Lee Weitzman has carved a niche for himself


When comedian Richard Lewis entertains at his Hollywood home, he likes to show off his impressive array of art deco and contemporary furniture. Invariably, his guests linger in the library.

"You expect people to look at your books, right?" says Mr. Lewis, star of "Daddy Dearest," a new Fox sitcom. "Well, I go into the kitchen for a minute, and when I come back to the library, nobody's looking at any books. They're all staring at Lee's shelves and settee and asking, 'Who made this stuff?' "

A typical reaction when folks come across anything by Lee Weitzman, the Chicago craftsman whose look packs a visual wallop with its sleek lines, sophistication and striking use of natural materials.

Rather than discreetly blending into a room, Mr. Weitzman's sofas and settees, bookcases and buffets, divans and dining tables boldly define a space.

As Suzanne Silverman, an interior designer with Louis Mazor Company in Baltimore, puts it: "This isn't furniture that you use to fill a room. You create a room especially for it." Interior designers cite Mr. Weitzman's attention to detail and innovative styling for the growing popularity of his collection, considered by some to be a "contemporary classic."

In June, a jury of industry professionals presented Mr. Weitzman with his ninth award for the best new residential furniture unveiled at NeoCon, a furnishings exposition in Chicago.

"Each piece is extremely well-crafted, with beautiful details and inventive shapes," says Stephen Glassman, a Baltimore architect. "I like the way Lee mixes interesting woods and combines them with rich, lacquered colors."

"To buy a Weitzman is to buy a work of art," adds Scott Bartshe, director of design at Gorman's, a contemporary furniture gallery in Southfield, Mich. "It's not just a chair to sit in or a table to put a glass on. It's perfect in almost every way -- and it should be, for the price."

Indeed, prices start at $900 for a maple end table and climb to $40,000 for an 8-piece bedroom suite.

"I do the very best design I can think of, and it ends up being really beautiful, but also really expensive because of the amount of work involved," says Mr. Weitzman, 39, who spent 120 hours creating an ebony dining table with mother-of-pearl inlay. (It retails for $16,000.) "I present the wood in all of its glory."

Defying categorization

That his style defies categorization suits Mr. Weitzman.

"It has a robust art deco flavor," he says, sweeping his gaze over a myriad of pieces awaiting shipment to a client in Phoenix. "But there are influences of ancient Egypt and Asia, like the thin band around the leg of the table."

Now, Mr. Weitzman is banking on his new line -- introduced at NeoCon '93 with prices half that of the deluxe collection -- to

extend his appeal beyond the stratospherically rich, who have spiked his annual sales to $500,000.

Mr. Weitzman compares buying a piece from the Tier II group to buying a Mercedes -- minus the sun roof.

"The design essence remains," he says. "You just don't have all of the extras, like the high-gloss finish, the ornamentation or the inlays."

Actually, Mr. Weitzman is a Tier II kind of guy. His self-confidence is solid, but not overbearing, and his manner is animated, but not overtly dramatic.

You won't find so much as an ounce of glitz in his Chicago loft. Filled with casual furniture, thriving plants and contemporary paintings by artist friends, it fits Mr. Weitzman's self-professed "rough-and-tumble" lifestyle.

In fact, the lone piece from his current collection -- a black lacquered console typically featured in opulent foyers -- is a high-style orphan amid a hodgepodge decor, which includes a green sofa circa 1950.

"It's a reprieve from the furniture I create," he says of his flea market treasures.

The son of a businessman and home economics teacher, Mr. Weitzman grew up in a two-story Colonial in Detroit that brimmed with ever-functional Early American furniture. He attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo on an athletic scholarship.

"I played ice hockey, majored in sociology and didn't think too much of anything else," he says, sipping coffee and talking over Luigi, his pet cockatoo who wails like an attention-starved infant from a perch in the private hallway outside the apartment. "After I graduated, I was faced with, 'What am I going to do?' for the first time in my life."

When he took a job building fences at a farm near South Haven, Mich., Mr. Weitzman never expected woodworking to figure into his future. But during a trip to a saw mill, while spying "the beautiful grain of the wood," he decided to experiment with butcher-block tables and bread boards.

Material beauty

"The beauty of the material drew me in," says Mr. Weitzman, who went into business with his boss. "As I saw the wood being cut, it was like, 'This is it. Wood.' It sounds really hokey, but for me, it was an inspirational moment."

Still, inspiration and discipline could not compensate for technical deficiency.

"I was presenting my work at a craft festival in Michigan, and a shop teacher came up and said, 'The way you constructed this, it's not going to stay together,' " Mr. Weitzman recalls. "I thought, 'If a consumer is telling me more about my field than what I know, then I'd better get back to school.' "

Within two years, Mr. Weitzman had completed his second tour at Western Michigan University, earning a degree in industrial arts and a teaching certificate. He moved to Chicago in 1980, briefly taught arts and crafts at the Hines Veterans Administration Hospital in Maywood, Ill., and when the program ended, became an apprentice to Lyon & Healy, the venerable harp manufacturer.

After six months, he left to work for a cabinet company and began designing furniture and sculptures in his free time.

"But I realized I didn't understand art," he says, laughing. "Everything looked good to me."

So Mr. Weitzman returned to the classroom -- this time at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the graduate fine arts program, he studied art history and took classes with Martin Puryear, an internationally known sculptor.

In the early 1980s, while supporting himself as a cabinet maker, Mr. Weitzman waded into the genre of "art furniture," which allowed him to meld art and woodworking. He found an audience at local art galleries, and when "a funny-shaped console with a nice little inlay" sold for $1,200, Mr. Weitzman knew he was on the verge of carving a professional niche, too.

National clientele

Hoping to cultivate a national clientele, Mr. Weitzman schlepped to craft shows (Baltimore's was his favorite) and peddled his work to art galleries in major cities.

Ultimately, though, his business savvy compelled him to choose furniture showrooms as the sole outlet for his products.

Today, Lee Weitzman Furniture is a five-man operation, and his collection is available to the trade only. (He is represented by Sansar, an art and furniture gallery in the Cleveland Park area of ++ Washington.)

Perhaps fittingly, the designer derives equal pleasure from shopping for materials and creating the components.

"I look for the most brilliant woods available," he says. "I also enjoy working with exotic veneers."

And it shows. In the dense forest that is the wood furniture market, Mr. Weitzman's creations remain unique because of the way he combines mahogany, ebony, maple and gold leaf to construct a table or buffet.

"This is what makes Lee's work so wonderful," says Cynthia Olsen, of Alexander Baer Associates, a Baltimore interior design firm, who chose a Weitzman table for a client's home office. "He is so creative with the materials that the furniture becomes art."

With 20 pieces in his home, Mr. Lewis is Mr. Weitzman's most loyal customer. Other high-profile clients include author Jackie Collins, actor Mel Gibson, New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden and former Illinois Gov. James Thompson.

Clients choose from more than 100 designs, and Mr. Weitzman regularly modifies them to accommodate room dimensions and color palettes.

"My pieces are built to last," he says, "and it's my hope they'll become treasured family heirlooms."

If Mr. Lewis has his way, they will.

"There's going to ba a 'Lee Weitzman clause' in my pre-nuptial agreement," Mr. Lewis says. "I pray to God that the woman I marry will be as in awe of Lee's artistry as I am."

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