Fun with furniture

By Mitzi Bible
Lynchburg News & Advance
Think back before arcades were full of high-tech video games and virtual reality machines - even back before Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. The only sounds you would hear then came from a spring releasing a silver ball that zoomed its way up and down ramps, into bumpers that lit up with a “ping” and, hopefully, hitting the flippers at the precise moment so as not to go down the “drain.”
Pinball machines were all the rage for many of today’s baby boomers. It was an obsession, much like “Dance Dance Revolution” is with teens today.
For one area furniture designer and builder, the obsession has lingered well into adulthood.
“Everyone has a spot in their heart for when they were kids and played pinball,” says Michael Maxwell, owner of M.T. Maxwell Furniture Company in Bedford. “I spent a lot of time and money doing it … a lot of kids did, I’m sure.”
Maxwell, who moved his furniture business from Philadelphia in 1994, started collecting pinball machines as a hobby about five years ago and began restoring them. He came across some machines that had missing parts and were beyond repair - “completely gone,” he says. It was then that a creative idea for a new part of his furniture business started taking shape.
“I just got a hold of a bunch of stuff I couldn’t use from pinball machines … and I hated it to end up in the landfill,” he says.
So with a mind for contemporary furniture design, he began using the parts to create items such as coffee tables and bar cabinets, incorporating the pinball machines’ playfield (where the action takes place) and backbox (where the scores show up).
“I’m trying to preserve some of the neat, old artwork,” he says, referring to some “vintage designs” of the unique playfields, with psychedelic art reminiscent of pop art of another generation.
“Pop art is really popular right now with collectors and people into the ‘in’ stuff,” Maxwell says.
The designs, some dating back to the 1950s, include “everything from Dolly Parton to Kiss to Elton John to the Incredible Hulk,” he says.
His bar cabinet pinball design was recently selected as a finalist for a Niche Award in the recycled category. (The awards are sponsored by Niche magazine, the trade publication for North American retailers of American craft.)
Using recycled materials in furniture and craft design is a growing trend in the industry.
“It’s about reusing things and turning them into art,” Maxwell says.
He says although his pinball furniture is an original idea, people have been using other recycled materials to make custom pieces for their homes. Some of the items that have caught his eye through the years are airplane wings made into conference tables and desks and road signs that are pressed into bowl shapes, he says.
Larry Schmehl, who has worked alongside Maxwell for about 12 years, says it’s “our innovative ideas” that have set the pair apart in the furniture industry.
Maxwell has described their standard line of furniture as arts and crafts, with Shaker and Asian influences. He works with exotic woods and glass, with his favorite pieces being dining room tables, chairs, beds and dressers.
Schmehl says the company “favors contemporary-style design,” adding that furniture styles have to change to keep people interested. “That’s what the market is doing; you just have to stay ahead of that,” he says.
Handmade furniture, custom-ordered to specific sizes and dimensions, goes along with that trend and is something the company has tried hard to maintain.
“I think people like the overall quality of the pieces and structural integrity - anyone who shops around for handmade furniture can really appreciate it (the work that is put into it),” Schmehl says. “We’re building each, one piece at a time.”
It’s not for people with a “disposable mentality,” he adds, that is, those people who buy furniture from large retailers or catalog stores knowing that it will need to be replaced in a few years.
Schmehl admits that custom furniture does come with a higher price tag, but it’s one that many people are willing to spend.

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