Robert James Rudd
1997 Florida Folk Heritage Award
Robert Rudd (1926-2014) is a third-generation cypress furniture maker. Born in Boynton Beach, Rudd grew up in rural Palm Beach County when cypress was abundant in the wetlands. As a boy he helped his father, Roosevelt, who used local mangrove and cypress woods to make chairs and small tables. After serving in the Navy during and after World War II, Rudd turned to construction and lathing. He lost much of his hearing working in noisy environments, so he returned part-time to helping his father make furniture. In 1966 he began making furniture full-time in a workshop adjacent to his cypress wood home in Lake Worth. In the midst of housing developments and polo grounds, his land was an oasis of untouched natural south Florida.
Rudd’s art is grounded in his knowledge of Florida wetlands. Although cypress was once common in south Florida, development curtailed access to it by the 1980s. In order to acquire wood, the Rudds often journeyed 270 miles to north central Florida—their truck loaded for the weeklong trip with a chainsaw, machete, winch, wading boots, rope, and a gun to kill snakes. Although the process was arduous, Rudd proclaimed, "I'd rather be in the woods than anywhere else." In 1989, the Rudds moved to Bronson to be closer to the cypress swamps and a more rural lifestyle.
The curves in cypress furniture are possible because of the wood’s flexibility and strength. Making chairs requires the cypress to take several forms: benders, or pliable limbs curved to make the arms and back; poles to frame the chairs; and switches, or small branches to fill in the back. To start a chair, Rudd peeled the park off each piece with a machete. He cut the poles into lengths for chair frames with a radial arm saw, then rounded the ends with a jackknife. The length of each piece was cut to measurements that the Rudds had established over many years. Rudd hammered the frame together with galvanized nails. He pre-bent the benders in a clamp to ensure the proper curve of the back and arms, then nailed them to the frame. Finally, he bent the switches into the chair to create the seat and back, then secured them with brads. Rudd branded his name into each chair frame, then burned off any loose cypress strands with an acetylene torch.
Rudd enjoyed experimenting with dimensions and styles. He made his furniture to order, and took great care in every detail from harvesting timber to finishing the piece — he wanted his furniture to last. Rudd also wanted the tradition to last, and he passed along his designs, skills, and love of the craft to his grandson. Rudd also participated in the Palm Beach County Folk Arts in Education Program, Florida Folklife Apprenticeship Program, Rural Folklife Days, and the Florida Folk Festival.