tampabay.com

Homemade for the home

A local pair brings custom flair and dynamic design to the table - before they start building it.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published June 9, 2006


EAST TAMPA - Husband and wife team, Robert Ballard and Sarah Howard, create furniture for a generation of homeowners who want to spend more time cradled in their cocoons.

At their furniture-making studio in an industrial park not far from east Tampa's colorful niche of produce wholesalers, the couple designs and creates exquisite built-ins and free-standing pieces of furniture for people who work and play at home.

"Our homes are where we want to spend more time, where we develop our own special space," says Howard, who holds a master's degree in fine arts from the University of South Florida and also works at USF's Graphic Studio.

Their company, Environstudio, was the product of both of their backgrounds, one that combines the visual arts and masterful carpentry. Ballard, 36, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., is the son of a high school shop teacher who gave him a block of wood and a drill when he was in preschool.

"I began making furniture in my late teens and early 20s in my parents' garage," says Ballard, who earned a business degree at USF, but returned to study fine arts.

"Later, when I had an apartment, my friends used to make fun of me because I kept a table saw in my bedroom."

After Ballard and Howard met - and eventually married in a ceremony at the Tampa Theatre - they combined talents to open a furniture studio in downtown Tampa. In 2003, Ballard quit his job making church furniture for a Chicago-based liturgical company, Watra, which has studios in Pasco County, and decided to put his skills to work full time in his own business.

They moved to the industrial park on Henry Avenue north of Hillsborough Avenue last summer, renting a 1,500-square-foot warehouse space where they make everything from desks to cabinets to bars.

"What sold us were the 20-foot ceilings and skylights," Ballard says of the new, garage-style park that includes an array of tenants, including a custom sailmaker and AAA tow trucks.

The studio is filled with tools of the trade, including a power feeder, lathe, air compressor, table saws and drill presses. It serves as a showroom for in-the-works projects, including a model of a paisley-shaped, glass-topped bar for a client in Atlanta. They have one employee in addition to Ballard's dad - now retired - who often stops in to share his woodworking expertise.

Their customers are a diverse group ranging from architects to builders to homeowners from Culbreath Isles to Hyde Park to the Lake Magdalene area of Carrollwood.

"We're designing things with a purpose, rather than just being decorative. Form always follows function," Howard notes.

The couple is drawn to clean, modern, contemporary lines, though they produce an equal amount of traditional furnishings, including a recent Mediterranean-style built-in office. Even the hardware is unique, often European and hard to find - a signature touch on which they pride themselves. Ballard likes collecting books on woodworking at used bookstores and maintains a large collection on subjects ranging from furniture styles to artisans' homes to the '60s.

"We take a lot of pride in doing our own research," he says. "If a client says he wants something built in the Biedermeier style, we can look it right up. We hear from clients that they like how much we're involved. And most of our clients tend to be very involved in the process because they like to know what their options are."

The furniture tends to be pricey and labor intensive, and not for the customer who simply wants a table from a catalog re-created cheaply.

"Obviously our work costs much more than the run-of-the-mill stuff," Ballard says, pulling out plans for a major project in a house in Hyde Park that includes two kitchens and three baths.

Two years ago, the couple was even asked to make eight 10-foot-long missiles out of maple for an art show with a group of Cuban artists.

Tampa architect Dennis Carr of Urban Studio Architects asked Ballard to make the handsome teak front door for his new home.

The couple rarely advertises, except for an obligatory listing in the Yellow Pages and a Web site: www.environstudio.com.

"Each client we get refers us to someone else or hires us for additional work," Ballard explains. "I don't know that I'd want to advertise because we're growing comfortably, and we don't want our quality to suffer."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.