From Butcher to Craftsman. It’s Been a Long, Interesting Road to Success.

Saturday, July 15, 2000 | Posted by Michael Colca

The Century-News / Dan Pickens

Michael Colca sat in his newly remodeled kitchen outside of Driftwood, sipping a cup of green tea and gazing out the window at the leaves of a cedar elm, reflecting on his life and how he - the son of an Italian butcher - came to be a nationally recognized furniture maker.

"The world's crazy, isn't it," he said, grinning through his dark goatee. "I must be the luckiest man alive."

Colca, 48, grew up in southwest Houston, attending Catholic schools and working with his father in the grocery store owned by his uncle.

"I worked with my Dad every day after shool, all the way through high school," he said, "And he taught me one of the most important lessons in life -- how to deal with people, with customers. He would make every customer feel like they are the most important, most special person. He made them feel good about themselves. I use that same philosophy in my business."

Apparently, it works. Colca's business, making fine, handcrafted furniture has landed him national recognition, with pieces pictured in Architectural Digest , an article in Texas Monthly, and clients ranging from New York to Oregon. And while the road to success has been long, there have been some interesting turns along the way.

Colca began his career as a cabinet maker in a shop in Austin in 1977. "As far as cabinets go, these were nothing special, but we also made skateboards, lots of skateboards," Colca said with a laugh. " I knew it wasn't a place I was going to stay for long."

In fact, by 1978, he had moved to a 50-acre dairy farm in Manchaca, and opened his own cabinetry shop in the barn. For the next ten years, he made only high-quality cabinets and slowly received more and more comissions to build furniture pieces. In 1981, he helped found the Austin Woodworkers Guild, a non-profit organization dedicated to education about, and promotion of the art of furniture-making.

While he was president of the Guild, he helped organize shows at the University of Texas' Institute of Texas Cultures in San Antonio and the Daugherty Arts Center in Austin. His proudest moment as Guild president, however, was to arrange for Sam Maloof, guru of fine furniture makers and godfather to the arts and crafts movement in America, to come lecture at the Huntington Gallery on the UT campus in 1983.

"I'll never forget it," Colca said. "There we were, gathered around this man, a man who had made rocking chairs for several U.S. presidents, the lecture was over and he was taking a few questions. Awestruck, one guy raises his hand and asks, 'Mr. Maloof, if there was one bit of advice you could give us as furniture makers - one thing that would guide us - what would it be?' And Maloof turns to us, and without missing a beat says, 'You must work fast, very fast.' We all laughed, but he's right! Furniture-making is extremely time-consuming and by nature a very slow process. If you're going to make a living, you've got to be able to do your work efficiently - you must execute very quickly."

Colca moved to the Wimberley/Driftwood area in 1988. In 1989, he was one of six artists to exhibit in the newly formed Whit Hanks Antiques and Decorative Arts Gallery in Austin - along with Dripping Springs resident, furniture maker Louis Fry. Today, Colca works with Designer/Craftsman Mark Love in his shop beneath his house in the Rolling Oaks subdivision. Together, they have created an entire line of furniture in the classic Arts and Crafts style, which they call, "Medina."

The Arts and Crafts style, developed during the Arts and Crafts movement (1890-1930) was in part a reaction to the industrial revolution occurring at the turn of the century. During this period, old world craftsmanship was heralded over mass produced items as many crafstman saw that they were no longer able to compete in the new economy. The style itself emphasizes quality workmanship over ornamentation, with clean lines and particular attention to proportions. The works of craftsman such as Charles and Henry Greene (Greene and Greene) Gustav Stickley, Charles Renny MacIntosh and to some extent, Frank Lloyd Wright, are outstanding examples of the Arts and Crafts style.

While many furniture makers today are content to make replicas of pieces designed by the aforementioned craftsmen, Colca and Love design and create original pieces.

"I really embrace the design philosphy of Greene and Greene," said Colca. "Not their style, but their philosophy of emphasizing the structural components - the dovetail joinery, the mortise and tenons, the techniques used to bring two pieces together - in order to create an ornamentation that is integral to the piece - not a curlicue added on. It's a philosophy of less being more. Clean, and simple."

The Medina line includes: dining table and chairs, end tables, coffee table, chest, wardrobe, bed and highboy. Most pieces are in American black cherry with accents in lighter "figured" maple such as birds'eye or curly. Colca and Love also incorporate other exotic hardwoods, many from Africa, as accent material. The Medina line itself may be expanded in the future as client demand dictates.

"Mark has a special talent," said Colca. "He's designed several of the pieces that we've added to the Medina line in recent years, and he's a superb craftsman. I will depend on him to continue to create new pieces as we flesh out our portfolio." While it is unusual for a furniture maker to have an entire, cohesive line, it is not the only thing that sets Colca apart.
"I think what sets us apart from the crowd is our obsession with craftsmanship and detail," said Colca. "Our pieces are all finish-sanded with a 320-grit paper (very fine) before assembling. All panels are book-matched (milled from the same piece of rough-cut lumber and placed sequentially so that the pieces are mirror images, with identical grain, color and characteristics.) Our drawer glides are polished and waxed, wood on wood (without wheels and tracking). Our hinges are all handmade, solid brass, and concealed. Our door catches are all handmade. Every piece of wood is evaluated for its effect on the balance of the piece, its grain and flow (the pattern of the grain). Everything we do, we do it the best we can."

Colca's passion for quality craftsmanship, the passion that will ensure his continued rise in the art world, becomes most pronounced when he talks about what he wants to achieve with his craft.

"When I look at a piece of really well-made furniture," he said, "I'm inspired. It makes me feel good about people. It's an exhilarating affirmation that the person who made it really cared.

"I want to be the person that creates the piece that makes you feel good about humanity, that inspires you," he said.

An ambitious goal, in this jaded and cynical age. Still, one has only to spend 30 minutes with this gentle man and his warm humor - to inspect his work firsthand - to realize that he may be on to something. As he said, the world is a crazy place, and finding inspiration in beauty is a time-honored tradition.