Adam Zois ’94 admits that he is not very good at playing the guitar. He hasn’t played in public since his college days, and even then he was no Jimi Hendrix. But while his guitar-slinging contemporaries agonized over chord progressions, Zois realized his virtuosity did not lie in performance.
My talent is in three-D, but I wanted to use it in a way that was expressive, not scientific,” Zois said. “I realized that building guitars was a perfect way do that.”
Already well into a career in marketing in 1995, Zois signed up for a guitar-building night class near Boston. His first guitar, modeled after a Martin acoustic, took a year and a half to complete. Nowadays he can finish off an electric jazz guitar in as little as three weeks.
Unlike many classical instruments, which emphasize functionality over design, Zois’s guitars often experiment with the two, finding a harmony between aesthetic design and a quality tone. To find that perfect balance, guitar enthusiasts are much more interested in new shapes, sounds, and materials than they used to be.
“Not all guitars have to look like a Fender Strat or a [Gibson] Les Paul anymore,” Zois said. “I’ve been working with some asymmetrical designs, for example an arch-top double cutaway that really has a great sound.” That same model arch-top was featured prominently at “The Player’s Art,” a guitar exhibition held at the Colby College Museum of Art in 2005.
After excelling at guitar building, Zois also ventured into furniture making, and now divides his time between the two.
“He’s just an extraordinarily talented guy. Look at his collection; he can make you a gorgeous bed frame, then turn around and make you a world-class electric guitar,” said Dr. Alan Hume, founder of the Colby-Hume Center, which functions as Colby’s satellite woodworking and metalworking facility in Sidney, near the Mayflower Hill campus. Hume, a friend and mentor to Zois, invited him as a guest-lecturer this year for the woodworking Jan Plan course Hume organizes each winter.
Hume and Zois met some 16 years ago when Zois frequented the Hume Center as a member of the crew team, which uses the facility’s location on Messalonskee Lake as its home base. Zois didn’t become interested in woodworking until years later.
Since then Zois has fashioned a career out of his interest in wood. After graduating with an MFA in furniture design from Rhode Island School of Design in 2006, he set up shop at Smokestack Studio, an 11-person shared art space on the top floor of an old mill building in Fall River, Mass. He was invited to join the studio by a few of his professors at RISD—a prestigious offer considering the other studio members have pieces in a variety of renowned furniture collections, including the permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.
Though he’s one of the young guns in his studio, Zois’s own ouevre is already impressive. His defining piece of furniture, in his opinion, is the Scapuli Chair. A stunning, skeletal, white chair, its padded backrest is split down the middle leaving two symmetrical pieces resembling, as its name implies, shoulder blades. His bare-bones approach to the chair typifies Scandinavian modern furniture design, an influence he picked up at the Danish School of Design in Copenhagen—and one of the defining influences of his work. “It’s about being very sensitive to materials, angular, not hiding any joints or hardware.”
In some ways it makes sense that Zois juggles these two trades so easily. The skill set is similar, with both guitars and furniture involving ergonomics. Both exist somewhere between functionality and art. In fact, Zois’s guitar designs often influence his furniture designs and vice versa. “There have been several times that my professors look at my furniture and say, ‘Yep, you are definitely an instrument maker,’” Zois said.
Despite an overload of commissions and commitments, Zois has a few private students in the Providence area and hopes to start a small teaching program out of Smokestack. Hume, who has observed Zois’s teaching style, notes, “Some woodworking instructors tend to be like military drill sergeants, but Adam isn’t. He’s a top-drawer teacher, and a top-drawer guy.”
—Brendan Sullivan ’06