Tony La Morte began his career as an artist interested in the classics.
He’s still an artist, but now his classic artistry finds expression as the owner of Ruby Crest Design, a maker of custom-designed and hand-built furniture headquartered in Sparks.
“I was an art major in college and I started gravitating toward wood as I did a lot of crafts,” he said. “I was married, and my wife and I had a bad habit: We liked to eat. So I started building cabinets and furniture on the side.”
After teaching for three years La Morte moved his family to Elko.
“I started my business there and built furniture for individuals and did a lot of work for the two big gold mines,” he said. “We were there for about 30 years, and during that time we built tons of furniture.”
Three decades later, former customers from those days tell La Morte they’re still using his products.
“We built quality stuff to last and that’s been my goal,” he said.
In search of larger markets, La Morte brought his business to the Reno-Sparks area.
“It’s been a good move. We’ve had a lot of opportunities in spite of this economic downturn,” he said. “We’ve done some beautiful jobs and these last four years have been hard. But things are picking up now so I’m encouraged.”
After the move, his shop and showroom initially were in separate locations but now they are consolidated under one roof in an industrial neighborhood at 615 Spice Island Drive in Sparks.
One of La Morte’s biggest accounts is Whole Foods, which has used several of his creations.
“They’ve been a godsend for me,” he said. “It’s not a lot, but it’s steady every month so that’s been a big help. But in the meantime we’ve done some wonderful jobs.”
A recent focus has been classic furniture design.
“We’re working on a line of mid-century, all from the 1950s,” he said. “We’re going to be at the Truckee Home Show (May 25-26) so we’ll have all our mid-century furniture up there.”
His product line includes wood art panels for decorative purposes as well as furniture for offices, homes and bedrooms.
And they all have quality and classic craftsmanship in common.
“We don’t make anything that isn’t made to last,” La Morte said. “We don’t use any particle board, all the drawers are dovetailed and we make them out of solid beech or Russian birch. We use a lot of dowels, everything is glued and we screw a lot of stuff together as opposed to just nailing it.”
“We use a lot of old methods, but they work for furniture,” he said. “We use only good hardwoods and veneers and we really try and do a good job.”
He feels his background in fine art gives him an advantage on the competition.
“I’m a designer. That’s my background, so we come up with some good designs and that’s what really separates me from the rest of the guys. There is a lot of good craftsmen out there, but they aren’t good designers, and that’s the difference,” he said.
La Morte has some strong feelings about most furniture being sold these days. While it might look nice he has doubts about its quality.
“Imports have really hurt the furniture industry in this country,” La Morte said. “Most of the furniture that comes in from China looks very nice but it’s very cheaply made as they’re good at finishing.”
Despite this he knows there is still a demand for hand-crafted products. Buyers have taken the trouble to seek him out through referrals. He’s only now working toward the launch of a Web site.
“Some people still want really nice furniture. We’re a niche market so if you’re shopping price, we’re not the people you want to talk to,” he said.
And he’s confident enough in the quality of his products that he sometimes bids on projects in the knowledge that he won’t submit the lowest price. He figures buyers will be won over by his work.
“We’re not cheap furniture. We make real quality furniture. We’re competitive, and if you look at our prices and the high end, we’re very competitive with any of that furniture, but our quality is just superior,” he said.