickrell, whose downtown Milford studio links to Gallery 37, owned and operated by his wife, artist Marcia Reed. This accidental venture emerged when he reluctantly accompanied Reed to Snow Farm: The New England Craft Program. While she taught a summer workshop at the art school, Pickrell—not one to waste time—enrolled in a welding class. What began as an enjoyable experience evolved into a deep interest, then a second career, that continues to draw a growing list of clients. Here, Pickrell pulls us into his process.
I grew up in Western Massachusetts, and my brother and I and my dad were always building things: balsa wood airplanes, radio-controlled models, model boats, treehouses. I’ve rebuilt boats and motorcycles, and a full displacement cruiser was my last project that I kept in the northern Chesapeake Bay. Most of my career was spent in the world of manufacturing, so I guess you could say there’s a connection to the industrial world and that form and functional look. I was also always into aviation, and I got a pilot’s license in the 1980s and owned an airplane for a period.
Sometimes. One of the first projects was a living wall—an expansive metal trellis that now supports ornamental vines and encloses the yard and patio for privacy. I was in Atlanta when I saw a living wall—a group of artisans built [them] on vacant factories to deter vandalism. I found an old boat hatch door at an auction; it became a work table. I have a collection of industrial clamps, old metal tools. The cost of repurposed wood—like barn wood—is cost prohibitive.
I draw a design before I start building, but most of the actual design happens during construction. For instance, a credenza [I built] started with an old boat hatch door [and the process just happened]. I guess that’s one of the interesting things, the logistics of doing things with such heavy stuff and working with steel at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. I like figuring it out, and sometimes I have to build tools just to move things. …Since everything is custom-built, there is no premade inventory. Clients may see something they like, a table or lamp, but they might want a different material or a design change. It’s like going to a kitchen store. They share their design idea or a photo and say, ‘I like this,’ or ‘I don’t like this.’ I will come up with a concept and review it with them. We just trade ideas back and forth. We also consider cost effectiveness.
It’s mostly word of mouth and from Marcia’s social media, and people coming into the gallery. They may be looking at jewelry or ceramics, and they notice the display credenza or table I’ve built. Or they walk past our backyard and notice the living wall and the fire tower. I don’t advertise.
I’m going to build a gate modeled after one on Fifth Avenue in New York City, a three-dimensional gate. For me, whatever I do, it’s got to be functional; it’s got to do something. It’s very satisfying.