The Man, the Woodworker, the Artist
“In my Natchitoches shop, once I saw a little boy around 8, run over and hug the posts of the Prudent Mallard style Cloverleaf Empire bed I made,” said George Olivier. “His eyes lit up. He loved it! That’s the way I felt as a child when my mother took me to a relative’s mansion in New Orleans and I first saw an original Mallard bed. It was love at first sight for me. And I didn’t know it then, but I would spend my life learning to make a bed like that.”
George was a descendent of one of the earliest families to settle in Louisiana straight from France in the 1700s, French Creole to his fingertips. His ancestors owned a beautiful mansion at 828 Toulouse Street in New Orleans. Later, in his shop in Natchitoches, he brought this sense of tradition and history to his work in cypress and created some of the most beautiful and functional furniture ever made in Louisiana during a career that spanned over a half-century.
George came to Natchitoches to attend Northwestern State College in 1960. While attending college, he worked three years remodeling the Newman Club student center, now Holy Cross Church.
In 1966, Father John Cunningham commissioned George to build a hand- carved altar for the Church of the Immaculate Conception so that, for the first time, he could face the congregation.
This was the first piece of furniture George ever built. It was at this time that Olivier started thinking perhaps woodworking was his calling.
The detail, precision and high quality of George’s work attracted the attention of a group of older men from the community. He sought their counsel on several occasions as he had no family in town.
“I was very lucky to have them,” said George. “It was just nice to have some older guys to talk to.”
The altar caught the eye of one member of the group, Dr. Will Pierson. He offered to back the young builder and helped him to set up his very own shop.
George’s furniture designs for tables, armoires and beds evolved gradually and in a special unusual way. Through refinishing work, he gained an intricate knowledge of the furniture construction techniques of the 1800s. George devoted many hours to research, experimentation with woods, and studying antique tool design. He began adding his own touches and refinements to contemporary designs.
“I did my best and somehow I survived,” he said. “I never, ever, looked at a clock. I just took my time and did it right.”
“My pieces are mighty comfortable to be with,” he said. “They’re not so fine that you think you’re livin’ in a museum. You can make something so fine you can’t enjoy it. Furniture has to be functional, laid back, like a good ol’ rug. It has craftsmanship, historic lines, and the material makes it real.”
He developed many of his own creations, like the Louisiana Bayou Bed, which incorporates the idea of a Louisiana oak providing shelter and cover for all who lie beneath its massive branches. This is the type of furniture George makes- Louisiana furniture.
George often searched for challenges. By his own admission, George was the only person in the world who made a deep oval wooden bowl. Not a round bowl. An oval bowl with a brim that curls toward the inside. This required George modify his lathe with two additional motors. He also customized machinery to hold a carving tool while the lathe turns a solid hunk of wood in a willy-nilly elliptical pattern.
Making the leap from craftsman to artist, George had to start designing his own machines and tools to produce the details he was looking for. For example, he made the “best homemade sander you’ve ever seen.” He loved showing his tools to any and all interested.
Early on, George described himself as a rebel- a nonconformist- who loves to build. The medium he chose, cypress, reflected his attitude of non-conformity. He saw beauty and durability in Cypress, at a time where most people overlooked it.
“My satisfaction comes from being able to master new techniques of furniture making and from developing tools to conquer these new frontiers, so to speak,” George explained. “All kiln-dried, select-grade lumber looks like plastic to me. I like No. 2 grade with the knots, splits, pecks, worm holes- all the little surprises. I polish them until they look like gemstones.”
The furniture industry calls the surprises George found in Cypress “character marks.” George arranged them in his furniture as an artist would place color in a painting.
George was a master craftsman who carried the legacy of beautiful furniture into the Twenty-First Century. His furniture is in many residences and businesses and he promoted Natchitoches by shipping his work throughout the U.S.
Through the decades, he influenced the look of downtown Natchitoches, building many of the storefronts on Front Street while keeping with true period architecture.
George Olivier’s work is a pinnacle of artistry, craft and skill, with his Louisiana style cypress furniture being passed down through families as treasured heirlooms.
Olivier Legacy Continues
George M. Olivier III, a master craftsman and artist, opened Olivier’s Fine Cypress Furniture in Natchitoches in 1965. George died October 30, 2017, on his 78th birthday.
His daughter Chalon Abhol is continuing the family business. Chalon will tell you she practically grew up under the table saw and periodically, over the years, worked with her dad in the shop. Over the last several years, she worked with him closely, soaking in much knowledge of his procedures and practices. She will keep her father’s Old-World tradition alive, producing the Olivier Louisiana Style cypress furniture with the same designs, patterns, and methods George used.
“Dad and I were very close,” she said. “Continuing the family business was something I just knew I had to do.”
Their furniture showcases a distinctive French Quarter refinement that’s as down home as file gumbo. And Cypress. To George, no other wood reflects the haunting beauty of the bayous he so loved to wander.
Chalon follows her father’s way of working. Idleness occupies little time in the shop. When the hands aren’t shaping wood, the mind is. Yet it’s the work that does all the talking. The bed frames along the bricked floor in the front showroom, armoires in the shadows- these speak volumes of Olivier’s craftsmanship and experience. The history of handmade furniture that Chalon continues today.