Artisan George Olivier has had a life-long love affair with working with wood. What began as a hobby making model airplanes as a boy growing up in New Orleans has turned into a passion of fashioning fine furniture made from Cypress. In fact, Olivier, owner of Olivier’s Woodworks in historic Natchitoches, recently celebrated 50 years in business. His wood-working shop and showroom are located at 117 Second Street in Natchitoches’ Downtown Historic District. He also has a gallery of his fine Cypress furniture and oval wooden bowls on Front Street in downtown Natchitoches.
Olivier has been credited with creating fine pieces of furniture made entirely from Cypress wood in what has become a distinct “Louisiana style”. “Nobody else does exactly what I do,” Olivier, a self-taught artist, says. “I never worked for anybody else in my life. I wasn’t following anyone or any one style–just me creating a style that evidently became successful,” he adds.
It is a style that has been honed through the years, Olivier says. Throughout his high school years, Olivier built boats and clubhouses for the boys in his neighborhood. “The area around the Mississippi River was our playground,” Olivier recalls, noting that his family lived close to a Mahogany import company and sawmill. “There were scraps of wood behind it and we’d take home some. I had a little wood pile that I’d make things out of.”
After graduating from East Jefferson High School, Olivier moved to Natchitoches and started working for himself by building cabinets and milling doors. He was completing some work at Holy Cross Church in Natchitoches that had captured the attention of some locals. He was asked if he would build a special altar for mass. After that commissioned piece, Olivier decided to go into the wood-working business. He borrowed $1,000 for his first tools, and set up a small shop. “I paid $50 a month for two years and paid the loan off. At first, I mainly repaired and refurnished furniture and paid attention how furniture was made,” Olivier notes.
He traveled out West to study the different styles of furniture crafted out in Taos, New Mexico and other places. “I couldn’t understand the industry. My thing was I wanted to develop a style. Louisiana is known for the food, but I cannot boil water,” Olivier laughs, adding, “but I wanted to put my heart into creating a Louisiana style of furniture making.” And with the success of his business, Olivier made his dream come true. “I developed a Louisiana style. It really doesn’t look like anything else. It is a blended basic style from Empire to Acadian–little bit Shaker looking also. We make everything out of Cypress,” Olivier explains.
Not only is his furniture made from Louisiana Cypress trees, every piece of furniture in their galleries are made in his Natchitoches shop. Olivier says it took him more than 25 years to design and develop some of the saws, jigs, lathes and machines he utlizies to fashion some of the unique features and techniques in his furniture line. He and his two assistants have several signature pieces, including the Cloverleaf Empire bed and the turned-down foot-post Octagonal Empire Bed. He has created original gun cabinets, buffets, dining room tables, Bombe’ chests with radius mirrors, bowtop armoires with matching bookcases, spiral lamp stands, umbrella stands and elegant pencil post beds.
The Cloverleaf Empire bed, which involves 500 pieces of wood, is turned on a lathe that is more than 100 years old , and still “works like a charm,” Olivier notes, and is then hand-tooled. The design has not been made since before the Civil War, Olivier says. Besides the beautiful furniture Olivier has become known for, he has also earned a reputation of creating a Louisiana style of Cypress bowls. “I got the idea to make an oval bowl. Nobody else does it anywhere that I am aware of. I kept making models and made lots of mistakes. And after four years of playing with it, I finally had a machine to make it,” Olivier says, adding that it takes about 10 hours to make an oval bowl.
When Olivier first started making furniture from Cypress, he said it was not considered a desirable wood for fine furniture. “Cypress had a poor-boy image. It was the underdog of the woods and so that appealed to me because I certainly was an underdog in the wood-working business when I started,” he says. But Cypress furniture has now gained popularity for its durability, natural beauty and that “casual, easy to live with” charm. By creating his own custom machinery to carve and shape his Louisiana-style unique furniture pieces, Olivier has definitely become a master of a craft about which he could once only dream. The Olivier legacy is in good hands as his daughter, Chalon, recently started working with him in his shop. “I couldn’t have found a better thing to do with my life,” Olivier says, “I tell people who ask, if you want to reach the dream for your life, you got to put your heart and soul into it till you get it right.”