A Life Transformed
By Sean Malone
From the outside, the building is nondescript. Long and beige it sits tucked down on the city’s south side amid various warehouses and thrift shops. Seemingly the only remarkable thing about the building is the red and green accents that frame the two doors facing the half paved, half gravel parking lot. Inside of this testament to architectural functionality resides the woodworking shop of a man whose abilities as a craftsman of fine furniture have taken his pieces into the realm of art and far, far away from the day to day practicality that most furniture in our lives serve.
With curly white hair and eyes that seem to brighten when he speaks with you, David Naso is a man who loves his work. It has created a life for him that most occupations do not or perhaps cannot. Many of his customers have become his friends. He senses the importance of the pieces that he creates in the overall feeling that people want to convey and possess in their homes and businesses. “You can buy a chair at Target for forty bucks that you can sit on” said Naso. “What I do is more of the artistic realm and that was the market that I wanted to go after. I mean you have to say that it is something. I went towards the art work and that has been my salvation.” Through this sense of caring about his customers, they have in turn, helped nurture and grow his woodworking shop into an artisan’s studio whose work is sought out world wide.
A Non-Conventional Path
After graduating with a B.A. from the University of Iowa in 1965 Naso returned to his hometown of Cedar Rapids, IA and went into the restaurant business with his father Tony. “I was always in the restaurant business. From the time that I was in grade school, all of the way through college” said Naso. The restaurant, Tony’s Pizza, was a success and soon Naso was joined in the business by his brother Larry. They opened another restaurant, Potpourri, but it didn’t succeed at the level of the pizzeria. After a divorce from his ex-wife Jane, Naso was feeling somewhat burned out on the restaurant business.
In 1975 they began selling their businesses and by 1976 they were completely out of the industry. For Naso this marked the beginning of a spiritual journey and a quest to find a sense of community that he had yet to experience in his life.
In 1977 this search for community led Naso to the northeast corner of Iowa. On the banks of the Turkey River, 15 miles to the southeast of the picturesque town of Elkader he found the community that he was seeking. A few like minded seekers had purchased around 400 acres of timber and prairie and set about restoring and repairing not only the property, but their personal belief systems on what it means to be a community. As a way to support his new life Naso and another resident of the farm Ginny Croker, who he would later marry, started the Turkey Valley Construction Company. Naso frequently participated in retreats at the New Melleray Monastery near Dubuque in an effort to understand their way of community. These retreats would lead directly to his development as a furniture maker.
“I got to know the brothers down there really well” said Naso. “We’d have dinners together and then one of the brothers down there asked if our little construction company could build furniture and I jumped on it. I said absolutely we can do that. So that’s how it all started. They funded us.” With seed money in hand the newlyweds Naso and Croker-Naso along with a friend named Bob O’Conner combined their small business with two experienced furniture makers from the Amana Colonies and created Woodworkers to complete the project near the Iowa City area.
West of Iowa City, in the small community of Windom, the project was completed in what Naso describes as “a tin shed that this guy had built to raise night crawlers. Raise worms in”. With rent of only $150 a month for the shed, the crew was able to see the monks order through and deliver the pieces to the monastery on time. After the completion of the project though there was no business on the horizon for the young company. The woodworkers from the Amana’s needed to make more money to support their families and they separated themselves from the business.
Not wanting to give up on what he had learned Naso and two new partners then moved into a shop on S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City that he would call home for 25 years. Naso chortled and added “The plan had always been to move everything back to the farm after the project but we got sucked into the Iowa City vortex. Once you get in here, you can’t get out.”
A Bourgioning Business
Business was slow though. Naso had to rely on odd jobs between projects to make ends meet. When asked what types of jobs he did, he burst out laughing. “I don’t think you want to get into that” he said and paused. Slightly embarrassed he continued. “I taught at the University Hospitals. I taught second and third year med students how to give genital and rectal examinations.” Pausing, I had to ask him what exactly his qualifications to teach med students were at the time. “I had a penis and an asshole” he said, cracking up. “One of the other woodworkers had been doing it for a couple of years and said it was an easy way to make a lot of money. Once you get passed the modesty factor it’s real easy, and it paid $75 an hour and in 1980 that was a lot of money.” Work more in line with his craft however was soon to follow.
