Out of the Wood

Out of the Wood

J eff Carter, owner and operator of the Westmount Group, a custom furniture shop in West Haven, has a sixth sense. Okay, not really, but Carter says his brain “sees systems and how they work. I can drive over a bridge and see the forces.”

Carter understands how things are put together, and he uses that understanding daily. In the shop, custom cabinets, entertainment centers, chairs, tables, desks and much more are fashioned with precision and care, primarily out of wood, and based on a central plank: achieving optimal function through design.

Carter and his rotating cast of carpenters, engineers and designers care about aesthetics and presentation, too. Design for each project is intensive, as it needs to be to realize a client’s vision. But ultimately, Carter thinks, a chair is for sitting, and a table for placing things atop, and if such furniture is over-designed, too focused on flair, it’ll fail. “All it has to do is function,” he says. “You don’t have to make it so elaborate.”

The first fabrication tutorials he remembers receiving were from his neighbor, Nikki, who made doll furniture for her daughters. Carter, age 12 and already pursuing design projects, would wander next door and ask for help, and Nikki would graciously lend a hand, aiding the crafty kid through his projects, including a custom bed frame.

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Carter grew up in Quebec, splitting his time between Montreal and the Eastern Townships, otherwise known as Quebec’s countryside. One year, while living in Mansonville, a sleepy village in the Potton Township, Carter, now with a bit of woodworking under his belt, called upon another neighbor—not for tips, but for lumber. The neighbor had an old, out-of-use, apparently quite large chicken coop, and Carter asked if he could tear it down and take the wood. From the salvage, Carter made some of his first major structures: a shed, a treehouse and a cliff-side cabin that sits on the same property of the house his mother now lives in—which he also helped build.

Bridgeport was Carter’s first Connecticut stop. He’d gotten a tip in the late eighties from a colleague that the city was in need of all sorts of contractors and builders for HUD homes. The pay was decent, and he was looking for new work, so he packed his bags, thinking it’d be a short-term gig. Almost thirty years later, he’s still around, living in Milford and working out of West Haven.

While working with HUD, Carter hooked up with Bridgeport’s Habitat for Humanity outpost. He loved what they did, and how they did it, and felt he could put his fast-calculating brain to use, as Habitat homes tend to go up quickly via scads of volunteers who need clear, concise, expert guidance. For four-and-a-half years, Carter worked on-staff at Habitat, forming lifelong friendships as well as finding a lifelong mate, his wife Julia. Julia was a volunteer for Habitat at the time, and the two were unwittingly set up by a priest from her church, who would later officiate the wedding.

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After his stint at Habitat, Carter spent many years designing and building homes throughout Connecticut, all the while making furniture and cabinets out of his garage, and then out of a shop in Bridgeport inside the former Remington Arms Factory. Carter stayed there until 2005, when he snapped up a larger spot near the New Haven-West Haven border.

Well before the move, in 2003, Carter decided to devote all his time and energy to custom furniture-making. He was ready to leave behind the hectic life of homebuilding, which requires constantly shuttling around the state, for both himself and his son. With the more regular schedule he’s kept since, he can be home in time to greet his son after school.

Back in his office, Carter shows off a chair designed to be part of a dining room set for a client in the Berkshires, made of beautiful, creamy quarter sawn white maple. Its back comprises two large slats that rise to nearly five feet, like a sort of modern-day throne. Two oblong, light green cushions, tall enough to stretch all the way to the top and intended to provide back support, were made for them.

This particular chair is actually a leftover—Carter purposely built more than his client requested, which gave him some breathing room. “I kind of built in the error, making two more than was required, knowing that you find flaws afterwards,” he says. “It kind of takes away the stress.”

He bends down and points out a tiny, dark rectangular spot that can’t be more than a centimeter long. That spot—which you have to get on all fours to find—is the reason the chair didn’t make the cut. But it’s that kind of precision and love of craft that keeps him motivated.

After chatting awhile, Carter excuses himself. It’s nearing 4 p.m., and he says he’d like to complete some work before his son gets home. He pauses in the doorway of the office, surveying the 6,000-square-foot shop space. It’s not clear exactly what he’s thinking, but you can imagine that sixth sense kicking into gear, looking at structures in progress, hunting for imperfections.

He punches a timecard and gets to sanding.

The Westmount Group
14B Gilbert St, Ste 202, West Haven (map)
(203) 931-1033

Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.

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Jake is a writer and a teacher whose fiction and non-fiction can be found in Abe's Penny, The Huffington Post, The New York Press and elsewhere. For a spell, he made a living writing 'comedic ringtones,' which meant hundreds of really bad cellphone-related knock-knock jokes and puns. He lives in New Haven with his wife and cats.

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