Like most of his classmates, Keith Fritz, Ph.B. 1999, discerned his vocation while he was a student in CUA’s seminary, Theological College. Only for Fritz, the calling was not to enter the priesthood. It was to build furniture.
The CUA alumnus has followed that call and — six years after graduating — interior designers now consider him to be one of America’s most accomplished furniture makers. Just 29 years old, Fritz already has created one-of-a-kind furniture for big-name clients including Bill and Hillary Clinton, actor Chris O’Donnell and MTV Chairman Judy McGrath. Also praised for his liturgical furnishings, Fritz designed Theological College’s Chapel of the Three Teresas, and his altar furniture adorns the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — often called one of the most beautiful churches in the Western Hemisphere.
He currently works out of his Jasper, Ind., studio, Keith Fritz Fine Furniture, where his dining room tables sell for between $7,000 and $20,000. But it was at Theological College — literally, in the building’s basement — that he launched his professional career.
“Everybody thought it was cool that a seminarian had a woodshop in the basement,” says Fritz, who, with the help of his carpenter father, began making furniture at age 13 and had won two Indiana statewide woodworking prizes by age 16.
“Keith is a super talent and quickly on his way to becoming one of the finest furniture makers in America,” says Marylin Polling, a Bethesda, Md.-based interior designer who directs the National Symphony Orchestra’s Decorators’ Show House.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF WOOD
Don’t call Keith Fritz a carpenter. “Carpenters build houses, but I am an artist,” he says.
“At the heart of my work is a search for goodness, beauty and truth, and that same search is what interested me in studying philosophy,” says Fritz. “I think everybody searches for God, and one place I find God is in my wood and in my art.”
It is Fritz’s artistic touch that separates him from fellow furniture makers. After cutting into a fresh piece of wood (which often comes from a tree he hunted for himself), he analyzes what he calls the “movement” of its grain. He then saws the wood into thin slices and arranges their grain patterns to create furniture surfaces portraying intricate shapes, designs — even images. One of Fritz’s altars, for example, seems to project the flame of the Holy Spirit. An ebony table he did for an NBA basketball player depicts a star in its center.
“Keith is a remarkable master craftsman, with an attention to detail and a sense of precision and style that set him apart from other custom cabinetmakers,” says interior designer Anne Dutcher. “He has an amazing ability to turn any concept I present to him into a classic work of art.”
TURNING A “JUNKYARD” INTO A CHAPEL
Fritz entered Theological College as a Basselin scholar (a seminarian in the third year of his CUA undergraduate education in philosophy). One day he happened upon the college’s basement, which was cluttered with old pieces of wood and liturgical bric-a-brac dating back to 1917, the seminary’s inaugural year. “The place was a junkyard,” remembers Judy Decker, Theological College’s executive assistant.
Trolling through wooden fonts, candleholders, chalices and patens, Fritz determined he could create a chapel out of these items and some additions of his own. After consulting with the seminary’s treasurer, Jack Donahue, and then-rector, Rev. Howard Bleichner, Fritz signed his first professional contract, allowing him to set up a woodshop in the basement. The artist trucked in wood and equipment from his family’s Indiana farm and recruited a few CUA pals as assistants. After a summer of refinishing old pieces and building new ones — including an exquisite oak lectern and tabernacle canopy — Fritz in 1998 unveiled the Chapel of the Three Teresas, commemorating St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Teresa Benedicta, on the top floor of the seminary.
In the final year of his undergraduate work, Fritz began accepting furniture-making commissions. As he imported more power equipment from Indiana, however, the basement workshop grew potentially hazardous, and by the midpoint of Fritz’s senior year an insurance company told him he had to move his fledgling operation elsewhere. When Fritz selected an artist’s studio on Capitol Hill, the Theological College administrative staff organized and paid for his move as a sign of good will.
“It was the least we could do after he built that chapel for us,” says Donahue. “And it’s a good thing we got him when we did. We could never afford him now.”
MOVIN’ ON UP, TO THE EAST SIDE
In 2000, Bill and Hillary Clinton were referred to Fritz by their interior designers Robert Brown and Todd Davis. Only one year after graduating, the CUA alum was working 75-hour weeks and had made a name for himself through word of mouth among high-end interior designers. The first piece Fritz designed for the Clintons was a French walnut console, built for the foyer of their Washington, D.C., house. It proved to be such a hit that Fritz immediately received another commission to create a 72-inch round dining room table for the Clintons’ home in Chappaqua, N.Y.
But it was the St. Vincent Ferrer job in 2001 that allowed Fritz, then 24, to fully flex his artistic muscles. Calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime commission,” Fritz needed two years to complete the job — which included two lecterns, the celebrant’s chair and two altar railings — at a cost of $180,000.
“I took a chance with this guy, never having met him, and now I’m his biggest fan,” says Rev. Boniface Ramsey, former pastor of the New York church, which was built in 1914 by Bertram Goodhue (1869–1924). Once voted America’s best architect by his peers, Goodhue called the Upper East Side church his greatest achievement.
“My challenge was to use the exact same aesthetic principles that Goodhue would have used if he was designing the church with a post-Vatican II function,” explains Fritz.
BACK TO HIS ROOTS
Near the town square of Jasper, Ind. (population 12,100), down the street from the courthouse and next to the Jasper City Bakery, a handful of artisans saw, carve and sand in a woodshop. NPR is heard on the radio, meaning it’s the shop owner’s week to play DJ.
Keith Fritz is home.
“It’s small-town America,” he says. Despite the town’s Rockwellesque charm, however, its future success is uncertain. Though Jasper is in a county that accounts for a hefty $2 billion of wood manufacturing per year, the rising export of American manufacturing jobs is hitting the place hard, says Fritz.
“Here in Indiana there are incredibly talented craftspeople, and they’re being laid off because woodworking companies are sending all their jobs to China,” says the CUA alum. He adds that he was shocked to learn at one point that one of the most talented decorative furniture painters in the country was relegated to landscaping work to make ends meet.
The former seminarian still contemplates joining a monastery later in life. But for now, he thinks providing a good work environment to his employees and creating beautiful liturgical furnishings are greater services to the Church than what he could offer as a priest.
Judy Decker, who likens Fritz to a son, says that by his last year in the seminary, “he knew God wasn’t calling him to the priesthood. He discerned every day, and he found his true vocation.”
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