In 1981 Naso and 13 other local woodworkers formed a guild in Iowa City and began promoting themselves. They pooled their money for advertising and began having shows at Old Brick Church near the Pentacrest. In their very first show they kept track of the number of people who came and were surprised by the turnout. Twelve to thirteen hundred people turned out for the show. Nearly five years since the beginning of the project for the monastery “things started popping” he said.
Another spin-off from the woodworker’s guild turned into a gallery that remains an Iowa City mainstay. The Iowa Artisans Gallery combined woodworkers, potters, along with fabric and basket people to showcase their wares. The gallery didn’t necessarily help Naso due to its small size and inability to showcase furniture, but it did introduce him “to some fantastic artists in the community”.
Over the course of the next decade, Naso developed what he referred to as “Patron Saints”. Two customers whose continued support and desire for his artisanship helped introduce him to more and more people who saw the beauty and worth in his craft. One of those customers, Susan Farrell, a local car salesperson in the Iowa City area began her relationship with Naso when she was 23 years old by ordering a simple piece. Naso believes that she now has over twenty different of his designs in her home.
“I discovered David through a friend after looking to purchase a desk” said Farrell “I met him and he showed me his work. David proceeded to build a beautiful desk along with many other pieces over the past 25 years. I have so many favorites and it would be difficult to pick one. He has built two beds for me, end tables, coffee table, and a lingerie cabinet! The lingerie is a masterpiece.”
Although the personal relationships Naso has developed over the years through his work have helped to not only sustain and grow his business, his work with the University of Iowa and local businesses has also helped to propel his reputation as an elite furniture maker and artisan. An act of nature in 1995 helped to cement his relationship within the university community. Straight-line winds tore through the Iowa City area tearing off roofs and downing thousands of trees. On the University of Iowa Pentecrest and a 157 year old red elm crashed outside of the President of the University’s office.
As a woodworker whose desire to make his pieces out of the same tree “in an effort to control the medium, to create a homogonous look within the continuity of the piece”, this red elm was Naso’s white whale. After convincing the workers who had begun to cut up the elm to stop, he was able to have it removed to a friend’s shop where it was milled and stored for three years. A tragedy on campus in the fall of 1991 would be the impetuous of a project in which Naso would create all new doors and a twelve foot conference table for the offices of then President Mary Sue Coleman out of the very tree that was felled by the winds.
With a reputation growing as a serious artisan and fine furniture maker Naso’s business blossomed. It took him to Morocco where he worked for a year leading fifteen local artisans from the cultural center of Fez to build the furniture and interior for a 21,000 square foot palace in Rabat. Again his work led to the forming of personal relationships and extended family. “I became friends with my guys and we’d spend the weekends together. We’d go back to their homes in Fez and stay at their homes. Ginny and I became part of the family”.
With the project completed, Naso is again in Iowa City. Solidified by a reputation as a meticulous craftsman his business and art thrive. Owner of M.C. Ginsberg Jewelers: Objects of Art, Mark Ginsberg had Naso build all of his cabinetry and display cases. “It’s that attention to details that you don’t even see that reminds me of Frank Lloyd Wright” Ginsberg stated. “The wood is impeccably finished. On the cabinets he used a cherry veneer that is much easier to work with if you have the grain going top to bottom. David used the grain of the wood going the other way however to create the drama of a horizontal landscape”.
When asked what he saw happening in his life going forward Naso paused, smiled and replied. “I have no real goals. I enjoy what I do and the way the work is going right now. I’m not building as much and been really enjoying the all of the designing”. With the interview done the woodworker stood up and put on a pair of ear protectors, thanked me, and headed back into his shop toward a rocker perched on three foot table and began to sand it by hand.