From the vantage point of 2020, it’s jarring to recall a time before you could Google the length of a human colon while taking a bathroom break, share shots via Zoom in real time with friends in another hemisphere or ask Siri for the latest update on the Kardashians. (Then again, why would you want to do any of these?) Has Facebook really been around for just 16 years? Instagram no more than a decade? In fact, the internet itself only became publicly available in 1991.
In the primitive age that preceded this era of often-superficial connection, woodworkers and their fellow artisans had other ways to communicate and show their work to potential buyers. Some published paper catalogs sent to thousands of prospective customers by U.S. Mail. Some bought ads in newspapers and magazines where they might also be lucky enough to have their products featured. Others displayed their work in what we now call brick-and-mortar galleries, in exchange for a cut of the price – often as much as 40 percent. But one of the most affordable ways to show and sell work was at art fairs and craft shows.
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After a strong start to 2020, shows, conferences and in-person performances of all kinds have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, demanding that those whose livelihoods depend on such events find new ways of teaching, entertaining and selling their wares. Given how challenging such pivots can be, Vicki and Lance Munn have found a silver lining of sorts in the timing of their unexpected retirement in late 2019. For 40 years, they’d supported themselves by making furnishings, from Japanese-style vases, wood-framed mirrors and wall-hung artwork to freestanding cabinets, desks and tables, all of which they sold at shows throughout the Midwest and on the East coast.
Lance and Vicki met in 1969. Lance, who’d been drafted, was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, where Vicki had a job in the post exchange. Lance was lucky to avoid deployment to Vietnam; he served in the States as a member of the military police. “The Army made him grow up,” says Vicki. “All of a sudden you’re not special. You get your head shaved, you wear a uniform. You’re only what you are inside, not the projected image others see.”
After completing his term, Lance moved home to Indianapolis to live and work with his parents, who were in the restaurant business. Vicki earned a degree in political science at Kansas State University-Manhattan while continuing to work part-time at the post exchange. She lived in her employer’s basement. (“At the time, I didn’t realize I was poor,” she says of the arrangement.) She graduated in 1971, packed up her belongings in cardboard boxes, shipped them to Indianapolis on a Greyhound Bus and took a plane to join Lance. Shortly after, they were married.
At first they each worked two jobs, a logistical feat considering that they shared a car – and it was more than 20 years old. Lance returned to college while working part-time and graduated with a degree in biological science from Purdue University. Meanwhile, Vicki worked her way up to office manager in her job at an electrical supply office. When she asked for a raise in keeping with her increased responsibilities, her employer told her the job was only worth the $100 a week she was already getting – not much on which to build a future. With no prospect of advancement, she gave her notice. That would be her last regular job until 2020.
While renting a house on the western outskirts of Indianapolis, they decided to put in a garden. They saved up for a Troy-Bilt tiller; once they’d bought it, they realized they owned a potentially valuable asset, so they ran a classified ad for tilling services in the local paper. Business took off, and before long they needed a pickup truck to move the tiller. “Now we’re in the hauling business,” Vicki remembers thinking. They added moving services to their repertoire and trucked junk to the recycling center for people who were clearing out garages. When winter brought a major ice storm that downed trees, blocking streets and closing the city, they invested in a chainsaw and worked to clear limbs.
Around this time a friend who’d moved to Hawaii sent them a gift of some puka-shell necklaces. Where others saw a cool bit of jewelry made of natural objects, Vicki and Lance saw opportunity: They invested in some shells and made their own necklaces to sell at art fairs. At one show they spotted some wooden planters backed with mirrors – another item Vicki suggested Lance could make. “We had tools,” she says, “because we did everything for ourselves.” The planters sold even better than the jewelry. That was their start in wood.
Their son, Peter Brian, was born in 1977, followed by their daughter, Kelly, two years later. It was time to look for a piece of property to make their own. They searched in Brown County, an area some 60 miles southeast of Indianapolis known for its forested hills and history as a home to artists since the early 20th century, but found nothing affordable. They looked on the outskirts of Bloomington, home to the flagship campus of Indiana University, which draws students and faculty members from around the world. Also unaffordable. From there they set their sights farther to the south and west, in Greene County, where for $40,000 they found a property of 50 acres “with an old farmhouse at the top of a hill and a garage that stood at a slant.” The owner was willing to sell on contract, which clinched the deal. They made the down payment in cash, because that was how people paid for purchases at art shows in the ’70s. “I think they thought we were drug dealers,” Vicki laughs. “We had no business sense at all.” It was 1979. Vicki was 29, Lance 31.
