By Amanda Eggert EBS Staff Writer
BIG SKY – By the time Joseph Cummings Ladd graduated from the Bridger Program, an alternative high school in Bozeman, he was producing woodwork high enough in quality to sell. One interested party offered $350 for a sculptural piece he constructed out of wood scraps in the shop, but he was too attached to sell it.
“It was a totally eccentric, creative piece … It kind of reminds me of a cathedral,” said Ladd, now 33. These days, however, the skilled craftsman finds pleasure in parting with his woodworking projects. To get there he took a circuitous route.
After finishing high school in 2001, Ladd went to work for different furniture makers in Bozeman but found few opportunities for advancement working in other people’s shops. The summer after his freshman year at Montana State University – he studied architecture – he secured his first large furniture order while working out of a friend’s woodworking shop.
Ladd made enough money to open his own space with $3,000. “Every project I did, I kept reinvesting in tools and moving into bigger and bigger shops,” he said. In 2003, he started building relationships with interior designers and selling pieces in and around Big Sky.
After three and a half years, Ladd felt his business was weighing him down. Other creative pursuits were calling for his attention, including playing guitar and oil painting.
Something else was pulling at him, too: the Marine Corps. “It was always something that interested me. There was an intrigue into that world.”
In 2007, Ladd enlisted for four years in the Marine infantry. He went to Iraq in 2008, followed by a 2010 tour in Afghanistan. He doesn’t talk about his enlisted years in much detail except to say the discipline he learned helped him become a better craftsman.
After completing his second tour, Ladd decided he could either put the money he earned toward travel – he’s spent time in Spain and Costa Rica – or reinvest in tools and devote himself to woodworking again. In 2011, Ladd opened up shop outside Bozeman under the business name Joseph Cummings Furniture Artisan.
“When you’re working with your hands in the shop, every other thing that’s going on in your life disappears and it gets very peaceful,” he says. “And that’s where I think I got to be really good.”
Going back into the furniture-making business has also helped put things into perspective, Ladd says. “Some things are so much easier … [In the Marines], we just worked endless hours under horrible conditions. So I come in here,” he says, referring to the 1,800-square-foot shop in Four Corners he built himself. “…To be in here is just a blessing.”
His family has been a source of support and transformation as well. His wife Hillari Ladd has an organic body-care line. She sells shave sets with razors and bristle brushes that their 13-year-old son makes the handles for on a lathe. The couple has a three-year-old son as well.
“My family’s like a mirror,” Ladd said. “If I didn’t have my family … I wouldn’t have the opportunity to better myself because I would just be by myself [working] in the shop like a madman with nobody to reflect how I am.”Ladd describes his creative process as “new ways of doing the old things.” That includes traditional joinery techniques – he doesn’t use metal or glue to join pieces of wood together.
This effectively turns his pieces into large-scale logic puzzles that require careful planning. “That’s really where you’re limited – how well you can see ahead,” he said, adding that he appreciates challenges and opportunities for improvisation that arise during the process.
Ladd is partial to North American hardwoods with character like walnut, cherry and maple. “I pull every board,” he said, and makes frequent trips to Helena Hardwoods to peruse the inventory.
He points out several types of character on the silver maple headboard he’s working on: quilted patterning with a 3-D quality, similar to a topographic map; a series of undulating lines called curly figuring; and bird’s eye, patterns of concentric circles created by limbs or knots.
Ladd made the dining set currently for sale at Big Sky’s Creighton Block Gallery out of walnut, maple and sapele – a native African wood similar to mahogany, but darker and richer. Each has a distinct smell, Ladd said: maple smells like an ice cream shop, sapele smells like clove, and walnut has its own indescribable scent.
“It was very aromatic,” he said of the two years, off-and-on, he spent working on the set.
Although Ladd still builds pieces on spec, like the bedroom set he’s working on now, he also consults with clients and develops pieces collaboratively, a process he enjoys.
“When I was younger, I got really attached to my work. [But] when you deliver a piece to somebody and they’re taken by it, that’s more rewarding than to keep it.”