Masters of their Craft: Built to Last
Furniture-maker and designer Adem Vant Hull is dedicated to creating unique, high-quality custom pieces.
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPHS
On a late fall evening, furniture-maker Adem Vant Hull sits on a stool in his new workshop on Lower Magazine Street after
setting up his extensive record collection and sound system. New Orleans music of a bygone era fills the one-room space, and the faint smell of sawdust wafts through the air.
With a Miller High Life in hand, Vant Hull basks in the now-dim light of his shop, a culmination of his hard work that also shows he’s at a turning point in his career. His dog, Lucille – the namesake of his business – wags her tail at his side.
A familiar face in the Lower Garden District, he bartends at The Saint and works at Stein’s Deli. Vant Hull spends long hours behind counters. But here in his workshop, just blocks away from his day (and night) jobs, he designs and constructs custom furniture ranging from tables and chairs to “pretty much anything else.”
Building furniture gives him a break that is productive and fulfilling, he says. “I like the idea of not being in a bar or a kitchen all the time,” he says. “I can listen to music, answer to one person, get dirty, smoke cigarettes and be with my dog all day. At the end of the day, I have something to look at – not just overflowing trash cans and a sink full of dishes.”
Tattooed and wiry, Vant Hull is just 24 years old, and he is constantly working with his hands. He brings a wisdom and thoughtfulness to his craft. “Furniture-making and woodwork in general is kind of an ‘old guy’ thing,” he says. “It’s a strange, dangerous and expensive thing to be getting so involved in, but I like to learn this way: hands-on, not being taught so much as just figuring it out. I’m at a point where every new thing I make is my best piece until the next one is done. I take it as a challenge.”
The son of a sign-maker, he grew up in Minnesota, watching his father work in the garage. “I grew up with nice furniture in my house and remember playing underneath it, and some of it is still around at my sisters’ and father’s houses,” he says. “I think about that a lot. I inherited two big things from my dad: his work ethic and the ability to do almost anything with a lit cigarette in my mouth.”
Although he never aspired to be a sign-maker like his father, Vant Hull has artistry and creativity flowing full-force in his blood. While working as a bartender at the Uptown Bulldog, he made chalkboards promoting the daily specials; they were displayed on the sidewalk, beckoning passersby to come in for a beer and a burger. “People around the neighborhood asked me to do theirs, and now there are probably about 25 signs and chalkboards of mine around the city,” he says. It was a testament to his artistic aptitude, perhaps, but Vant Hull discovered furniture-making shortly after that gig, when he began working for Chip Martinson, owner of a custom furniture workshop and gallery in the Marigny called Monkey wid-a-Fez. Through Martinson, Vant Hull discovered his passion for the craft.
“When I showed up at his shop for the first time, I was in awe,” says Vant Hull. “I knew this was what I wanted to do, so I just started showing up on my days off for free, and now I’m his sole employee.”
Back in his own workshop, Vant Hull says he starts the process of building furniture by sketching it out first.
Clients consult with him by bringing in photos of something they admire or showing him what they want through Web images. Then Vant Hull goes to the lumberyard. “I really enjoy the lumberyard process,” he says. “I think of the lumberyard guys as bartenders in that the more you frequent it, the more you hook them up, and the more you get hooked up. … That’s kind of how I see the whole city in general.”
Vant Hull uses both salvaged and new woods but says he prefers new: “I like to start off with raw hard woods. There’s a lot of gluing up and clamping involved, too. Once the parts are ready, you spend a lot of time with the sander. Let your mind go clear; put on a good record; and go at it, grit by grit. Once it’s done, finish it in whatever way you choose, wax that bitch, and it’s done.”
These days, chain stores offer low-cost, low-quality furniture that can be assembled in a matter of minutes and then seems to fall apart just as quickly.
But for Vant Hull, furniture is creative, technical and something that should last a lifetime. “I want their children to have it one day,” he says of his customers. “Furniture is everywhere.
It’s what I notice when I walk into a room. Everybody has it; it’s just that some people have more of an appreciation for it. You can do whatever you want with wood – it’s like a three-dimensional canvas. It’s endless.”