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Building her passion for life

A South Tampa artisan has explored the Chilean desert and been a shepherd in France. But making furniture is her passion.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published June 4, 2004

Alison Swann-Ingram tells stories about her wood. A wide plank of Florida cherry, for example, once grew from the swamp and weathered a summer fire. Herons and egret roosted on its branches. Rain fell on its leaves; wind whooshed past.

It's a different color from regular cherry, she says, much richer, with hints of cinnamon and ocher.

"When I look at this, I think it's beautiful," she said. "All of my work incorporates the natural defects of the wood."

Swann-Ingram designs and builds custom furniture in a style she describes as "traditional joinery applied to contemporary design."

This piece of cherry, though, has such a "spirit," that she might leave it much as it is, build a unique base and put a piece of glass over the top.

"I look at wood much as I do the wrinkles in a person's face," she says, "full of life, full of the character of life. The smoke and stains tell of a life lived, a story told."

In November, she opened Swann Woodwork at 801 N Howard Ave. From her 800-square-foot workshop in an apricot-colored building she shares with a discount scooter shop, she makes the kind of furniture that collectors revere and ordinary people invest in. She builds beds, chests, mirrors, shelves, tables, all in a clean and modern style that hints at the traditional.

She is slowly building a customer base throughout the Tampa Bay area.

"Right now most of my clients are in South Tampa, but I'd like to expand my customer base to all of Tampa," she says.

Swann-Ingram, 39, grew up in the English Royal Air Force town of Aldershot, Surrey. She has chestnut-red hair, big blue eyes and a zing for life. She has also lived a life worth telling, and collects the stories to prove it. Swann-Ingram, who graduated from the University of Brighton with an honors degree in Russian, French and applied languages, is hardly a typical furnituremaker, if there is such a thing.

She has been a shepherd on a small farm in the South of France, picked peaches, worked as an au pair in Switzerland, followed the British Explorer Sir John Blashford-Snell on an expedition into the Chilean desert, married a Green Beret, worked as a vice president for a credit card company, helped launch a hi-tech start-up company, and somewhere along the line studied furniture making at the College of Arts and Crafts in Portland, Ore.

Learning to make furniture - a skill she developed while restoring a three-story, 1910, four-square style home in Portland with her husband - has become her life's work.

"I found this obsession, a passion, a path without knowing it," she says. "I realized I could be poor as a church mouse and it was alright."

Her studies in furniture building, classes she took in Portland from the renowned furniture maker, Rich Ford, taught her to "think through the woods, to think about design issues and concepts."

Swann-Ingram moved to Tampa two years ago, following her husband Greg Ingram, who was recalled to active military duty in 2001. Greg, now 46, is based at MacDill Air Force Base.

She and Greg met 20 years ago, while she was on an expedition in the Chilean desert and Greg was in the Army Special Forces. She calls him "a handsome devil."

They lived for a year in a rental home on Davis Islands. "We went from a 2,800 square-foot house to a 1,600 square-foot box, from a beautiful house to one without a dishwasher or waste disposal, to a house with a chipboard kitchen with one drawer."

Alison, who loves to cook, knew right away that wasn't going to work. They had a small son, Caleb, now 4. Plus, she missed her wood. She knows it all by name and variety, figgart red gum, spotted maple, quilted maple, big leaf western maple.

"I worried about my tools rusting in the humidity," she said. "Just like my father always needed his greenhouse and garden, I needed the things I needed."

Still, Swann-Ingram jokes, "Greg, Caleb and I could live in a cardboard box and be so damn happy!"

They found their new, three-bedroom, two-bath, 2,400-square-foot house in Palma Ceia. They share it with two cats, Mr. Pogo and Shed, as well as their "incredibly obese" 16-year old yellow lab, Agatha.

On weekends they kayak and canoe at Fort De Soto Park.

She missed woodworking. So, she rented the Howard Avenue workshop last fall, painted the door sky-blue, and assembled her tools.

In the narrow, windowless space capped by high ceilings, she creates at a table outfitted for her 20-inch band saw.

At the moment she's building a farm table for Gianpiero Ruggeri, the owner of the Gianpiero's Pick of the Vine Specialties and Wines on MacDill Avenue. The wood, several large planks of chestnut, nearly a century old, came from his late brother's estate in Italy.

Ruggeri wanted something made of the planks, because "when you looked at them, they were nice, long and irregular, very beautiful."

A friend of Swann-Ingram, he already displays a table in his store so he commissioned another. The table will gather people for wine tastings and Italian classes in his store.

For her son, she made a mirror from rosewood, of which she says has 600 different species. She inlaid the mirror with tiger maple and cut out delicate wings.

"It says, let your ideas take flight, be all that you can be," she said. "I wanted to create something that was timeless, so that when I'm old or gone someday, the message from me will always stay with him: follow your dreams."

- For more information about Alison Swann-Ingram's furniture go to: www.swannwoodwork.com or call 813-503-7061.

[Last modified June 3, 2004, 11:26:13]

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