Department

Art + Craft

 

The creative couple behind Newell Design produces modern furniture inspired by tradition.

June 2013

Jeff and Beth Newell are creators by nature. Their 20-year collaboration as business partners and as a married couple has yielded paintings and screenplays, hand-carved picture frames, and to-die-for lacquered consoles—and four rambunctious sons, too.

But the duo is best known as the inspiration behind Denver’s Newell Design, a furniture design workshop with a collection that inspires envy in design geeks around the world. In the company’s 3,500-square-foot space in RiNo, the Newells design—and a team of craftsmen help create—heirloom-quality pieces from exquisite materials, pushing the boundaries of what those materials can do. The results are phenomenal: One peek at the seamlessness of the bronze and macassar ebony wood in the company’s Morocco bench will leave you bewildered—and wishing for a whole houseful of Newell pieces. 

As befits a good story, the Newells didn’t set out to be master furniture-designers. Growing up, Jeff counted Ernest Hemingway among his heroes and went to Santa Fe University of Art and Design for creative writing, where he met Beth, who majored in painting. After graduation, they moved to New York City and immersed themselves in the art scene, making the most of their experience as “starving artists.” “Because we were poor then, we’d spend Sunday afternoons at the Met,” Jeff says. (The museum has a suggested donation but allows visitors to pay what they can afford. The Newells paid a dollar.) “We did that week after week, so we were exposed to this amazing art and craft tradition, and I think that’s when both of us started thinking that craft could be a really cool thing to be involved in.”

A few years later, they landed in Denver because “there was some cool stuff happening here, and space was really cheap,” Jeff says. Beth painted and Jeff worked on screenplays. When they needed some extra cash, Jeff decided to apply his woodworking skills to making hand-carved picture frames, which they sold to shops in Aspen and Boulder.

Moving from picture frames to case goods seemed like a good idea, but they weren’t exactly equipped to make the leap. “We got a commission to build a couple of cherry credenzas for this local architecture firm,” Jeff says. “I didn’t really have any power tools at the time, and we were living in this loft in this old firehouse, so I lugged the wood up the stairs to the loft, cut it, and built the two credenzas almost entirely by hand. I think we had more time than sense back then.” The Newells showed their work to designers who fell in love with its evocative but unexpected look.

Jeff now serves as the company’s lead designer and master furniture-maker; Beth is the artistic director. “Between Beth and me, there’s that collaborative relationship of editing and criticism, and working through an idea until it’s buildable and relevant,” Jeff says.

In its 15th year of operation, Newell Design is helping to define what’s relevant for residential and commercial clients from Denver to Mumbai, from the Ritz-Carlton hotels in San Francisco and Toronto to the set of NBC’s TV show The Apprentice. The company eschews following trends and instead looks to “push the envelope on craft,” Jeff says, working to bring fresh ideas to traditional materials.

The collection features contemporary tables, desks, and cabinets, and a few
upholstered pieces recently entered the mix. Best sellers include the sleek Morocco bench and the Rêve line of side tables and dressers with slim drawers and skinny legs.

Newell Design’s work displays a definitive nod to mod, but Jeff isn’t so quick to apply that label. “Our aesthetic is formed by process. What I’m interested in is how things are built,” he says. “We’re interested in what we’ve seen in the past, in history and tradition, and then how we can stylize that and make it something that people recognize as modern.” Spoken like a lifelong student of the arts.