CARVING their niche – and filling it with ART

published on September 14, 2023

They can make the inside of your dream closet sparkle like newly fallen snow in the morning sun. Or they can transform your home’s interior into something akin to a baronial mansion, with richly carved doorways, ornate woodwork and an air of old-world grandeur. One-of-a-kind pieces of furniture, built to exacting standards and made of high-quality hardwoods and exotic veneers, are right up their alley too.

“Most people complain about clients who are very particular, but that’s when our ears perk up,” says Matt Riley, 44, the chief executive officer of Thomas Riley Artisans’ Guild in Naples. “If they’re not particular, they’re not coming to us.”

Take that glistening closet, for instance. They were told the client wanted the room to look like freshly fallen snow when the sun first hits it. “I said, ‘Well, I can’t make any promises but if anybody can come up with something that fits this description, I think it would be us.’ And we nailed it. The process was complicated and exploratory. The finish ended up being a combination of automotive and metallic coatings with an extensive polishing process that made it very high gloss. That’s what we get excited about. Designers or owners have ideas and we get to help bring them to life,” Matt explains.

Together, he and his brother Ben Riley, 42, are second-generation leaders of the company, which specializes in constructing high-end furnishings and interiors for architects and designers. As president, Ben oversees operations, administration and finance, while Matt works closely with the project teams that serve clients across the country. Founded by their father, Thomas Riley, in 1991, TRAG now has about 80 employees and occupies several buildings on Railhead Boulevard in north Naples.

Thomas Riley — whom everyone around the shop, including his sons, calls “Tommy” — retired in 2019 and now lives in North Carolina. His original mantra still holds sway, though. Boiled down to a few words, the aim is to provide customers with “monumental quality and white glove service.” Per his practice, all employees meet in the parking lot twice a week at 7 a.m. to connect and share information about birthdays, anniversaries and what’s going on with the business.

“Our job is just not to blow it,” Matt says with a quick smile, aware that he and Ben are responsible for carrying on their dad’s vision and legacy. Thomas pioneered an enterprise that brought together talented woodworkers and cabinet makers to do what they do best, while he took care of the business side. And it worked. The Artisans’ Guild grew, despite setbacks around 2008 when the economy cratered.

Along the way, the Rileys helped give birth to an art gallery — Method & Concept — and absorbed two other companies whose products and services dovetail with their focus on luxury interiors. Acanthus International, based in West Palm Beach, offers custom wood finishing for yachts and building interiors as well as furniture repair and restoration. Salus Secure Environments provides high-tech, ballistics-rated security doors that can be attractively clad in wood or other materials to blend in with their surroundings.

Currently, the Artisans’ Guild brings in $12-15 million in revenue each year. Fifty to 80 percent of its clientele is based in Florida, mainly in Naples, Miami and Palm Beach. The rest varies according to demand from architects and interior designers who bring far-flung projects their way.

“Our business is providing discerning people with fine things,” Matt notes. “We’ll do everything from fixing a chair to installing an entire estate full of custom interior woodwork. We are not by nature a design company. We are a company of fabricators and finishers.”

Some of their most memorable projects are things they can’t talk about. Virtually all their customers require them to sign nondisclosure agreements, Matt says. However, he mentions a few highlights, like an extravagant, diva-worthy dressing room produced years ago for Canadian singer Celine Dion at her home in Jupiter, Florida, an estate that has since changed hands. Crafted from cherry, the entry is embellished with gold-plated ormolu (an alloy used for furniture decoration), marquetry and intricate mother-of-pearl inlays. Containing custom details like special cubbies for the owner’s sunglasses and a motorized shoe shelving system, this jewel-box-like room required 9,000 hours of work from the company’s engineering, fabrication, finishing and installation departments.

