The Arizona Border Patrol must have been watching in 1970 as 107 pounds of marijuana was shoved from Mexico to the United States through a hole cut out of a remote section of border fence. Because when Ed Clay, a Stanford student at the time, came to collect the contraband, he didn’t make it far.
He was arrested and thrown into a dingy jail cell. Although the experience was harrowing, it just might have been the first step in his path toward becoming one of the Napa Valley’s most exclusive furniture makers.
“I was in my early 20s and I was a bit lost,” Clay said. “Luckily I was given only four years’ probation. I didn’t know it at the time — and it was a sobering time — but if things had been different I might never have made furniture at all.”
The Marolles Chair
I had come to Clay’s woodworking shop in Napa’s Carneros region to discuss his newest creation, the Marolles Chair. The chair, inspired by a milk stool designed by artist and sculptor Jean Touret, had been made in limited quantities by the French Artisans of Marolles cooperative sometime in the 1950s. Only about 100 chairs were created at the time, with only a few still in existence today. Clay’s version of the three-legged chair is made of thick slabs of American white oak held in place with forged steel couplings to form a compelling and beautiful piece of furniture.
As we talked light streamed in from spider-web-covered skylights of the workshop and a comforting aroma of newly sawed wood that blended with the smells of fermenting pumice from a nearby winery filled the air.
Finding a path through the forest
Clay’s arrest and subsequent sentence restricted his movement, forcing him to drop out of Stanford and move from Palo Alto to Arizona. There he worked for a metaphysical bookstore for a while, but he eventually found his way to a custom-cabinet shop.
“I found working with wood peaceful and meditative,” Clay said. “It’s a fulfilling way to spend a day.”
Clay eventually opened his own shop to focus on crafting handmade furniture. Soon after the shop opened Lee Hudson, now a well-known Napa Valley vintner but at the time a newly graduated college student, asked to intern at the shop.
“Lee was just interested in learning how to make furniture and I was happy to have the help,” Clay said.
Clay and Hudson became friends, and less than a decade later, Hudson purchased 2,000 acres of land in Carneros and gave Clay a call.
“I asked Ed to come help build the ranch because we were good friends but mostly because he did spectacular work,” Hudson said.
Nearly 40 years later, Clay is still working with Hudson: His woodworking shop is located on the Hudson Ranch property, and the Hudsons’ home and winery contain several of his chairs and tables.
“The shop was originally built for Lee so he might work on his own woodworking projects, but he’s been busy and so he’s allowed me to work here on my own projects,” Clay said. “Over the years, I’ve built many items for Lee and even constructed some of the buildings. I’ve also worked closely with Ned Forrest, the architect who has designed the structures on this site.”
“The kind of furniture that Ed makes is an art form that people can immediately get their heads around,” Forrest said. “When you see an abstract painting you might not know what it is or what it means, but when you see a beautiful table you can instantly recognize it and compare it to your own experience.”
Clay’s work can be found in numerous homes throughout Wine Country as well as in exclusive restaurants such as the French Laundry in Yountville and the soon-to-open Jean-Louis Costes’ L’Avenue Restaurant in Manhattan’s Saks Fifth Avenue. It is also in showrooms in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
Beyond the artistic and practical aspects of Clay’s work, Forrest also points out that his furniture is rooted in the “agricultural ethos” of wine country.
“Ed’s work speaks to the quality and simplicity of life associated with our agricultural community,” Forrest said. “He starts with quality ingredients and then respects them for what they are, not covering them up but instead highlighting their beauty. It’s like the best chefs of the region who take the finest produce and then don’t mess it up with too much sauce but instead allow it to express its own perfection.”
A three-legged stool never rocks
Clay says that like many other furniture designers he, too, has been drawn to crafting what might be the most challenging piece of furniture — the humble chair.
“Because of its extreme functionality, designing an elegant chair is the greatest challenge in furniture-making,” Clay said. “It has to serve multiple purposes: It has to be comfortable and it must invite the user, but there are so many associations with a chair — memories, family histories, cultures — making chairs extremely personal but also everyday objects. In my experience, every architect I’ve known secretly wants to be a chair designer.”
Perhaps not willing to quit his day job to start designing chairs, Forrest agrees with the difficulty of designing a compelling place to sit.
“A chair is probably the hardest piece of furniture to design,” said Forrest. “First and foremost, it has to be a chair — something that everyone knows intimately — but the genius is what you can do with it, transforming something that’s so familiar into something inspirational.”
When asked why having three legs is important, Clay smiled.
“Three-legged stools or chairs don’t rock,” he said. “You don’t want to be rocking back and forth when you’re milking a cow or sitting at a table.”
But beyond the functionality, Clay’s heavy wooden Marolles Chairs contain a simple beauty — something of the earth, something timeless. To honor the origins of the design, each chair’s underside is stamped with “Inspired by the Artisans of Marolles.”
“We want to honor the past and also provide what is uniquely ours into each chair,” Clay said. “Along with our team, my daughter and I are working together on this project because it just feels like something good — a reverence toward beauty.”
He paused for a moment and took a long breath. Around us, Jack Cannard and his nephew, Marius, were busy putting the finishing touches on a few custom-designed barstools destined for New York, the soft sound of fine sandpaper on wood providing the only soundtrack.
“Life can take many twists and turns,” Clay said, “and sometimes what feels like the wrong turn at the time can lead to wonderful destinations. What I know now is that there’s a certain pleasure in making something that brings together form and function with a feeling of peace and connection.”