There is a German word, gemütlichkeit, that translates to “welcoming, warmth, cozy, community.” That feeling defines Jennifer and Tom Dolese and their company, Terra Firma Design.

We recently met with Jennifer, and took a woodworking class from Tom, at their studios and in their home. Their Craftsman-style house is filled with serene paintings, beautiful basketry, inherited kachinas, glorious rocks, and, of course, Terra Firma furniture, panels and lamps. “A huge part of the satisfaction for us is the excitement of creating together,” says Tom.

Terra Firma Design teaches woodworking and crafts custom-built fine furniture, marquetry (creating images in wood using various sawn wood veneers), light fixtures and stained-glass windows. Jennifer refers to her marquetry and stained glass as craft artistry, rather than fine art, but it sure looks like fine art to our eyes.

This lamp is a lovely example of Jennifer and Tom’s collaboration. Photo credit: Carol Lo

She began doing glass work in her native Montana and was inspired to learn marquetry while attending a prestigious workshop at Anderson Ranch Art Center in Snowmass, Colorado, led by Craig Vandall Stevens.

“It was so exciting—the location, the exposure to all kinds of new ideas,” Jennifer says. “That’s where I learned the double-bevel cutting technique that makes my veneer work so detailed.” While checking some of her work against a lamp, she determined that very thin marquetry veneer could be vacuum pressed onto glass, which has led to some of her most unusual and sought-after pieces. She uses a scroll saw that resembles a sewing machine and a Bunsen burner with hot sand to shade pieces before assembling them.

Jennifer is not as concerned with tools and the species names of her woods as she is with the art and the process. “The veneers are my palate, with their grains, textures and colors,” she says. “Marquetry is putting together a puzzle while making the pieces at the same time.”  Some of her beautiful light fixtures and panels are on display at their website and the Northwest Woodworker’s Gallery website.  

Peter Gantt and Nancy Siegel carefully mortise the sides of the chair. Photo credit: Carol Lo

Tom has been designing and building fine furniture since 1992 and teaches at their Sunnyland woodshop and in Port Townsend. His dining chair class is a study in evolution of design, precise and thoughtful wood processing and, just as importantly, relationship building.

I recently joined three others—all of us with widely different woodworking experience—as we each built a dining room chair to exacting standards. The finished product is a thing of beauty and the week-long experience of learning and working together was pure joy.

This was Tom’s 40th dining chair class. The evolution to this design developed through several painstaking iterations until he created one that perfectly suited his criteria of strength, comfort, beauty, sustainability and more.

Jennifer Dolese used karelian birch to represent the spots on this koi. Photo credit: Carol Lo

No detail is overlooked. Gluing and applying finish are given the same attention to detail as building the chair itself. Nothing was hurried, but by the end of our first two-hour class, we’d sawed and shaped the long, elegant curved back legs. The rest of the week we cut, shaped, mortised, routed, dry fitted, sanded, glued and sanded until the surfaces were velvety smooth.

All equipment used is professional-grade: shaper, planer and jointer with Shelix cutter-heads, band saws, Wixey angle gauge and a sawstop table. All are chosen and rigorously maintained to help craft professional-quality results. Each step is patiently explained and closely supervised. Tom frequently reminds the class of lessons he’s learned from others.

Diego Acevedo demonstrates the applying of the finish. Photo credit: Carol Lo

We ate lunch together every day and used the time to talk shop, discuss books and food, and get to know one another. Jennifer dropped by to share plums from their tree and chat about design and the business. By the end of the week, we had all shared an intense, rewarding experience that made the chairs we each built priceless. 

“Remember to look at the big picture,” Tom reminded us often. He meant to always remember how the piece fits together in the real world as your guide.

It’s clear that the big picture for Terra Firma Designs is in community and relationship-building, as well as creating art. The Doleses strengthen community through their own work and their workshops, which culminate in a dinner at their home, where they generate a continuation of the community and warmth.

Diego Acevedo, Peter Gantt, Nancy Siegel, and WhatcomTalk’s Carol Lo built beautiful dining chairs during their one-week class at Terra Firma Design. Photo credit: Carol Lo

At their house, they display and recommend other artists, including Larry Richmond, a favorite pottery and basket artist, among others. They’re constantly connecting people with one another.

The shop in Sunnyland serves as a community center for woodworkers and all manner of craft persons interested in making a living through building art. The Whatcom Artist Studio Tour is coming up in October and several artists dropped by throughout the week to pick up brochures. On the last day of class, we dropped by Rachel Taylor’s fabric and foam shop at Tom’s suggestion, to use as a resource for upholstering our chair.

The experience of building the chair was extraordinarily satisfying, but the example of generosity and relationship-building were indeed the big-picture lessons we took from our interaction with Terra Firma Design.

Terra Firma Design
Woodworking shop: 2139 Humboldt Avenue in Bellingham
Home studio: 521 Donovan Avenue in Bellingham
Tom Dolese: 360-393-7577
Jennifer Dolese: 360-647-3644

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