Woodworkers’ Wonderland

A tour of the Artisans’ Guild campus takes a visitor through four buildings containing roughly 35,000 square feet of manufacturing space, where wood is cut and planed, sanded, finished and stored. At the heart of it all, though, is a vast high-ceilinged fabrication shop, one of two where projects are assembled. Divided into areas occupied by individual artisans, it’s a wonderland for furniture makers. Every conceivable hand and power tool that a maker could want is nearby — chisels, files, clamps, hand planes and saws, grinders, auger bits, lathes and much more. The company encourages employees to use the equipment during their off hours, if they wish. Their personal projects, ranging from musical instruments to ship models, add a touch of individuality to their work spaces.

As we stroll through, Matt points out a suite of clean-lined, modern kitchen cabinetry in progress, constructed from gorgeous, precisely matched leaves of figured American black walnut cut from a single batch of wood. Further on, we run our fingers over a large horseshoe-shaped bar being created for a lucky client. Topped with goatskin parchment, the curved bar is sided with wood veneer and leather inset panels wrapped in hand-hammered brass. We’re actually seeing the last phases of the work process in these areas, Matt explains. It’s where projects are assembled and then taken apart to be painstakingly labeled and packed for transportation to their final destinations.

Homing in on Art

Chad Jensen, the creative director and managing partner of Method & Concept gallery, began his career working as a cabinet maker at the Thomas Riley Artisans’ Guild in 2004. He’d just graduated from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit with an interdisciplinary degree, having studied everything from industrial design to glassblowing, ceramics and sculpture. Gradually, Chad took on other roles in the company, ranging from administrative work to product development.

“Tommy told me when I first started that he always had an open door for new ideas, and I think he regretted that sometimes, because I was always in his office,” Chad recalls.

One of those ideas was that a contemporary art gallery would be the perfect complement to the Artisan’s Guild’s focus on fine interiors. A location to market contemporary art, fine crafts and interior design services could be a win-win for both enterprises. After all, once well-heeled clients finished their renovations in Port Royal or at a Gulf-front condo, they might want different art on the walls or sleek, well-designed accessories to complete the picture.

So, in 2013, the Thomas Riley Studio debuted in a storefront space on Tenth Street South in the Naples Design District. (The gallery’s name was changed in 2018 to Method & Concept.) At first, it was challenging to gain a foothold with area art buyers. “Our early openings were like crickets. Where is everybody? Some clients were not comfortable with contemporary artists,” Chad recalled. “For us, the largest obstacle was education for a lot of our clients and being a soft enough entry into the art world. Approachability is a big thing for us. We don’t want to be intimidating.”

But today, 10 years later, Method & Concept is a well-established venue. In 2020, the gallery moved to The Collective, a design center located a few blocks further south on Tenth Street. It now occupies one of the most spectacular gallery spaces in the city — a light filled, high-ceilinged, glass-walled corner overlooking a small garden walkway on one side. Indoors and out, Chad says, “I want everything to be done so well that you’re just focusing on the artists.”

Many of the artists he represents straddle the worlds of art and design in interesting ways. For instance, New Yorker Jason Krugman embeds LED lights into swaths of curving and folded wire mesh. His work can stand on its own on a pedestal or be installed over a table to light up a dinner party. Similarly, Method & Concept carries the work of Bower Studios, a New York City design group that produces exquisitely crafted mirrors. They range in shape from classic ovals and rectangles to curved pieces of glass that seem to soften and droop down the wall.

“I feel like I take in art every day of my life,” Chad says. “The biggest thing for me is I love providing opportunity, finding sometimes unrecognized talent and bringing it to light, a little bit. In the art world, there’s a lot of bureaucracy sometimes. As much as possible, I like to be a place where just talent wins.”

Of course, it’s not a one-man show running a place like this. The gallery team includes Chad’s wife, art educator Amy Jensen, who manages day-to-day operations. She is joined by interior designer Yoselin Alonso and Sarah Baker, a recent graduate of FGCU’s art program.

