Nationally-renowned, intricate woodworking has roots in Bay Area
It was an accident that led Debey Zito, who, along with her wife, Terry Schmitt, founded Zito Schmitt Design, to become a nationally known furniture maker. “In high school, I was interested in sewing,” she said, “but I hated my sewing teacher.” When her boyfriend suggested she take wood shop instead—because he couldn’t fit it in his schedule—she agreed to give it a try.
“I knew this woman’s lib thing was going to get a girl in here eventually,” the woodworking teacher announced when he saw her. It was the 1970s. But he welcomed her in, and “was the most supportive of all my instructors ever. He gave me the top woodworking award, and visited me every year until he died.”
Now Zito is making museum-quality furniture herself, and teaching monthly women-only woodworking classes at her studio in Sebastopol.
“Woodworking saved my life,” she said. “My parents were on their third divorce, and I knew that wood was something that was really solid. Because of the way I grew up, it was very appealing for me to work with something that could last forever.”
Zito said that furniture-making for her is “like a prayer, or an offering to the future—it’s so much more than a job.” Zito uses traditional techniques, such as dovetail and mortise and tenon joints. There are no nails, and screws are only used to hold down the tops of cabinets or tables.
Zito’s painstaking work has earned her commissions for the family room in the historic Greene and Green Blacker House in Pasadena; choir benches for San Francisco’s historic Swedenborgian Church; a 28-foot carved mural in Alameda’s West End Library; and a display cabinet for the lobby of Disney’s Grand California Hotel.
Zito’s work is influenced by the European Arts and Crafts movement as well as by Art Nouveau, and also she incorporates Asian and Scandinavian aesthetics.
“I started out going to libraries and looking at Asian architecture and Scandinavian furniture,” she said. She was intrigued by the proportion of Japanese architecture, and the Scandinavian sense of design.
“I’m into tapers; I do arches; I do some finials,” said Zito. She still draws a lot of inspiration from architecture as she designs her furniture. “All of my work has Asian proportions. It’s lighter and tends to be more horizontal and proportional.”
In one of Zito’s favorite designs, she created a cabinet “with the same proportion as a Chinese fifth-century piece, but with a Scottish overhang. The wide rails and long overhang are Charles Rennie Mackintosh. While the finished piece is all mine, it borrows from everything I have seen.”
Maxine Risley and her late husband, Jim, were struck by Zito’s style when they first saw her work at the Oakland Museum shop in 1993. They purchased a chair, and then commissioned Zito to build a “bat bed” for their Berkeley hills home. Jim was fond of bats, and showed Zito books of English Arts and Crafts furniture for inspiration.
“We liked Debey’s sensibility and her skill,” said Risley. “And I’ve really enjoyed having the bats sleeping here, upside down.”
Jim also requested chamfering, and he wanted to feel the mark from the hand tool, Zito remembered. “If anyone gets chamfering now, it gets done with a machine,” she said. “But I made the bevel with the machine first, then went over it by hand. It took forever, but it feels really nice.”
The Risleys had previously collected Stickley furniture, but Maxine said that their manufacturing construction standards were “not particularly high” compared to Zito’s work. “We have always been into antiques, but we really like supporting modern craftspeople,” she said. “It’s an extraordinary experience—you are not just supporting an antiques dealer.”
Zito’s furniture is made to fit the scale of a room, and can feature personalized images and details, such as bats on a bed or peas on a dining room server. The carving is done by Zito’s business partner and wife, Terry Schmitt.
“Very few people carve on furniture any more,” said Schmitt. “It’s a lost art.”
Schmitt got into carving by accident, as well. She did not want to compete with Zito in the field of furniture-making, so Zito gave her a set of carving tools for her birthday one year. Schmitt had studied art in college, and liked to draw from nature. She found that she really enjoyed the process of transferring her drawings to wood.
“Wood is an alive material—a very Zen medium,” she said. “And it’s not toxic, like metalworking or some of the glass work. But you have to respect how the tree grows, the way the grain moves. You can’t fight it. I love pulling depth out of an eighth of an inch.”
Schmitt’s work is very intricate and quite delicate, but she said she rarely makes mistakes. If her carving tool slips and she makes an inadvertent cut, she will add a bumblebee or a beetle to the design, to make the scratch look intentional. “If you see a small insect, you know there was a mistake there,” she said.
Zito and Schmitt call their carvings and other details “jewel points”: small accents that are perfectly proportioned and “quiet” in their impact. “We want people to walk into a room and look around, taking in the strong points of interest and the room as a whole,” said Zito. “And once they get the big picture, the proportionality, they start noticing the details, the jewel points.”
These details are subtle, such as the hand-made stains that the couple rubs into the carvings. “I’ve never seen anyone else do it, but we wanted just a little bit of metallic shine in our stain, to show a little pop that still would still let the grain through,” said Schmitt.
In addition to furniture design, Zito has recently branched out into interior design. She works with an informal guild of Bay Area craftspeople to design spaces that have a special warmth, because most of the objects and finishes are made or applied by hand.
While Zito enjoys designing contemporary kitchens, baths, and other rooms, she also designs more traditional spaces. Ross Schmidt and his husband, Michael Meade, saw Schmitt’s work at an Arts and Crafts design show, and fell in love with a display of wainscoting with tapered battens designed by Zito and built by Schmitt.
They commissioned the pair to transform their Forest Hill dining room from a plain white space into a wood-paneled multilayered extravaganza. “This room is a treasure,” said Schmidt. “People who visit here are stunned.”
“My motto is ‘more is more,’” said Schmidt, a multimedia artist. “I knew that Debey would have liked it a bit more austere, but I pushed it a bit more. More is my favorite style.” The room includes a combination of Asian designs, with a nod to European Arts and Crafts.
In addition to the wainscoting, Schmitt carved a 2-foot frieze of California poppies in mahogany. Because it would be cost-prohibitive to carve a frieze around the entire dining room, Zito commissioned Lorna Kollmeyer to make a plaster cast of the frieze and Lynne Rutter to create a faux wood finish.
“It’s very rare to see anything like this,” said Zito. “Plaster casts were common in Victorian interiors, but I only know of one Arts and Crafts person who did it during the period. No one I know of does it today.”
Schmidt said that the room even includes a “nod to God”—a small imperfection, because too much perfection is an offense to God. Zito commissioned hand-painted wallpaper from the San Francisco studio of David Bonk. “Every dragonfly on the ceiling is complete, except for one, where you just see the edge of a wing,” he said.
Schmidt looks around trying to find the imperfect dragonfly, but it takes him a while. There are so many perfect dragonflies flying around.