A major show in Indianapolis’s Broadripple neighborhood was coming up in May. They plugged their tools into an outlet in an old shed on their new property and worked in the yard to prepare. Shortly after, they had a 40’ x 40’ pole barn built for a shop. They still weren’t making furniture, but looking back, it’s clear they were headed in that direction as they ventured into simple wooden table bases topped with Italian tile. They learned about wood movement from their mistakes; before long they had to decide between making a fast buck and doing things right. “We read Tage Frid, we read Fine Woodworking, we read books,” Vicki says. “We never considered ourselves artists; we wanted to be the best craftsmen we could.” They named their business Viclan Designs.
Early on, thinking that a business should have employees, they hired a few to work in the shop. Before long they concluded they were chasing their tails. Having employees proved exhausting; as Vicki says, “it was like I’d gone through five divorces and 10 DUIs without ever having had any of them myself.” On top of that, Vicki and Lance were gone all the time; it looked like their children were going to be raised by a babysitter. It made more sense to let the employees go and do everything themselves.
They added more shows every year, packing up their booth and stock for sale and driving – first, to Ann Arbor, Louisville, Cincinnati and Toledo, in addition to selling at shows closer to home in Broadripple and at Bloomington’s Fourth Street Festival, then increasingly far afield. Things improved. “Lance and I together are such a good team,” Vicki says. “People would buy stuff from us because they liked us. People want to meet the artists. The internet is not the same as talking to the artists and touching things before you buy them.” When Peter was a baby, she put him in a crib under one of the tables in the booth, but having two small children at a show was too much, so Lance did some of the shows by himself while Vicki and the kids stayed home.
As anyone who has tried to make a living by doing art and craft shows can attest, their schedule was grueling, their income totally undependable. “Shows are fickle,” as Vicki puts it. They always worked hard, but there were years when they made no money beyond basic expenses.
Building the Business
They made improvements to the shop as they were able, starting with a loft for storage, then adding another 600 square feet at the back. Later they added 300 square feet more for lumber storage. In 1990 they built a new house to replace the dilapidated farmhouse. They’d started with antique equipment – a chain-fed rip saw from the 1930s, a ’40s overhead router – driving to auctions and buying what they could afford. Their first piece of new equipment was a wide-belt sander they purchased in the mid-1980s; they took out a loan to pay the $10,000 cost. For their anniversary around 2014, they bought each other a Powermatic band saw – an unusual anniversary gift, but they enjoyed buying things for the business because it made their lives easier.
The more they learned, the more sophisticated their work became and their sales improved. Vicki traveled to Japan in 2000; Peter’s girlfriend, a Japanese-American, was teaching English there and invited her to visit. “It was my 50th birthday present,” she explains, adding that Lance took the opportunity to go fly fishing in New Zealand. During her month in Japan, Vicki happened on a thousand-year-old pagoda. “It was red,” she exclaims, which prompted her to wonder “Why can’t we do red?” They started to experiment with aniline dyes.
Experience had taught them the importance of having smaller, affordable pieces to sell at shows. “If you have an item that sells, that gives you the freedom to make other things that you want to.” For a while they made Craftsman-style picture frames. Vicki was drawn to the Japanese art of floral arranging called ikebana. Ikebana vessels became one of their business staples; she made them until she was sick of them, then kept on making more. She cut out the basic shape at the band saw, then moved to the edge sander. “I’d put on my headphones and step up to the edge sander and go “fifty dollars, fifty dollars, fifty dollars. I know a lot of our artist friends would say ‘how can you do that?’ And I’d say ‘it pays our phone, it pays our gas…’ When you’re selling something for $50 it’s an easier sale then something for $5,000. Pretty soon, as we got into the better shows, we could [afford to] make cabinets.”
As time went by, the Munns found they could sell more substantial pieces. “Mostly we looked at ourselves and thought ‘how can anybody pay that?’ But as [we did] the better shows, we always seemed to pick up someone who would buy more than one piece, and then they’d call and [ask for custom work]. We made things for people that they couldn’t find. Often in later years we would sell more by order than from the booth.”
Among the unusual features of their work are the wooden pulls they made for doors and drawers.
