When Freddy Roman was a student at The Furniture Institute of Massachusetts he saw a dressing table made by fellow student Austin Winters, who’d built the piece after seeing an original in the catalog for an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. The original, produced by Thomas Seymour at the turn of the 19th century, glowed with the restrained lushness of Federal style. “I’m going to make that piece when I’m good enough,” Freddy resolved. And build one he eventually did, commissioned by a furniture company that, as he puts it, “employed starving artists.”
“I got suckered,” he goes on. After he’d been paid less than $12,000 for months of meticulous research and work in the piece’s making, the company sold it in a day for more than twice as much. From his vantage point today, as a craftsman who operates Freddy Roman Furniture Maker & Restoration, he’s quick to point out that the 100-percent-plus markup was “perfectly fine – that’s just called business.” Yet Freddy’s awareness of the tension between what it takes to practice craft at the highest levels and what it takes to make a living is never far from mind.
Freddy was born in Hartford, Conn., in 1981. Both of his parents are from Puerto Rico. His mother, Teresa Mercado, was one of 12 children. She helped raise her siblings and cooked every day. (“She’s still considered the best cook in the family, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my mother,” Freddy adds with a chuckle.)
“She has a back like a linebacker,” he continues, describing his mother’s work ethic. “That back came from when she was forced to go down the hill [in Puerto Rico] and carry back a bucket of water with a stick over her shoulders.” Teresa emigrated to Hartford in 1969 and married his father soon after. They’d been acquainted in Puerto Rico but weren’t close friends. She left high school before graduating because she was pregnant with Freddy; she had a second son, Daniel, six years later.
Freddy credits his mother with his drive and many other fine attributes. She spent most of her career at Carling Technologies, which manufactures circuit breakers, where she ran 15 to 20 departments, assisted with production and streamlined a variety of manufacturing processes. Her employers were so impressed by her insights and technical understanding that they sent her to China to train workers at the company’s plant there, then to Mexico as well. In 2007 the company laid her off. “To this day it hurts her that she was laid off,” Freddy says. “She was so methodical, being in control and being a good boss… I gained a lot of experience by watching her.” Now she works on an assembly line at Colt Manufacturing, which he says is bad for her hands, but “she sucks it up and does what she has to do.”
“I was able to go to the Furniture Institute because she paid for part of my education,” Freddy goes on. “She doesn’t know this but I almost became homeless in my last semester of my second year. I was working full-time and going to school full-time. I found a CVS store that closed at 11 and worked six days a week, double shifts on weekends.” He was fueled by her example of hard work and determination. Yet despite his job, Freddy could see that his income would not cover his living expenses and tuition for that last semester.
He hatched a plan. As one of the school’s shop managers, he had a key. The school had a kitchenette. He figured he would sleep on an air mattress, shower at the gym and get up before anyone arrived the next morning. As it happened, he didn’t have to follow through. When Phil Lowe (who owns the school) got wind of the scheme, he said, “’Don’t worry about the last semester. You work for me; half the money you make will go to you so that you don’t notice you’re lacking in funds.’ It was like coming home,” says Freddy. “If I had left without graduating, I would have failed.”
Freddy’s father, Ramon Roman, provided another example of what it means to take pride in good work. Ramon grew up on a cane sugar farm and has a sixth-grade education. He was renowned among his peers for his skill at dominoes (a rough equivalent of today’s mobile phone games, for rural Puerto Ricans in the 1970s). Back then, those wishing to emigrate to the United States had to be sponsored by someone who was already here. Ramon was very close to his brother Pedro, who had moved to Connecticut and found a job manufacturing aircraft engine parts at a factory in Windsor. Pedro sent part of his pay home to Ramon so he could join him in the United States.
Ramon found work at the same factory – not in making engine parts, but as a maintenance man; he painted walls, buffed floors and cleaned bathrooms. “He instilled in me that there’s nothing wrong with cleaning a toilet bowl until it’s shiny as can be and seeing your reflection in it,” says Freddy. “He took a ton of pride in his work. When I walked into my dad’s bathroom that he cleaned, there was no question that every square inch was clean. I still don’t understand, when he’s in the bathroom, what’s taking so long,” he adds, then answers his own rhetorical question: “He’s not just taking a shower and getting ready; he’s cleaning the grout!” Pedro and Ramon also sponsored their parents, who moved to Connecticut in the late 1970s.
Freddy’s parents insisted he graduate from high school, then “figure it out.” There was no pressure to get a college degree. He sometimes wishes he’d continued his education and become an architect/builder. Everyone told him he couldn’t do both, but the combination struck him as ideal. “I was good at CAD. Very skilled in it. I did house models, 3-D modeling in high school construction technology. I was getting college credit for it even in my sophomore year in high school. But I knew staying in the office was not going to be my thing. I needed a mix.”
He did an internship in Manchester, Conn., with a view to becoming a civil engineer but found the job involved too much sitting in an office for his taste. Then his mother’s place of work offered him a job; at the time, the company’s attention was focused on preparations for Y2K. Seeing how quickly he picked things up, his employers hoped he’d become a mechanical engineer and work for them. His first question was, “‘Where’s your office?’ For me, it was, ‘This is where I’d be spending the rest of my life. Behind a desk.’ No, I’m not interested,” he decided. “It’s not for me. I wanted to find something where there would be a balance between work in the office and work in the field.”
