California Woodworker and Carver Draw on Nature for Art
Originally Published in Sonoma Discoveries Magazine, March/April 2016 Issue
Written by David Abbott
Photography by Gary Ottonello
Debey Zito seems to be laughing even when she is not. Her infectious mirth comes out whether she’s talking on the phone or giving a tour of the Sebastopol home studio she moved into five years ago with her partner in life and in business, Terry Schmitt.
“We like living on the same property where we work,” Zito said in the couple’s expansive workshop on their West County ridgeline acreage overlooking the Santa Rosa plain.
Zito has been perfecting her craft as a woodworker for more than four decades and for the past 20 years, she and Schmitt have collaborated to create original museum-quality furniture and home design as Zito Schmitt Design.
For many years they worked out of a relatively small space in the bottom floor of their home in San Francisco before making the move to Sonoma County.
“Our ceilings were only eight feet tall, so we had to be careful turning the boards,” Schmitt said from the large, airy studio built on their property. “This is like heaven to us.”
Zito Schmitt Design specializes in creating natural motifs utilizing sustainably grown hardwoods with hand-rubbed finishes, featuring Schmitt’s wood-carving handiwork.
Examples of their work can be found in Pasadena in Greene and Greene’s Blacker House; choir benches in San Francisco’s historic Swedenborgian Church and Disney’s Grand California Hotel. They even did a piece that showed up in Robin Williams’ movie, “Bicentennial Man.”
Five years ago they won a competition to create a frieze in the Alameda West End Library. The result was a 25-foot by 51-inch work of art that includes depictions of local flora and fauna flanked by a pair of whimsical rabbits wearing glasses and reading.
“It went together like a puzzle to allow it to expand and contract,” Zito said. “It was very hard to move.”
Another example of the light-heartedness they bring to their work can be found at a 1950s-era Sunnyvale tract home that belongs to friends and clients Patricia Sandoval and Jon Kannegaard. According to Sandoval, they met Zito and Schmitt at a show in Pasadena in 2000. When they decided to update the Sunnyvale house, she asked Schmitt to work images of poison oak into the design.
“I went out and took pictures and sent them to Terry,” Sandoval said. “I always get comments on the beauty of the design reflecting the nature of Sunnyvale.”
Schmitt said that she appreciated her client’s “quirky sense of humor,” but also found that poison oak was a beautiful, albeit uncomfortable, plant.
“Debey made me go out and get a live specimen and I watched it ooze all over my workbench for a few weeks,” Schmitt recalls. “I ended up with poison oak all over my arms.”
Closer to home, they redid the dining room and mantel in the Hessel home of longtime friend and colleague Bill Grasse. Schmitt honed her home construction skills working construction with Grasse on Victorian homes in San Francisco.
The designs feature an oak motif with irises, dragonflies, ravens and quail.
“I gave (Schmitt) several ideas, some dictated by wallpaper in the house,” Grasse said. “She took it and created an organic design that ‘belongs’ and fits together very well.”
The Blacker House is one of their signature projects. They have been chosen to create a dozen or so pieces for a room in the historic house built beginning in 1907 by Charles and Henry Greene, early 20th century pioneers in the Arts and Crafts movement.
From 1948 to the mid-1980s, subsequent owners of the house sold off many of the furnishings and other historical fixtures, leading to the passage of legislation to protect the contents of the site. The current owners have worked to restore the house and recreate the classic American architecture.
Another signature project is a home in North Carolina. “We have several pieces of furniture for the home,” Zito said. “I was hired to consult on the interior design for three rooms: living room, music room and sunroom. Terry and I have done the woodwork and all carvings are by Terry.
The work includes paneling with poppies carved above arched doorways; carvings of frogs jumping after dragonflies and koi swimming in water with lily pads; a 12’x12’ carved frieze above the windows and doors, as well as planning for a garden with an outdoor barbecue with cast concrete countertops.
Their experience in North Carolina was mildly reminiscent of Zito’s early days in the business, facing a culture that is still dominated by males.
