HIGH POINT — A snow-like dusting of wood chips covers the work bench where Gary Johnson stands quietly in a uniform stained by splattered glue and furniture polish.
He flips through the pages of a three-ring binder, protected by thin plastic sleeves, that holds faded photos of his projects throughout the years.
A young woman gently leans against a sleek designer arm chair. A boy wearing vibrant floral-print shorts proudly smiles next to a wooden wheel. A photo of his wife and himself, 20 years younger, standing beside an ornate hand- carved cabinet. A picture of himself busily working at his workbench.
“This one was taken right here, see the door?” says Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Antiques and Furniture Restoration as he turns around and points at a darkly-stained wooden door surrounded by piles of scrap wood and unfinished projects.
These are his masterpieces: his furniture and his family.
Johnson sits at his kitchen table inside the former furniture factory, which he converted into a gray shingle farm-style house for his family. Wallpaper with delicate blooms of pink flowers line the doors of the kitchen cabinets, while fresh fruit and today’s mail are scattered across the countertop.
“Well, I actually grew up with my dad building furniture, doing reproduction, repairing and refinishing,” Johnson says. “It really just slowly became a big part of my life.”
Beginning about 100 years ago with his great grandfather, Jesse Gardner Johnson, the Johnson family has dedicated generation after generation to quality craftsmanship.
“It’s one of those things that’s just genetic,” Johnson says. “It’s in you, whether you know it or not.”
As a child, Johnson helped his father, Victor Orval Johnson, with restorations, but he never planned on continuing his family’s business. Instead, he studied art and electronics, worked a full-time job and helped his father on the side.
However, when his father died in 1972, he became the fourth generation of professional wood-working craftsmen in the Johnson family.
“I had my regular job, but everybody talked me into going into furniture restoration because they figured I would be as good as my dad,” he says. “I guess it had become like sawdust in my blood.”
Johnson’s primary responsibility is rebuilding and restoring furniture for his clients, while his wife, Florecia, manages the business and helps with some of the restorations. But the craftsman bloodline of the Johnson family extends even further.
Both of Johnson’s children, Rochelle and Roby, are a continuation of the family’s furniture legacy.
Rochelle Johnson-Coleman formerly worked as the head designer for Henredon Furniture Industries, where she became Ralph Lauren’s lead furniture designer.
“Ralph Lauren would actually send his old pieces down here, out of his home, and Rochelle and I would copy them,” Johnson says.
Roby, a professional photographer, and his wife, Cheree, work full time at the family business. Even their 10-year-old daughter, Deanna, has started helping with restorations.
“We all can do just about every function,” Johnson says. “That’s one thing that keeps it all sort of exciting.”
“You don’t quite know where the road’s going to lead you,” he says as he leans back in his chair. “It seems like the whole family has ended up in the woodwork business.”
He gently lifts a wooden box and holds it in his arms. He caresses the surface of the smooth wood grain and canvas hinge, as he describes the previous life of the box, which is nearly four times his age.
“My granddaughter calls it ‘the first laptop,’” says Johnson referring to his current project, a lap desk that dates back to the 1770s. “It’s not a very big box, but it has all these compartments to store paper and pens and all this stuff.”
The desk is part of several restorations that Johnson is working on for the Foscue Plantation in Pollocksville, which is being converted into a museum.
“If you’re on a train or wagon, you can write your letter or write some notes,” Johnson says. “It’s pretty neat because that’s what it is: one of the first laptops.”
Johnson has seen it all: rotting antique furniture, carousel horses, historic artifacts, Santa Claus statues, guitars and guns.
“Today, we restore anything from new furniture in showrooms, all the way back to stuff that was made in the 1700s and older,” he says.
Johnson’s business relies most heavily on word-of-mouth advertising, and with thousands of restorations under their belts, his family’s reputation for repairing furniture speaks for itself ... and it speaks loudly.
“We’ve done work for every state in the United States, Japan and England,” says Johnson.
Their reputation has helped land several high-profile clients, including former President Ronald Reagan, Ralph Lauren, the Smithsonian Institution and The New York Museum, as well as several other museums and historical societies. Johnson describes his restorations as incredibly detailed, labor-intensive work. Each piece requires many hours of attention, and depending on the piece of furniture, the restorations can last for more than a month.
However, unlike other forms of art, his work does not contain a mark or signature to credit him. Instead, he strives to make his work blend seamlessly with the past.
“You’ve got to really give it a haircut that doesn’t look like a haircut,” Johnson says, describing his intricate restoration technique.
“We’ve just always had work, and maybe that’s from our reputation,” he says. “I try to do it right, and sometimes I’ll go so far trying that I’ll lose money. ... A lot of time I’ll lose money, but I don’t mind doing that just to get it right.”
Reflecting on his career, each of his restoration projects have a story. Although he never met Reagan himself, he describes working for the former president as one of the highlights of his career.
“We built him two wing chairs and a backgammon table,” Johnson says. “They didn’t want us to know where they went until we were through with them.”
Another of his personal favorites was a mohair-upholstered couch and two chairs that were once the gift of an 18th-century European king to another king’s daughter.
“These one-of-a-kind pieces are quite unique to work on,” he says, “because you think that someone wouldn’t get anybody else to work on it but me, which is extraordinary.”
As Johnson closes his shop late in the afternoon, he places the binder filled with photos of his masterpieces back on the dusty workbench, where each of his projects once laid. “We have been lucky over the years,” he says as he walks out of the shop. “I think that it’s going to continue to do so, as long as we do our best quality work.”