Anna Baker has worked for Al for over three years. Today her signature accompanies Al’s on most of the shop’s pieces, an evident sign of pride in their workmanship. “Al’s a perfectionist,” she says, “but he’s also confident and sure, so that he can make enough pieces to keep the business growing. He doesn’t get bogged down with uncertainty or mistakes.”
Al has a gallery at 46 South Last Chance Gulch, in Helena’s trendy downtown shopping district. The gallery isn’t just about his furniture, but rather a broader concept of living with art in one’s life. He has pieces from the region’s finest visual artists on display, creating an entire environment of taste and grace. Al’s wife Erica runs the gallery, where she invites customers to sit in one of Al’s chairs while viewing paintings by the likes of Russell Chatham, Ed Totten and Michael Haykin. Ceramic pieces from Archie Bray artists line windowsills. The effect is a study of lifestyle. “It’s about balance, about quality in all things. It’s about workmanship and style. It’s about the way we live with art,” he says.
This philosophy is apparent in his work. He hates the idea of buying cheap furniture with the idea that it will be in a landfill in a few years. “You can go to any store and see the terms ‘handmade’ and ‘craftsmanship’ thrown around as if they were cheap, easy things to come by. I try to teach people to inspect what they’re about to buy, to judge it, walk around it, crawl underneath it. Look at it from all angles. Look for the qualities of an heirloom: artistry, timeless design, and correct construction. The majority of stuff out there doesn’t match a certain code of ethics. It doesn’t support the local businessman or craftsman. It’s not sustainable, ruining a tree just to be thrown away when it inevitably breaks or goes out of fashion. It ends up being more expensive, in every way, in the long run. Sure, high-quality custom furniture can be more expensive at the outset, but the materials we use and the time and effort we put into our pieces ensure that your grandchildren can inherit this furniture in perfect condition.”