Posted Dec 30, 2017 at 9:22 PM
For all of woodworker Michael Pietragalla’s careful measuring and precise cutting, it’s what can’t be controlled that intrigues him most about the creative process.
“As you work into the wood, more and more patterns and details come out of it,” he says. “It’s not planned.”
This combination of practiced skill and unpredictable magic happens at Floating Stone Woodworks, Pietragalla’s custom furniture shop located in Loft 406 at 88 Hatch Street in New Bedford.
The name “Floating Stone” is an Italian translation of his last name. He specializes in handcrafted tables, bookcases, and benches, made from hardwoods such as cherry, maple, and walnut. Each piece is built and finished individually, with precision-cut, hand-fitted joints and hand-applied finishes.
Pietragalla moved in to Hatch Street Studios in 2000, the longest continuous tenant in a former mill building that now holds the working spaces of more than 50 creative professionals.
His 2,600-square-foot studio contains the large machinery required to construct his work, including a table saw, planer and drum sander. The long walls are lined with neat rows of hand tools in all sizes. With one wall full of windows facing west, he can wrap up his workday with one of the best sunset views that the city of New Bedford has to offer.
Meticulous craftsmanship is part of Pietragalla’s heritage. His grandfather, a shoemaker, immigrated to New Bedford in his 20s from the village of Pietragalla near Naples, Italy, and ran a shoe shop on North Front Street all of his life. His father was a trained hair stylist who operated his own salon while drumming for a dance band that played such popular local hangouts as Lincoln Park.
Pietragalla grew up in Fairhaven. In school, there were few signs of the exacting technician to come; mathematics was not his best subject. But he was thrilled as a teenager when his father bought him a set of drums, and he began to practice by playing along to jazz records. When the Beatles hit, he was inspired to form a rock ‘n’ roll band of his own. He later attended the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting.
After college, he took on carpentry jobs, where he soon showed a knack for precision. “The bosses saw that I had the attention to detail for finished work, and that’s what they had me do,” he says.
While working for hire, Pietragalla began to investigate furniture design and history. He made friends with an antiques dealer who introduced him to Mission style furniture, a late 19th-century design aesthetic of clean lines emphasizing the unique quality of a wood’s grain. This discovery showed him that furniture making could be a way to combine his carpentry skills with his artistic training. “You can make furniture out of pine, and it’s functional. Or you can make it out of birdseye maple, and now it’s exciting to look at,” he explains.
At first Pietragalla tried working out of a studio in his basement, but space soon became an issue, so he moved into his current location on Hatch Street. The Mission style he favored was popular and, with the then-new internet opening up new connections, his website drew clients from all over the country with requests for custom projects.
He could barely keep up with his orders until the economy sank in 2008. Ever resourceful, Pietragalla started making the small, affordable pieces that remain his signature today. At first he carved chopsticks from bamboo scraps, which sold so well that he expanded into a full range of kitchen utensils. His offerings now include cheese spreaders, spatulas, and salad forks/spoons made of birch and walnut.
Most recently came his jewelry boxes, or as Pietragalla calls them, “treasure boxes.” They are the perfect product for him because they allow him to play with design, color, and texture, while precisely crafting a functional object.
The boxes are sleek and slender, approximately 12 inches long by 6 inches wide and 4 inches deep, made of exotic combinations like zebra wood, yellow heart and cherry.Their lids lift off with ornate handles, they are lined with leather or velvet, and some have hidden compartments.
Like the rest of Pietragalla’s work, the wood grain is the star.
“I like to mix up species of wood, because it becomes a treasure box, not just a jewelry box,” he says. “The box itself is a treasure, as much as what’s in it.”
In addition to those of his own styling, Pietragalla sells custom-designed treasure boxes. He also creates mixed-wood ring boxes to hold an engagement or wedding ring.
Pietragalla sells his work at Hatch Street Open Studios, a popular annual event held the weekend before Thanksgiving. His pieces are available throughout the year at the New Bedford Art Museum’s gift shop, as well as through the Artisans Way Fine Art and Contemporary Craft Gallery in Concord.
Pietragalla also offers furniture restoration and repair services at his studio. He works on pieces as diverse as chairs, tables, and mostly recently a broken sitar. He even replaced a cane chair seat for a customer by teaching himself the process from a YouTube video. “If it’s made of wood, I can probably fix it,” he says.
After decades of intense study and hands-on experience, Pietragalla emphasizes that he is still a student of craft and design, always learning. A poster on his office wall reads, “The life so short, the craft so long to learn.” That sums up the working philosophy of this son of generations of craftsmen.
To view a portfolio of Michael Pietragalla’s work, visit his website at FloatingStoneWoodworks.com. His studio is open during regular business hours or by appointment on weekends. He can be reached directly at FloatingStone@comcast.net or at 508.997.1079.
Catherine Carter is a New Bedford artist and former Standard-Times journalist. Her profiles of area businesses will appear in this space regularly.
Original story here.