With the exodus from New Orleans finally leveling out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, what would make someone pick up a flourishing business and move it, and their family, to flooded New Orleans East? “I feel at home here in Louisiana,” says Illinois native Steve Rawlings. “The people are so friendly. The food, the festivals every week, and the weather—it’s all great! We’re staying,” he says, adding, “They’re going to bury me here.”
Detail of Steve Rawlings carving a piece. Cheryl Gerber photographs
Rawlings is a custom woodworker who specializes in a close attention to detail that has made him a favorite with his clients—including celebrities Natalie Cole, Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg—and with everyone who has ever watched the TV series, “Frasier,” for whom he made the coffee table that is seen in practically every episode. (It is constructed of bird’s eye maple with ebonized inlays and ebony turned reeded legs.) Oh, and don’t forget the china cabinet he made for the Walsh household in “Beverly Hills 90210.” Though Rawlings’ personal preference in furniture is “Victorian and country French,” he can create in any style you would like. His talent for reproducing mouldings in old New Orleans homes, helping to “preserve the character of these houses,” he says, has definitely come in handy since he arrived here a year ago to trim houses and opened his business: Master’s Touch 2.
Steve Rawlings. Cheryl Gerber photographs
Rawlings started building custom homes with his father at age 11. “I always knew I had something special,” Rawlings smiles. He then joined the Seabees (the U.S. Naval Construction Force). After that he trained with some of the most famous cabinetmakers in Germany and Poland, and learned to carve from masters in Mexico. Along with custom houses, he’s made doors, mouldings, furniture, cabinets … basically if it can be custom made with wood, Rawlings has carved it.
This bed, based on a one in a magazine, is made of cherry and Afican mahogany burl. It is a Victorian reproduction, the original is from 1836.
Today, you’ll find him in a warehouse in New Orleans East. Enter a small office with two desks covered in pictures and sketches, then follow the sound of wood carving back through a hallway to the warehouse itself. There are racks of different types of wood in different lengths and widths lining the walls, while the center of the room is taken up with what at first seem to be a random assemblage of woodworking machines and tools as far as the eye can see. “I have at least 10 router tables and panel routers, five shapers, a bunch of old equipment that’s hard to find anymore …” Rawlings sighs. “It’s almost arranged the way I want it.” You see, this seeming chaos is actually another sign of his skill—each machine has a special purpose and has been adjusted to only do that skill. This way, when he’s carving a door, he can go to the “door section” of his studio and with a stellar efficiency of movement, create the finished piece he sees in his head.
One of his favorite stories to tell is of making a client’s dream bed. “This woman showed me a picture from a magazine of a carved Victorian bed from 1836—oh, and she wanted it to fit an oversized King mattress.” This client wanted her bed to look exactly like the bed in the picture, even though its size would be different. There were only two changes: Neither Rawlings or the client liked the finials on top of the corners. They worked together to create a design she liked much better, but still fit the period of the original. The other change was to accommodate her husband. “He loved to hang his toes off the end of the bed, which a wooden, four-poster frame doesn’t permit,” says Rawlings.
White-washed maple corner cabinet with porcelain shell bonnet. Photos courtesy of Steve Rawlings
“So, I made the frame three inches longer than the mattress to accommodate him.” The clincher for this story—and the point that Rawlings says always makes him laugh—is that after Rawlings had delivered the bed, put it together and taken pictures, the husband told Rawlings that when his wife had shown him the torn picture from the magazine and asked him if she could have it made, he said “Sure,” because he never dreamed she would be able to find someone to do it.
White-washed red oak kitchen. Photos courtesy of Steve Rawlings
Though Rawlings is busy trimming houses throughout the New Orleans area, he’s excited to get to work on larger projects. “To me,” Rawlings says, “each piece is a work of art.” Call Rawlings’ office with your idea, though if it’s a weekend, he may be out immersing himself in Louisiana culture, selling Kettle Corn with his wife, Roxanne, at any number of festivals. It’s clear that between his talent and his newfound love for New Orleans, Rawlings has carved out his home.
Steve Rawlings, Master’s Touch 2: 240-2076 or (217) 556-2735;