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Artisan in Wood

The carved creations of John Wohner '91 and his family business are a study in old-world grace.

This should be an easy question to answer—after all, he’s been sweeping the floor of the family business since he was five years old, can perform any job within it, and is the fourth generation to run it.

Yet John Wohner ’91 is stumped when asked what exactly his business does. At last he replies, simply: “We deal with anything in wood that’s carved and that’s technically difficult and artistic.”

In front of one of John's intricate mantels                                                                            Photos courtesy of Wohners

And venerable. To spend time at Wohners.com viewing screenful after screenful of mantels, doors, mirrors, mouldings, shelves, and tables, not to mention corbels, capitals, figures, rosettes, drops, swags, corners, brackets, and finials, every one of them exquisitely carved from maple, oak, cherry, linden, or “other species available on special order,” is enough to make you sit in your chair a little straighter and apply a bit more powder to your wig. There’s hardly a straight line in sight. No Shaker, no Mission, no Danish modern. Certainly no Ikea. Wohner’s, as John Wohner puts it, is “very 18th-century, very classical”—very Old Europe.

Which is where, in fact,  it all began. John’s great-grandfather Ferenc Wohner was a prosperous Hungarian furniture factory owner whose products were sold all over Europe. When he died in 1943 his sons John and Ferenc carried on the family business until the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution forced them and their families to emigrate to the United States. John restarted the business first on New York City’s Lower East Side and then in Englewood, New Jersey, where his grandson and namesake was born in 1969.

At Ithaca College that grandson majored in business administration with a management concentration and studied accounting. He also sampled heavily in art history, architecture, European history, and drawing (“When I told art students I was studying business, they looked at me like I had three heads,” he recalls), and dabbled in golf, scuba diving, and windsurfing. He competed on the men’s track and field team and is still the College record holder, at 14 feet 7 inches, in the pole vault. John cites his international marketing management course with professor Hormoz Movassaghi as his chief inspiration for taking the family business international (his father, Robert, had not done so; currently, international trade accounts for 25 percent of the business).

Wohner’s ornate creations reside with clients as diverse as Eddie Murphy, the Isley brothers, the sultan of Brunei, and the Pentagon. A recent commission was the Pennsylvania state seal. The original, of unknown age, was “rather crude,” John says, and didn’t accurately match the seal on the state flag. A design from a 1778 brass platter served as a model; the resulting piece, with its allegorically rich plough, horses, ship, sheaves of wheat, olive branch, and cornstalk, took 40 hours of drawing and computer modeling, 10 hours of wood blocks preparation, and 300 hours of carving. It now hangs above the entrance of the Founder’s Courtroom of the Superior Court in Philadelphia.

The Pennsylvania state seal, which took 300 hours to carve (right), with inspirational brass plate and sketch

With Asian imports flooding the market and copyright infringement rampant, John knows he has to be careful about his business’s future. “Most of our customers don’t care if it’s made here or there,” he says, but one commonality is a respect for wood. “Plastic doesn’t stain or finish well,” John explains. “Wood is still the most renewable resource. It’s strong and beautiful, and I think from our history being human around it, it brings us warmth and pleasure.”

There’s pleasure, too, in maintaining a family business that has been passed down through generations—it has essentially been operating since 1909, despite the midcentury leap across the Atlantic, and has now occupied the same building for 43 years. John took over the business when his father retired in 2004. His brother Robert heads sales; his wife, Brandy, occasionally consults for the business in the areas of human resources and insurance; and his brother Michael has worked sporadically for the business as well. Occasionally, you’ll also find one, two, or all three of John’s children underfoot. His son, Chase, 2, carries a toolkit everywhere. (The other two, daughters Ava, 4, and Karch, 1, have not yet evinced much interest in woodworking, but there’s still time.) John learned Hungarian from his parents and still speaks it to the older craftspeople in the shop, which employs 10 people.

Plaster figure, before and after restoration

It’s not uncommon, says John, for “old-time customers to stop by. They tell us ‘Your granddad made this for us’ or ‘Your father carved this for us. And it still looks as terrific as the day it was made.’ ”At times like that, John says, “you get a lump in your throat. It’s like the ghosts of the family are looking down on us.”

Early plans for the business’s 2009 centennial include donating some kind of “legacy” piece or raising money for charity. “I believe that any celebration should include giving back to the community,” John stresses. The specifics are unclear, but one thing is predictable: three years from now, Chase Wohner will be five—old enough to hold a broom.

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