Got a family furniture heirloom that needs some TLC? A dresser whose drawers stick or have bowed bottoms, a wooden chair that’s pulling apart at the joints or whose cane seat is stretched and sagging, a cabinet with chipped or stained veneer? There’s a business operating out of a garage on Henry W. DuBois Drive in New Paltz designed with just your needs in mind. It’s called Furniture Fixitor, and owner Naomi Aubain has been providing such services to New Paltz and beyond since her family moved here in 1989.
But Aubain’s expertise in furniture rescue was much longer in the making. She grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of an independent-minded painter, calligrapher and art teacher who also collected antiques, helped pioneer a gallery for women artists and “did not believe in the norm,” in Aubain’s words. “Everything was very unorthodox in my life.”
She was only five when her parents split up, and she soon learned from her mother how to furnish an apartment beautifully by being the first on the scene on the days when neighbors put their no-longer-fashionable 19th-century furniture out on the curb for trash pickup. Eventually, her mother decided to buy a brownstone in Park Slope (back when it was not yet a trendy neighborhood), gut it and fix it up.
The plan was to rent out the ground floor and live in the second and third stories. “The parlor floor had 20-foot ceilings, so she wanted to use that for her art studio,” Aubain recalls. “We took out all the walls – partly because she painted large canvases and needed space to hang them, and partly because we needed room for a ping-pong table!”
In other words, a single mom and two teenage girls turned a brownstone into a loft before lofts were even a thing in New York City. Aubain’s mother did have to partner with a male friend who was a contractor, pretending that they were siblings because “in those days, women were not allowed to get a building permit.” The friend did things like installing electricity and plumbing, but when it came to the carpentry end, says Aubain, “We did it all ourselves.”
During her high school years – at the very experimental John Dewey – she “worked at a commercial art studio in the neighborhood,” adding drafting and design skills to her self-taught woodworking chops. She quickly concluded that “sitting at a desk job was a goal not to do.” In her 20s, Aubain started a business partnership with a friend who worked at the Garrett Wade Company in lower Manhattan, which manufactured “upscale woodworking tools. You know those embroidery scissors that look like a stork? Those were made by Garrett Wade.” The two did custom woodwork for New York City homeowners, largely consisting of “building loft beds in brownstones,” using tight spaces to their best advantage. Over time, she says, “I got to design all kinds of rooms.”
In the late 1970s, a gig came along that changed her life. The South Street Seaport Museum had just acquired a four-masted sailing ship, the barque Peking, with the intent of restoring it. Aubain and her partner were brought in to do the interior woodworking: “miles and miles of mahogany,” she laughs. She estimates that she personally did three-quarters of the work on the first and second mates’ cabins. These were relatively luxurious by shipboard standards: Each had a bunk, a table and chair, a built-in shelf with a guardrail, a place to hang clothing and a little couch. But still, she notes, “Everything’s very tiny on a ship.” Moreover, the geometries of such a space are “really challenging. There’s no such thing as square or plumb.” Working out how to join vertical and horizontal panel moldings all meeting in a corner, she says, “I learned a lot about compound angles on that job.”
Afterwards, she went to work for an architectural woodworking shop in Manhattan that catered to a high-end clientele. “They’d find these rich people on the Upper West Side who wanted miles of built-in mahogany bookcases,” she remembers. “My role was as the cabinetmaker, because I was the one who cared about that 64th of an inch.”
By the late 1980s, Aubain was living in a house in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, married with one son and planning to expand their family further. They started looking outside the City, and were clued in by a co-worker to the charms of New Paltz. Gauging that moving to a remote rural location would involve too much culture shock, they chose a home right in the Village. “We didn’t want to have to walk everywhere. We wanted as much sidewalk as we could get.” Being not far from the Elting Library was a big plus, especially when their sons were small, and Aubain actually took a job there for a number of years.
But working with wood, especially old wood, remained her professional calling. And now she works full-time at giving a new lease on life to beautiful, beat-up antiques. Her skillset includes such uncommon specialties as being able to replace or reweave cane and rush seats. She can also reupholster. “Chairs are my main thing,” she says, but her current project is a massive turn-of-the-century armoire whose veneer had separated, whose finish was badly faded on one side due to sun exposure, whose medallions had fallen off. Gluing, shellacking and staining are all in a day’s work.
She recalls one heartbroken client whose beloved heirloom Hoosier cabinet got blown out of the open trailer in which she had been moving it. “It was not tied down. The wind took it and smashed it onto the road in a million pieces. It was her favorite piece of furniture. I did major surgery on it – literally rebuilt the bottom. I had to fabricate new legs. But it turned out to be a labor of love. She said it came out better than before.”
Long experience in customizing furniture to fit small apartment nooks and ships’ cabins sometimes pays off as well. Aubain creatively reconstructed a child’s desk, covered with graffiti and stickers, into a more compact, convertible drawer unit with a fold-down work surface for the girl’s father to surprise her with when she went off to college – stickers intact. “I use mostly hand tools, because I’m not making new furniture anymore,” she notes. “I have a deep understanding of how they’re put together.”
If you’ve got a project that might benefit from Naomi Aubain’s remarkable experience, you can discuss it with her at (845) 522-2785. Her prices vary widely with the type of work needed. “What I tell everybody is to first send me a picture, and I’ll give them a ballpark estimate.” You can also chat with her at Repair Café, where she’s a regular volunteer, anytime that it comes to New Paltz.
Your cherished piece of furniture couldn’t fall into better hands. Aubain knows how much these objects can mean to people. “Everything has a story,” she says.