Lance had made a pull like those on the olive-tiger maple cabinet (in the image with the band saw) for some doors in their house. “I always loved them,” Vicki says. “At first when we got into the cabinets, we offered two types of pulls…smooth and gnarly.” She notes that they “would invariably have the wrong pull on the cabinet the customer wanted in the booth,” a situation that will be familiar to most of those who build to order. “Finally, gnarly won out. [Making those was] a very dirty job on the bullnose of our edge sander. Lance did an excellent job of making matched sets of pulls. I was never able to get two the same.”
Business & Aging
Today Vicki is 70, Lance 72. For most of their years in business, Viclan Designs was organized as a sole proprietorship, but when Lance was old enough to qualify for Social Security, their accountant advised them to incorporate so that their joint income wouldn’t disqualify them for the Social Security they were due.
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When I asked about economic downturns such as the Great Recession, which devastated many furniture makers, Vicki said they’ve always come through relatively unscathed. Some of their artist friends maintained that Vicki and Lance charged too little for their work, but as Vicki says, “We always felt we need to make a living at this,” so they made sure they had pieces that were all but guaranteed to sell.
Having started with so little, they spent 40 years investing in their shop and business and were rewarded not just with higher income, but opportunities to grow as designers and craftspersons. With loyal customers who returned yearly to buy from them at shows around the Midwest and on the East coast, in addition to commissioning custom work, they were enjoying a successful season in 2019 and building up stock for the upcoming Fourth Street Festival – Vicki was a longstanding member of the show’s organizing committee.
In the small hours of August 5th, they awoke to the sound of someone banging on the front door. “We have no neighbors,” Vicki remarks, recalling the shock. It was the sheriff, asking “Does anybody live in that building?” He was pointing to their shop.
“The roof was already [falling] in,” Vicki says. A stranger who happened to be passing on the road a half-mile away had spotted the flames and called 911. By then it was too late – the building, the tools, the lumber, the completed pieces ready for the upcoming show and their two shop cats – all gone.
The shock was devastating. They wracked their minds, trying to figure out what had happened. It was August; the woodstove had been cold for months. Nor had they been staining, she was relieved to realize. In their early days, when they worked in the garage at a rented house, they used Danish oil; after working late one night they’d dumped the rags in their garden cart and pushed it out on the driveway. The only thing left of the cart the next morning was the wheels. After that, they’d always been extremely careful with finishes, storing rags in a firmly shut can and finishes in a metal safety cabinet. An inspector suspected the fire had started in the electrical wiring.
Although they’d insured the shop in their early years, the cost of coverage had gone through the roof. First it was $4,000 a year, then $5,000. Pretty soon the premium had increased to $10,000, partly because they heated with wood and used solvent-based finishes, partly because their location was so remote and the local fire department was all-volunteer. They’d decided they would just have to be careful.
Friends organized a fundraiser. “That saved us,” says Vicki. “It enabled us to pay off our bills. We had just gotten lumber on Friday, a delivery of cherry, and the fire was Sunday.” Not only did they still have to pay for that lumber; they also had to return deposits to customers who had commissioned pieces to pick up at upcoming shows – Cherry Creek (in Colorado) and Ann Arbor (in Michigan). “We had some customers who wouldn’t even take their deposits back,” she says, her voice breaking. (Among them were the patrons for whom Vicki and Lance made the olive-tiger maple cabinet in the photo of the band saw.) “It makes you feel good about yourself and thankful for other people.”
“We lost our cats, our bicycles, our kayaks. And all of the little things. We paid off our bills, returned our deposits, and got a grant from CERF (the Craft Emergency Relief Fund) and bought tools.” The maximum grant available through CERF is $3,000. “To us it was $3,000-worth of tools. We didn’t have that money.” This time, they bought smaller tools – a Festool sander, a Domino mortiser, a track saw – that enable them to work on projects around the house, but not the kind of furniture they used to make.
Their daughter offered Vicki a part-time job in her medical office to help her parents make ends meet. They also receive some Social Security income. “We’re not doing anything great, but we’re happy. We’re pleased to have more time for our granddaughter, Piper,” Vicki says, adding “we miss the shop.”
After decades of not having a dog because they were on the road for so much of each year, they adopted a couple of Labrador puppies, Kiki and Tuck, in July.
They took down their website, because most of their inventory was destroyed. “We were in shock for a long time. Then came COVID. But life is getting more normal. If it weren’t for the fire, we’d still be working in the shop…. We have just a few things left that we are showing at By Hand Gallery in Bloomington. Basically, we are starting a new life in our seventies.”
— Nancy Hiller, author of “Kitchen Think” and “Making Things Work”
You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.