by Rachel Bubis – photography by Rob Lindsay
“Lack of charisma can be fatal.”
— Truism, Jenny Holzer
A small plaque displaying this Truism by contemporary artist Jenny Holzer leans against a black-and-white photograph on the front desk at E.T. Burk. The photograph is a portrait of Ernest Theophilis Burk, the inspiration behind Nashville’s newest furniture design destination that bears his name. Opened in the fall of 2011 by his great-great-grandson Chris Kletzien, this furniture store’s people and designs take a cue from Holzer: there’s certainly not a lack of charisma here.
It all started with the legendary Southern ladies’ man E.T. Burk, who ran a successful furniture empire during the mid 1900s called the Amarillo Furniture Mart. His business plan was simple: he stocked his stores with the best pieces around by attending furniture shows in cities across the nation. His store was non-exclusionary regardless of race, religion, or social standing. It was one of the first in town to welcome the African American community through the front door, where, like the rest of his customers, he treated them as friends. Following in his footsteps, Kletzien upholds a similar business strategy at his one-year-old gallery in the Gulch.
If you’re lucky enough to catch Kletzien while visiting E.T. Burk, you’ll surely be seduced by his vast knowledge and biting wit. He simultaneously exudes an infectious passion for design while maintaining a sardonic sense of humor about it all. In the middle of gushing about the beauty and meticulous craftsmanship of the hand-carved hickory spindles on his George Nakashima chairs, he interjects, “But really, it’s just something for people to put their butts on.”
E.T. Burk’s design approach certainly stands out in an age of disposable design, although Kletzien is quick to point out that the human side of design—the craft and emotional aspect—seems to be experiencing a resurgence in today’s culture.
It’s almost like it’s gone back to how it was before the notion of industrial design was invented, explains Kletzien, artisans working with materials, people using design as a tool of the senses rather than just to solve practical problems.
Part of the “soul” of furniture design is that it should reflect a sense of place. “Design should be influenced by its surroundings,” explains Kletzien. “It’s what is necessary to a lifestyle and what is available.” In Tennessee, for example, many designers are using local and now reclaimed woods in their creations because of availability.
In a way, your raw material is the earth itself and plants, says E.T. Burk’s furniture restorer Ben Trimble, and to me, those kinds of things are what human beings instinctively warm to. The kind of soulful, human quality is your raw material with the nature that you work with.
These trends are relevant in the changing cultural climate of Nashville. Like other cities of its size, Nashville is experiencing a reversal of the 1980s flight away from downtown living. Urban redevelopment is now centered on live/work spaces for today’s professional, and these places are offering alternatives to “McMansion” subdivisions.
According to Kletzien, today’s status symbol is more about smaller spaces that are conducive to one’s needs of today, and E.T. Burk’s design philosophy reflects this. Whatever the future holds, Ernest Theophilis would certainly be proud of the soulful furniture store named in his honor and his charismatic protégé that created it.
“When I was a little kid,” Kletzien explains, “my grandmother used to call me Little E.T. I never knew why because I never knew him. Sometimes I look around the store at night after we close and I think of the lessons he left behind. I finally understand what she meant.” He takes a long pause and says, ”I guess I sold her a piece of exquisite heirloom furniture.”
E.T. Burk is located in the Gulch at 300 11th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203, www.etburk.com