Among the local artists whose work can be found at Method & Concept are the husband-and-wife team of Lauren Amalia Redding and Brett Harvey. Together, these New York City expats operate H&R Studio on Radio Road in Naples, where they offer art classes, exhibits and workshops and maintain their personal studio spaces. Their focus on traditional figurative art via his muscular sculptures and her delicate silverpoint drawings offers a refreshing contrast to the Florida scenery that dominates much of the art made here.

And one of the newest additions to the gallery roster is jeweler Cheri Dunnigan. Her extraordinary gold and silver jewelry, embellished with fresh water pearls, has been available in Naples for years. But she has found an opportunity through the gallery connection to push her creativity further, weaving silver and gold wire into larger sculptural forms that retain the intricacy of her jewelry.

“I think a big part of that is how we work with artists to foster the relationships and support them in a unique and creative way,” notes Chad. Given his background as a maker, he sees the gallery as a creative catalyst for artists as well as a place for objects that blur the boundaries between fine art and crafts. This homegrown but stylish enterprise has nestled into its role as an outpost for diverse personal expressions. And at its bustling receptions and special events, you don’t hear crickets chirping any more. ¦

— Janice T. Paine is a Naples-based freelance arts and cultural writer.

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Sarah Baker

Art & Design Coordinator

Sarah Baker is inspired by artist studio practices and as the Art and Design Coordinator at METHOD & CONCEPT she is dedicated to supporting the creative process. A graduate of Florida Gulf Coast University, Fine Art program, Sarah is active in the SWFL art & design culture and is an artist in her own right.Integrating her skillset at a maker with expertise and knowledge of fibers and textiles, Sarah collaborates with METHOD & CONCEPT teams to provide an informed experience for art collectors and interior design clients.

Yose Alonso

Associate Interior Designer

Yoselin Alonso is an Interior Designer who focuses on functional design and believes in constructing exclusive spaces that evoke emotion. Incorporating the unique diversity of each client, her design details are profound, ensuring one-of-a-kind personalized spaces. A graduate of University of Florida’s College of Design, Alonso harnesses conceptual and practical skills that bring spaces to life from planning and construction through to the finest of details. Having grown up around construction and design, Alonso is eager to make her mark in the design world as a part of the METHOD & CONCEPT team.

Amy Jensen

Gallery Manager

At METHOD & CONCEPT, Amy is a champion for artists and coordinates season exhibitions and special events as well as outreach and community projects working closely with artists, collectors and community partners. Drawing from an arts education and two decades of experience working in the arts and for non-profit institutions, Amy actively advocates for arts & culture and enhanced quality of life through her work as Gallery Manager for METHOD & CONCEPT and in the local community.

Chad Jensen

Creative Director & Managing Partner

Chad Jensen is an artist, furniture maker, designer, and the Founding Director of METHOD & CONCEPT. Jensen is a true advocate for the arts, his work and the gallery’s programming both demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between contemporary craft, fine art and design.

In 2013, Jensen launched METHOD & CONCEPT as a division of Thomas Riley Companies, to represent international emerging, mid-career and established artists and designers. Jensen has exhibited numerous artists including Matthew Shlian, Peter Zimmermann, Tadao Cern, Kim Keever and Arik Levy.

In addition to his work at METHOD & CONCEPT, Jensen is an active leader in Naples’ cultural landscape, placing monumental public art at The Collective and Sugden-Gomez building at Baker Park. He is the Founding Director and serves on the Executive Board of the Naples Design District and the United Arts Council of Collier County, where he served as president for two terms. Jensen also serves on the Advisory Board of Digital Media Design at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he is a frequent guest speaker, gallery juror and student mentor.

As an artist, he has exhibited at The Baker Museum in Naples, FL; Rudolf Budja Gallery, Miami; as well as Guinevere, London. He has participated in international art fairs such as the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, NY and the Shanghai Art Fair, China. In 2014, Jensen designed a limited-edition furniture collection that was presented during New York Design Week. Interior Design, Art Basel Guide and Casa da Abitare have featured his work.