John Lomas

Artistic Timber

by Keith Morrill

Yankee magazine’s list of America’s 100 best craftsmen inspired John Lomas to bring his furniture-making skills from England’s Cotswolds to Vermont

John Lomas, the founder of Cotswold Furniture, divides his time between his workshop in Whiting and his gallery in Stowe. He has crafted furniture for such distinguished clients as Middlebury College, Seventh Generation and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Reminiscing can be more than just a way to whittle away the hours. For John Lomas, it led to a career change and, ultimately, a move from his homeland in England to Vermont. 

Lomas had gone to school for business, and until around his mid-20s, was working for a computer company in London. “I was extremely unhappy,” says Lomas of his past career. “I was pretty lost as to what I should be doing.” 

The solution came unexpectedly. “One day I remembered that I really enjoyed woodshop in school,” he says, adding, “I thought, ‘I’ll go back and do that.’” It was as simple as that. Lomas spent the next three years in the London College of Furniture with the view of becoming an antique furniture restorer. After an internship and another year, at a restoration college, he ended up in the Cotswolds of England as part-owner of a restoration business. 

Lomas was contented, but, as he tells it, “Every spare minute I had, I was designing and making furniture for myself and my friends.” That led to his second epiphany. “I realized I was doing the wrong thing. I was supposed to be making furniture.” But it wasn’t until he was laid up recovering from back surgery that he would have the time to seriously consider making the jump from restorer to designer and crafter. 

“I had a list of Yankee magazine’s America’s hundred best craftsmen, and three of them lived in Vermont,” says Lomas. “It turned out I had some cousins there.” That sealed the deal. He sold his half of the business to his partner, and moved with his wife, Laura, to Vermont. 

Once here, Lomas visited the shops listed in that Yankee magazine, and ended up being offered a place in one of the workshops, Bret Schneider & Associates, in Shoreham. Five years later, with a wealth of education and experience under his belt, Lomas bought out the furnishings part of a construction company for which he had been creating interior furnishings, and began his own venture. 

Naming his new endeavor was easy enough — Cotswold Furniture, after the area where he began as an antique furniture restorer, and even now draws inspiration from for his own designs. 

The Cotswolds also inspired Lomas’ fledgling furniture line, which strongly incorporated themes from the arts and crafts movement that thrived in the heart of that region during the early 20th century. “It was limed oak, and it had a strong octagonal motif,” says Lomas. “I very proudly put this line on the market, and it absolutely bombed. Nobody wanted anything to do with it.” 

Lomas took the setback in stride. “I had to completely rethink the whole design process, and completely adapt my thinking to more accurately reflect what people here are really expecting. Since then, my furniture lines have been influenced more by American arts and craft styles, such as the Shaker movement.”

Burtil Kurth and Scot SwanbornTwo or three years after John Lomas launched his company, he hired Burtil Kurth (right) as shop foreman. Scot Swanborn (left) is a craftsman.

Today, Cotswold Furniture has two locations: a workshop in Whiting and a gallery in Stowe. Whiting was where Lomas began, operating all aspects of the business out of a three-story cow barn converted into a multi-level workshop. He was a one-man show, running the shop, designing and making the furniture, and taking care of the business end of things. 

Two or three years later, he took on shop foreman Burtil Kurth, and several other craftsmen. The work of these men has not only improved the output of his shop, Lomas says, but nearly every aspect of the furniture’s quality. 

“The workshop has improved in terms of its sophistication. Our ability to turn out consistently excellent work has improved through advancements in machinery and just the fact that we have craftsmen in the shop who become better and better at what they do and require me to design to a level which is going to continue to challenge them.” 

Christmas 2003, Lomas expanded by opening a gallery on the Mountain Road in Stowe, which provided his first retail space. It marked a major shift in the way Cotswold Furniture did business, which was more in line with Lomas’ creed of fine aristry. 

“Prior to opening the gallery, we had wholesale accounts,” recalls Lomas. “I was shipping furniture to retail stores around the East Coast and the Midwest. It created a lot of volume, but with no margins, so I would actually employ more people, but was steadily losing money.” 

The idea behind the gallery was that a successful direct-to-customer retail space would not only create more profit, but also allow a better way of doing business. “There’s something very impersonal about the wholesale business. You make this product, you send it off on the truck — you know nothing about who’s going to get it, where it’s going — and that’s the last you see of it. You really have no contact with your customer. 

“There are two consequences of that,” he explains, “and one is that you don’t know who’s owning your furniture; so you don’t know what they really want.” Opening the gallery in Stowe has remedied that. “We have a very real relationship with these people, and they come back, and we see them again and again over the years.” 

This close relationship is a cornerstone to Lomas’ belief in a product that not only sells, but matches the sort of integrity he was accustomed to dealing with as an antiques restorer. 

“We care very greatly about the product and how it’s made,” he explains, “These are pieces that we’re handing over for people which they’re going to have for the rest of their lives, and hand over to their children. This is just not ordinary furniture. It’s made with — we like to think — a huge amount of integrity and pride, and that’s very important to us.”

Peter BlekisAdvancements in machinery have improved the ability to turn out consistently excellent work. Jointing a cherry board is craftsman Peter Blekis.

Perhaps part of the reason Lomas and Cotswold fit so well into the Vermont landscape is a dedication to responsible consumerism and crafting. In 2004, SmartWood in Richmond approved Cotswold Furniture to receive certification from the Forest Stewardship Council — a worldwide, non-governmental, nonprofit organization that sets stringent forestry standards to sustain forests as renewable resources. 

“It makes what they call a chain of custody, which starts with the forest, goes through the mill to us, and the final link of the chain is our customers,” says Lomas. “It basically means that everybody can be sure that the wood is being harvested in a responsible manner and as a renewable resource.” Seventy percent of the cherry wood Lomas uses for his furniture is part of this chain.

This responsible approach to business has brought Lomas new opportunities with several big-name clients. He’s made furniture for Seventh Generation and Middelbury College, both of which are notably eco-friendly. 

Sharon MuiseCotswold Furniture expanded in 2003 by opening a gallery on the Mountain Road in Stowe, providing the company’s first retail space. Sharon Muise manages the gallery.

According to Jen Bleich of the office of facilities services at Middlebury, Lomas worked closely with the college creating furniture to specifically match the college’s style for its recent work in Atwater Commons. The resulting work was so great, says Bleich, that she recommends Cotswold Furniture to others undertaking furnishing projects. 

Cotswold is also responsible for the creation of Middlebury’s Gamaliel Painter Memorial Cane, which is given to every graduating student. The company has also done work for Abercrombie & Fitch, creating about half of the large oak reproduction arts-and-crafts worktables used as clothing displays throughout the chain’s retail spaces. 

All of these mean more work for the workshop in Whiting, where keeping the shop busy all year has been one of the most consistent challenges Lomas has faced along the way, although he has moved steadily closer to keeping it at full working capacity year-round. 

Cotswold Furniture’s premiere catalog is scheduled for completion later this month, and will be sent to everyone on the company’s mailing list, and be available to visitors at the Stowe gallery. Lomas would like to continue to expand the company’s work on built-in furniture-quality cabinetry in homes, and at some point in the near future he would like to open another retail space. 

Lomas splits what little free time he has between family and friends. He and Laura have two children, 9-year-old George and 14-year-old Claudia. They attend the Waldorf School in Shelburne. Lomas enjoys numerous outdoor activities, sailing and mountain biking in summer, and just getting out in the snow as much as possible in winter months, although he’s not so much of a downhill skier. “I’m English,” he jokes. “We’re generally not that good at it.” •