“The mill workers were a bunch of good ol’ boys,” Schmitt said. “We brought a hippie friend from Portland, Maine to help, which caused quite a bit of amusement with the mill workers, who had to deal with ‘a hippie and a couple of women from California.’”
Schmitt was raised in Napa Valley. Her parents Don and Sally Schmitt founded the French Laundry Restaurant in Yountville in 1978, selling it in 1993, and her brother owns the Booneville Hotel.
After a brief stint at San Francisco State 30 years ago, she drifted into construction and home remodeling, eventually gaining an apprenticeship with Zito. Whether it was the draw of being around Zito or her love of the work, she ended up sticking around.
“I kept buying her carving tools, trying to figure ways to keep her in the shop,” Zito said.
In order to encourage Schmitt to flourish, Zito started creating pieces with carving in mind. “I thought her talents were wasted on construction,” Zito said.
But listening to Zito’s story, it is easy to understand why she is laughing now. In addition to working with her life’s partner in the surroundings of the beautiful western Sonoma County hills, she has overcome the stigma of being a woman in a male-dominated field and has been a pioneer in breaking down sexist barriers in the industry.
“Yes, I was a pioneer, and, yes, I did feel like one!” Zito said. “I was the first woman to take woodshop in my high school, one out of five women in the industrial Design department at San Diego State University (out of 500 students), and I think the first woman to teach woodshop in the Bay Area, as well as one out of maybe a handful of women furniture makers in the country in the ‘70s.”
Zito grew up in Southern California, but was exposed to Northern California when she lived in Forestville for a year when she briefly attended Sonoma State University.
But one of her professors told her she should give up biology and do what she loves. So she went back to Southern California and studied woodworking and metal work. Zito was one of a tiny handful of women in the industrial arts department. “I actually had a teacher ask me if I was there to get a husband,” she said.
That same instructor—a man with a PhD—taught a very demanding welding course, and when Zito was one of the few students to pass an arc welding test, he chided his male students for being outdone by a woman. But in the end, Zito said, he was very supportive.
“It took a long time to get over those rough beginnings. Teaching the women’s wood-working class for the last 25-plus years has helped,” she said. “I felt a need to work with women and knew they needed a mentor… Some of the women have been in the class for over 20 years.
Despite her obvious talents, Zito had to break down doors that were closed to women in the 1970s. Her persistence paid off though, and 43 years later she and Schmitt are respected leaders in their field.
Throughout the years, Zito and Schmitt have worked tirelessly, taking on projects and participating in several shows and festivals every year, including the Sausalito Arts Festival, the American Crafts Council in Fort Mason, as well as shows in Pasadena and North Carolina. They may be doing a show in Washington next year that attracts 300,000 people.
“We used to work 14-hour days and do three shows throughout the country every year,” Zito said. “We had to carry the walls (to the site) and start working on it three weeks in advance.”
Although they have slowed down a bit, they are still busy doing all aspects of interior design from carving and construction to interior woodwork, kitchens and baths, but they’re trying to do more architectural carving. It can take as many as 100 hours to create a piece of furniture.
“When you put carving into the mix, the time goes up exponentially,” Zito said.
They also work with tile and wallpaper, drapes, carpets and fabrics to create themes from Japanese to contemporary. And they utilize local artisans, such as McIntyre Tile Company in Healdsburg and Bohemian Stoneworks in Sebastopol whenever possible to keep the work as local as possible.
“We can walk into a 1950s-era house and recreate it with modern-day materials using traditional techniques,” Zito said. “We’re doing all the work…. You get a complete design/build combination, so it’s all seamless.”
In addition to all of the hands-on work they do, they lead woodworking workshops for women in their Sebastopol studio, teaching furniture-making fundamentals with traditional tools in a supportive environment.
Ultimately, Zito and Schmitt are happy to be where they are in life as respected artists in their field, leaving heritage works of art for posterity.
“It’s a labor of love,” Zito said. “We can make enough money from it and we’re building something that will be around for hundreds of years.” SD
For more information on Debey and Terry’s work, visit zitodesign.com or call 707-861-9126.