by Chase Reynolds Ewald
American Cowboy Magazine
It’s a long ride from a high-rise penthouse apartment in New York City to a log cabin in Wyoming. But that’s just the trip, metaphorically speaking, that John Gallis’ furniture has made.
When Gallis first visited a relative in Gillette, Wyoming, in 1994, this native New Yorker had been chief cabinetmaker for the design center at Bloomingdale’s department store for 15 years – making entertainment centers, wall units, computer desks, and other necessities of urban life for Manhattanites. He and his wife had been thinking about moving to a safer, less crowded, more family-oriented place, perhaps Amish country, when they drove through Cody.
“It was so big. The air smelled so fresh. My wife and I just looked at each other and said, “Why couldn’t we live here?” Looking back, he admits, “We were so naive when we came here. You fall in love with the area and don’t think about how to make a living. But the nice thing about a small town is if you’re good, people hear about it.”
They were especially lucky to choose Cody, which has an active community of craftsmen and a major art museum, in addition to being the host city of the Western Design Conference, a major annual western design event. Gallis quickly developed a unique and distinctive “refined western” style that set him apart and earned him a spot at the 1996 conference.
In 1997, his desk with three drawers captured the Exhibitors’ Choice Award, particularly meaningful since he was selected by his peers. In 1998, a rolltop desk won the Peoples’ Choice Award, and in 1999, he captured the title for Best Woodworking Craftsmanship. His work is represented in four galleries around the West, guaranteeing a market for his function art, while he also enjoys working closely with clients on commissions.
What sets Gallis apart – aside from assiduous craftsmanship and attention to detail – is his choice of materials, his tendency to carve edges, and his preference for curved lines over straight. His signature style generally involves the use of walnut (although he also works in cherry and juniper), and he positions the wood in such a way that the lighter-colored wood from the part of the tree closest to the bark forms a kind of outline for the piece. Thus, the footboard and headboard of a bed will feature the lighter wood along curved tops, and on either side of “book-matched” vertical slats. The result is a design that is symmetrical and balanced but never rigid.
Gallis is humble about his achievements, passionate about his work, and ever ready to wax eloquent on the merits of beautiful wood. “A lot of this wood I slice myself; I’m the first person to see the grain,” he says. “Each time it’s like a treasure hunt. I feel good that I’m creating something people will admire and that will last for hundreds of years. There’s not a day that I get up and don’t look forward to what I’m doing.
“We’ve been in the Western Design Conference for four years and won three awards. People may say, “How can this guy from New York know about western design?” But what is western design? It’s organic. It’s a feeling. And it can be whatever you want it to be.”