“Where I got my real firecracker bite was at Woodcraft in Connecticut.” (To clarify, the Woodcraft store in Manchester, Conn. and the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking were connected as a business entity in the past. They still occupy the same building.) “I feel like it was sent from God for me to trip over. The tools were amazing, the books were amazing. All these people who write for Fine Woodworking came in there. That’s where I tripped up on Phil Lowe. He suckered me at the age of 19 or 20, said ‘You gotta come up to Massachusetts.’” Freddy did his formal training at the Furniture Institute from 2004 to 2006 and says, “It was like a new world. Being able to see [Phil] talk to students while working, it sucked me right in. He barely laid anything out. It was like a beaver cutting a tree. He totally eyeballs everything.”
The two-year training covered drafting by hand, furniture making and restoration. Phil insisted that anyone interested in restoration first learn to build; this education went well beyond hands-on woodworking to encompass the study of furniture history, as well as the development of different kinds of joinery. Freddy was also struck by Phil’s approach to compiling a cut list: Starting with a full-scale drawing, students would think through the process step by step and list the parts in the order in which they’d be used to build the piece.
Phil urged his students to get their name out early in their training, have a website, start acting like professionals. Freddy began his business after his first year of training, in 2005. He literally knocked on people’s doors. “Furniture making is a great business when you have the work, but when you don’t, you can get hungry.”
“You’ll never go hungry if you can repair furniture,” he observed. He convinced Phil to take on more restoration work. Freddy was contacting antique dealers about repairs. He didn’t know how to price work, and Phil gave him a piece of advice. “’If they put you on the spot, look at every joint and figure an hour for each. If that joint didn’t take you an hour, you’re ahead. If it takes you longer, hopefully others will take less and you’ll be OK.’” Restoration is a huge part of his business today.
Like many of us, Freddy has become increasingly professional over his years in business. He’s required to be licensed by the state, and he carries all kinds of insurance: liability coverage, shop building and contents coverage, vehicle transportation insurance, worker’s comp coverage, hand disability insurance (because his hands are his livelihood). He runs his business out of two shops, which means doubling some of these expenses. At times he has shared space with other craftsmen, most recently with a fellow who specializes in millwork and does side work for Freddy; and another, also a graduate of North Bennet Street School, who just wants to build things and is happy to have Freddy deal with the customer relations and office work.
It’s a demanding and frenetic existence. “Because I live in such an expensive state, I’m more money-hungry,” he says. “I have this serious look all the time, it’s just ‘stay focused, keep moving.’ I’ve built up mental walls. You’re bouncing around left and right; the phone is ringing; you’re juggling five or six jobs at least.” There always seems to be pressure from customers to get the job done. “It could be four to eight weeks before I start [their job], but now I give them the worst-case scenario. There are so many factors: the humidity, how long it will take the product to come.” When we spoke, he said he was waiting for a sunny day, because so much of his work is outside. “Last year it rained through June, then got hot and humid, which made things take longer to dry.” This year he says he’s “trying to work just 40 to 50 hours a week plus the office work. It used to be 60.”
In 2019 Freddy made his living through a wide variety of jobs. He repaired furniture, stripping and refinishing each piece; he fabricated shutters and entry doors with sidelights for period and 20th-century buildings; he restored entry doors from all over New England and New York (some for historic buildings, others for old houses). He also made furniture – farm tables, built-ins and cabinetry; the commissions for built-ins come most often from homeowners who live in old houses with wonky floors and walls – people who value Freddy’s sensitive appreciation of historic architecture and the skill with which he honors it. His jobs involve a lot of color matching and finishing. He also does basic upholstery, sheet caning and weaving rush. In addition, he does onsite rot repair for pilasters, crown, cornices and other architectural features and is now taking on small remodeling jobs, such as a current project that will turn a three-season porch into a year-‘round room.
Last year Freddy married his longtime girlfriend, Krista, whom he met about 11 years ago. It’s hard to meet people when you’re working all the time, he acknowledges, but when a friend invited him to that particular party, he said yes. He’s glad he did. He “fell in love at first sight” with “this adorable, driven woman, very passionate, [who was] going to school for nursing. She was different; she was kind; family was important to her. All of these things made me want to get to know her more.”
They dated for 10 years. “I probably waited too long to ask her to marry me!” he laughs, then explains it was important to him to be in a stable position before getting married, so he could support a family. He wanted to pay off debts and start a new life with “a fresh slate.” Aware that things might have been different had they waited until this year, he’s glad they married in 2019. “She’s the one I trust, I confide in. She’s my support.”
Krista was training to be a nurse but graduated just as the stock market crashed in 2008. Hospitals weren’t hiring. She couldn’t find a job. So she adapted to circumstances and took a different direction. Now she manages a retail store and Freddy says he has learned “a ton” from how she conducts herself in business. “I understand what customer service is because of her. I don’t have as much patience. I hate repeating myself eight times when I’m not teaching. [But] she’s an amazing all-around customer service person.” Through the lockdown in Massachusetts Krista has continued her work in customer relations, working online and by phone.
Freddy’s brother, Daniel, is employed by an accounting firm and working toward a master’s degree with a view to becoming a CPA. Reflecting on their life, Freddy says: “Our rough upbringing could have taken us in many ways. When you move to Connecticut and grow up in the ghetto, there’s gang violence. You can get sucked into the streets and make a lot more money. My parents kept us moving constantly.” They worked hard to improve the family’s situation, always with discipline and love. “I’m 100 percent happy [my mom] gave me all the spanks I got, because she kept me in line. She knew there was more opportunity out there. By her keeping us in line, we lived a better life.”
— Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work