When the five living U.S. presidents gathered Thursday in Dallas for the dedication of the new George W. Bush Presidential Center, they had chairs handcrafted in Maine.
Auburn furniture maker Thos. Moser designed and built 55 pieces for the new center on the campus of Southern Methodist University. The company fashioned tables and chairs for the research room of the library and conference rooms at the institute, as well as benches in the center’s public spaces.
It wasn’t until Wednesday night, however, that Aaron Moser, head of the company’s contract division, discovered that Thos. Moser chairs would play a central role in the dedication. He was watching television at home when he saw preview coverage of Thursday’s exclusive event and realized that the chairs on the stage were the company’s signature piece, the Harpswell chair, which debuted in 1990.
“The exposure is huge,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We’ll be telling this story for years.”
Thos. Moser, founded four decades ago by Thomas Moser, a Bates College professor with a keen interest in woodworking, is among the most sought-after high-end furniture makers in Maine and the United States. All of its furniture is handmade in Auburn, much of it from American black cherry.
Moser has showrooms in Freeport, Boston, New York City and San Francisco, among other places. The company’s founder and namesake still designs new furniture but leaves the day-to-day operations to others. Three of his sons, including Aaron, are employees.
Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, knows the company well. He was Auburn’s city manager when the growing company moved to its current location at Wright’s Landing.
“That’s not to say I’ve bought their furniture, though. I wish I had,” he said. “It’s exquisite. They market themselves as producing the highest-quality furniture around, and they get it right.”
This isn’t the first time the company’s pieces have been featured prominently. Moser furniture has been commissioned for libraries and corporate boardrooms across the country. The furniture is used at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas, Glamour magazine headquarters in New York City, Pfizer headquarters in Groton, Conn., and in the libraries at Harvard and Yale universities, to name a few.
This is not the first time Moser has been linked to former President Bush. In April 2008, the company sent two Harpswell chairs to the White House for a visit by Pope Benedict XVI. Those chairs are now in the museum of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which includes the George W. Bush Institute and the George W. Bush Foundation.
Jon Tuttle of McIntosh & Tuttle Cabinetmakers in Lewiston said Moser’s reputation is well-deserved.
“They have an innovative way of doing business, and I think the piece that has made them most successful is their marketing,” he said. “They have been able to establish themselves as a brand in a way that no other furniture maker in Maine has.”
Tuttle, who worked for Moser for a few years before forming his own company about 11 years ago, credited Thos. Moser for serving as an incubator for other Maine furniture makers.
Even with its reputation, the company’s connection to the Bushes is somewhat serendipitous. Aaron Moser said the relationship actually began several years ago when he met former first lady Laura Bush at a social function and she remarked that she admired the furniture the company had created for a library in Austin, Texas. Laura Bush trained and worked as a librarian.
“I think the family’s connection to Maine played a role, too,” Moser said. Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, own a home in Kennebunkport.
Moser said the company’s philosophy is simple. The mission of its 130 employees, half of whom are woodworkers, is to craft furniture that is sturdy enough to last for many years but also elegant enough never to go out of style.
The Harpswell chair can be made with or without armrests and with or without back padding. Each chair has a back crest that is carved from one piece of cherry, and the grain pattern for each is unique. Each piece of furniture is signed and dated by the woodworker.
The furniture isn’t for everyone, at least from a budget standpoint. The Harpswell chairs on which the five current and former presidents sat Thursday start at about $1,200.
Tuttle said the high price allows Thos. Moser to market to clients who can afford to spend $1,200 on one chair.
Asked if the company’s furniture makers felt any extra pressure knowing that their pieces were destined for such a prestigious location, Moser said he didn’t think so.
“Honestly, our customers are all very important,” he said. “We treat each piece as though it’s going to live forever, whether it’s going to a library at a major university or if it’s going to someone’s home.”
The hardest part, Moser said, was not revealing that the company had been commissioned to produce so many pieces for the facility. His employees have known for more than two years that their furniture would be placed at the presidential library, one of only 13 in the country.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: