a design story

This story is kind of typical as it relates the steps I go through in developing a design for any client. While the process follows a familiar form, this particular tale is unique and bears repeating.  https://peasleedesign.com/phenix-table

Recently a friend called with an unusual request: she had a few planks of walnut that had been cut from a tree on her property which she’d always wanted to convert to useful furniture but, for various reasons, had ended up just carting them around from house to house. After 25 years or so, she’d decided that it was now or never: find someone to build her furniture or find a new owner for the wood. That’s where I came in. Knowing I build mostly custom furniture, one-of-a-kind and limited run designs, she’d decided I was the one who could develop a piece that would be ‘unusual’, practical, ‘beautiful’ and inexpensive. Not necessarily a tall order for me but challenging for its own reasons.

She was interested in a coffee or parlor table she told me. For me, it’s critical that I see the space for the intended new piece and this is usually a delicate first step I need to take – distinguishing my fact-finding efforts from what could seem to her like an intrusion. I was careful to spell out what I was looking for: what are some of the stylistic reference points, ‘traffic patterns’, how much light is there, how does she live. All of these are key factors in my approach to custom design, as much as choice of wood and ‘function’, whatever that is. As an aside, and this case will shortly illustrate my point, what a piece of furniture does is not necessarily self-evident. A table, because of its horizontal surface, can be for file or book storage, a writing desk, a footstool, a place to serve and eat meals – so the shape and size is not locked in by any narrow function it might perform. In fact, I like to design my furniture so that it does double or triple or even quadruple duty, intentionally; that is, with forethought. So much for ‘form follows function’. My client wanted a flat surface between her couch and wood stove where she could rest her legs or put a cup of coffee or leave a book or magazine or have her lunch. She also wanted a shelf below where she could keep books or magazines she didn’t necessarily read everyday but could still have ready access to. And she wanted a closed storage area that would be closed and fairly secure. And she wanted few styling features that could be potential ‘dust-catchers’ as she did not want to feel tethered to cleaning the piece. Then there was the wood….

Generally speaking, I’m glad when clients want to use their own material for a project; it gives more personal meaning or investment for them and it also provides more ‘personality’ for me. That said, using wood that someone else has selected means accommodation for me; it’s more time working around defects that the client might not have seen and it generates more waste as yield was probably not one of their concerns as they selected their wood. So what might be an initial material savings ends up costing more in terms of labor. This was a case in point: the lumber had been cut many years ago and also milled or dressed to dimension; that is, to a certain width and thickness. Usually, wood is left ‘in the rough’ until it’s ready to be used. The biggest reason for this is that wood tends to move and distort when it’s in plank form, almost as though it’s trying to return to where it was in the tree. Rough lumber is generally 1/4″ thicker than needed just so those distortions – cupping, twisting and warping – can be machined out and the wood flattened and straightened just prior to constructing a piece. If, as in this case, the wood is milled and dressed years before it will be used, it doesn’t stay flat anymore which turns out to be a problem: it is absolutely critical that wood be flat and straight or it can’t be made into furniture. Nothing can be cut square and true – joints don’t close or fit properly. That said, I knew I’d have to figure out a way to deal with it as this was a non-negotiable aspect of the project.

So, I’d identified ‘the problem’. All I had to do next was drive the common elements together to create a ‘solution’.

The size was straight-forward: ‘parlor/coffee’ table is a little smaller than the client’s couch. The other part was more involved: some kind of allowance for storage that’s readily accessible but won’t be a dust and clutter magnet in a style that will enhance the space. It seemed to me that the key to solving this problem was the storage aspect – and I also realized that solving this central issue would inform the rest of the table design. The seemingly easy answer would’ve been just to make a cabinet below the top with doors; however, that approach would have violated the other parameters. Having to get down on one’s knees wouldn’t be ‘readily accessible’. Hard to clean, hard to see and hard to build (adding to expense) also weren’t in its favor. Instead, I started exploring the possibility of putting a more shallow storage cabinet directly below the top but not extending to the floor leaving shelf space below and accessible through the top. That is, make the top movable much like an extension dining table. 2 halves sliding away from each other would reveal more of a secret compartment accessible from above, well-lit and not prone to collecting dust or too much stuff. This approach would involve some extra expense in making the parts movable and also in providing 2 leaves for the option of making the table bigger. Overall, though, it seemed likely to hit most of the parameters without putting the cost out of reach. The bonus for me in this design process was to come up with a design that might have a broader application – maybe an expandable parlor table for a different way of dining, like on pillows without chairs!

After all that effort, it feels kind of strange to say, building the table was easy!



walnut, white oak; 18″h x 24″w x 50″/76″L





(Thanks to Susan Stuard and J.F. Berry who nudged me in this direction with a commission about 6 years ago).


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Furniture Design Heads Outside – Birth of the Arc Table

Until recently, I’d never designed or built furniture to go anywhere but inside, mainly for the obvious reason that wood and water don’t make a lasting match. Even in situations for which it is suited, like decking and trim on a sailboat, wood needs to be protectively coated yearly or face certain deterioration. While I was not intending to go ‘full outside’, I realized that a covered porch afforded an opportunity to build for an outdoor application without being fully at the mercy of the elements.

Truth to tell, I had just completed my own home renovation porch/deck project and needed to populate the space. I’m not sure I agree that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, but new open space certainly provided some incentive!

The design of the table was centered on the base – a simple sub-assembly comprised of 2 solid and massive slabs of walnut with their ‘live edges’ left intact (a live edge is the terminology for the part of the plank that formed the outside face of the tree, not ‘squared’ or sawn off as is customary. Sometimes the bark remains but generally it falls off as the plank goes through its drying process). Those 2 uprights, 3″ thick and 36″ wide, were massive and sturdy enough not to need much more structure, requiring only one horizontal rail secured with removeable through-tenons to hold them rigidly vertical. In fact, those ends were so massive both visually and physically, that I needed to take some weight out of them which I did by cutting out large half-circles in each (partly how the table got its name).

As I learned from my conceptual sketches – and this was borne out in the construction – there was a fair amount of visual interest created by the curves and by the connecting rail. It would have been a shame to cover it all under a solid top which is where the idea for the inset glass in the top originated. Being traditionally, even parochially, a wood guy, I’d never used glass in a top before – only in door panels. So….I had to strike a delicate balance between making the top substantial enough to be in proportion with the base, not overpowering it, as well as in making the glass just the right size proportionately and practically.

Now, about that finish.

I’d never pickled walnut before, another first as far as I know, and I had never used a new exterior oil product intended specifically for decks. What better place to try both experiments out! ‘Pickling’ is just a fancy name for ‘whitewashing’ wood with a heavily diluted white water-borne (not latex) primer. After it dries, most of that coat is removed through sanding with 180 grit paper. I added one preliminary step just to be sure I’d get even more ‘character’ in the result: instead of smoothing out my hand-planing marks, which I usually due prior to sanding, I left them in. The tool marks combined with the grain to capture the whitewashing in completely random and attractive patterns. A very pleasant surprise! Application of the oil sealed in the effect permanently as well as created a waterproof barrier without the drawback of film finishes (lacquer and varnish) which always look like there’s something between you and the wood.


It doesn’t always turn out this way; in fact, most of my ‘experiments’ in woodworking have either been part of learning curves or more Life’s Lessons. This table was a happy exception.

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what makes ‘classical’ design?

classic furniture: unique, one-of-a-kind or a re-iteration of the past

Every so often, you might see a piece of furniture that’s striking, catching your attention for some subliminal reason and you’re hard pressed to figure out why. Is it like something you’ve seen before, somewhere? Does it remind you of something familiar, like from your childhood? Is the wood ‘pretty’, the configuration intriguing or does it just give you some kind of feeling that’s good but you can’t say why?

‘deja vu all over again’

Then again, it could be the proportions of a piece that strike a resonant chord, either pleasing in themselves or reminiscent of a piece you may have seen in a museum sometime. The parts go together seamlessly to form an integrated whole and yet are worthy of closer examination in their own right.

a shape that seems new but is recognizable

Is it the shape of the legs, or the top? The detailing maybe, the way the top opens and the leaves store inside? Birdseye maple?

These are all subjective evaluations and draw a fine, though blurry, line between personal experience and objective ‘truth’. Furniture design, as with architectural design, has antecedents and may be categorized by the kinds of stylistic elements it incorporates into any given piece. For example, the chest of drawers at the top might be defined as Biedermeyer because of its use of black and brown or its smooth curves highlighting a powerful, geometric form or for its use of Art Deco detailing (though, technically, Biedermeyer furniture was produced only in Germany or Austria). Because the piece has elements that seem consistent with that particular style, some observers may fold it into that period as a way of describing it and making it familiar. Does it then become classical because it could be associated with a certain period of historical furniture design?

In the end, ‘classical’ is as nebulous a term as ‘modern’. It evokes a reaction, feelings or memories, that may be an association by the viewer with a particular period of time. With furniture, at least, that association is interpretative and personal. As a descriptive term, ‘timeless’ may be more fitting.

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The Doors

doors play a vital role in house design

Beyond the obvious – the transition between inside and outside and one room to another – doors represent design on a less physical plane: things suggested like opportunity, mystery and security, to name a few. Door design also is a place where architecture and furniture have a chance to collaborate and merge beyond the usually commonplace and practical. At its most stripped-down basic element, a door is a slab or a panel that is still dynamic: by virtue of hinges, rollers or pivoting pins, it opens and closes creating or blocking a passage-way.

a door is a design tabula rasa

A door is a bonus in this regard – an occasion for expression of personal taste or vision. In the first example illustrated here, the homeowner’s surname began with H and he requested a design that would be a stylized iteration of that letter. Using mahogany, maple and glass, the 4′ x 7′ front door not only makes a powerfully contemporary design statement but also sets a commanding focal point for the building’s exterior and draws the visitor in to what surprises may await inside.

In the second example here of custom designed doors, pocket doors separating a dining room from the rest of the house achieved an almost ‘sculptural’ presence by insetting a pair East Indian rosewood room dividers into maple frames. The hand-carved dressing screens, brought back from the Indian sub-continent, add an elegant level of detail to what would’ve been a utilitarian pair of pocket doors.

custom doors get to play with shapes, proportions and materials

The use of a bowed rail, windows graduating in size that follow and highlight the curve, juxtaposed diagonals that draw the eye to the center of the space, the use of vertical paneling to provide a detail contrast with the surrounding frame and the use of mahogany with its rich, warm wood tones all contribute to a feeling that’s created by these garage doors. These are also some of the ‘tricks’ that a furniture designer might employ in crafting a one-of-a-kind cabinet.

A feeling or a sense of balance, intrigue, and ‘looking right’ because the parts are so well integrated together, but more than that, the doors themselves are an expression of the right combination of design, aesthetic and use.

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Wood and What Else?

I love wood; I love working with it, seeing it in its various stages of expression from raw plank to satin-polished surface. Sometimes, though, the use of a ‘complementary’ material in a design enhances wood’s ascendance and also creates a dialogue among the parts that adds depth and substance.

None of this is easy to achieve; in fact, it’s far easier to stick with one material rather than open up what could be a can of worms of interface problems and construction complications. The real trick, and it almost sounds oversimplified, is in designing a piece around the disparate parts rather than trying to make them fit together.

Here’s a brief account of one adventure I had with mixing materials:

A long term designer-client approached me with an intriguing project possibility: a client of his wanted a sideboard, or more specifically, a wine cabinet, and she really liked the look of ‘live edge’ slab tops. In the course of exploring some preliminary options, my designer friend (Chris Beggs of CBBeggs Interiors) suggested also using wrought iron, since the hallway railing was made of it, and some kind of ‘artisan glass’ as a foil to the wood. The design intent was to create a piece of furniture that would combine the uniqueness of its use with the one-of-a-kind nature of the materials.

As an aside, ‘wrought’ iron really means forged steel – commercially available ‘hot-rolled’ steel that is then heated again and worked, either hammered or twisted or bent into a new shape. The work is almost always done ‘by hand’ leaving certain irregularities that bear a signature of ‘character’. Another term for it is ‘blacksmithing’ and, like many other handcrafts, this one has fewer and fewer experienced practitioners.

A ‘live edge’ slab or top is a plank of wood that is sawed and/or milled on just 2 faces; the sides are left wild, or just as they were in the tree – facing the outside. Oftentimes, bark is purposely left on those edges to ‘tell the tale’ with even more graphic emphasis.

‘Artisan glass’ is a broad category that includes any glass formed, slumped or blown that is made using ‘by hand’ processes. Stained glass also falls into this group.

My job, first, was to generate a design that integrated the 3 disparate materials that would make them parts of the whole. The steel, the most structural component, needed to convey a feeling of strength, support, simplicity and yet agility. Its dimensions did not need to be overpowering to convey this; in fact, because of its inherent strength, the thickness of steel parts can be fairly minimal, say, compared to wood. Playing a ‘supporting’ role, the wrought iron should be in the background and not be too self-conscious in the overall design, potentially upstaging the wood which would have the star role in this cast. The choice of the wood was driven, first, by what’s available milled with a slab edge and second, by how its color and grain would ‘play’ with the qualities of the steel/wrought iron. I chose claro walnut because of its rich hue, figured grain characteristics and excellent carving qualities – I’d thought of a way to lend the wood a feeling of being ‘hand-wrought’ like the steel by chip carving the end of the slab:

Lastly, I designed ‘twists’ in steel legs to give them a sense of fluidity or movement which runs contrary to the way steel is usually perceived.

Solving the glass ‘problem’ was not so easy. Glass, like metal, is a ‘cold’ material as opposed to wood which is ‘warm’. Cold materials feel cold to the touch because they are heat sinks; that is, they siphon heat off of the body. I went through many samples of hand made glass seeking one that played with the wood rather than overpowered it and also conveyed a feeling of more warmth than ‘coolth’. Finally, almost accidentally, I hit upon a variety of stained glass that both complemented and mirrored the figure in the claro walnut and was still translucent. At the same time, its color played off of the wine bottles in the adjacent racks. Bingo:

All in all, this project, through a process of discovery, achieved a design resolution based upon sensitivity to the materials’ qualities, then highlighting their strengths and harnessing the design to a coherent expression of those qualities and how they worked together. There is a resulting sense of wholeness and integrity that results from such a respect for the materials and using the ensuing design as a vehicle to showcase their qualities rather than the other way around.



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A Case for Custom

You’ve taken on a lot in choosing to redo your kitchen or build the addition or create a study or rec-room in the basement. The parade of problems, alternatives, solutions and decisions has seemed endless and has left you questioning your sanity for having taken this project on in the first place. With construction being almost complete, it seems like the end is in sight, and yet, suddenly, there is one more gamut to run: choosing the furnishings.
Seems like a no-brainer at this point – you’ve sunk a small fortune into structural, mechanical and cosmetic upgrades to your property, why would you want to draw the process out and spend any more than is absolutely necessary? Any furniture product from the ‘box stores’ would certainly be adequate, save time and money and draw the difficult process of ‘upgrade’ to an expeditious close.

Here’s why: even though it’s the last step, the way you furnish your project, whether it’s new construction or a room tune-up, will be the part with which you most closely interact. These are items you will use, look at, touch and also present to the rest of the world as what represents your home. While the structural alterations may have created the space, your choices for furnishing it will have a greater impact upon how you use that space; putting the time and money into getting what works the best for you is a worthy investment. In the relative scheme of things, choosing to have something made for your space and to your specifications will end up being a bargain.

Breakfast bar with custom cabinets to match the existing kitchen, live edge walnut slab and custom designed and built bar stools

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Original Design or One-off or Knock-off?

euclid tableThese terms are often bandied about when describing unusual or unique products, particularly regarding furniture. Is there any difference between them? Does it matter? The purist might argue that in order to preserve its integrity, a design must be without recognizable precedent. While that might be valid for a device or mechanical invention, it doesn’t practically apply to a piece of furniture, any of which has some kind of an antecedent. In fact, successful – that is, comfortable, useful, enduring and beautiful – furniture pieces are derived or evolved from others that have come before. In the purest sense, to be unique means to start from scratch with each project which is neither practical nor desirable. That said, a skillful designer might want to avoid the pitfall of reworking some other original design into just a replica or a ‘knockoff’. One of the fascinating aspects about furniture design, though, is that in altering dimensions or toying with proportions or details or transitions, what is familiar and maybe even commonplace can be transformed into something extraordinary if not technically unique.

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a fine finishing primer

What is the finest finish for my furniture?

I hear this question a lot. My stock answer: it depends on what you want.

What will you be using the piece for?

How much use/traffic will it get?

What kind of look do you want?

Do you want the finish to be repairable?

For all the variables, there are only two basic choices for fine finishing: lacquer or oil.

By ‘lacquer’, I mean any finish that lays on top of the furniture surface. This includes varnish, polyurethane, acrylic, latex as well as the so-called ‘high tech’ finishes like polyester, catalyzed varnish and catalyzed polyurethane.

fine finishing - lacquer


These are also called ‘film finishes’.




Film finish? This is a trade term referring to a material that’s laid on either by brush or spray. It goes on as a liquid and when the solvents evaporate, a ‘sheet’ or ‘film’ of the material remains, wrapping the piece of furniture.


Oil is any product, mainly linseed, tung or soy derivative, that penetrates the surface of the wood and forms a bond called a polymerized finish.

fine finishing - oil on cherry


Polymerized finish? Not as complicated as it sounds. This refers to any finishing material that penetrates the surface of the wood, joins with the wood fibers and through the heat generated from hand-rubbing, forms a protective layer that’s actually part of the wood itself.

Aren’t there more choices?


That’s basically it. Sure, there are slight differences between lacquer and varnish and polyurethane but that has more to do with performance than with kind. Besides, nowadays with much tighter regulations on the amount of fumes allowed in the evaporation period, more and more film finishes are waterborne and/or blends of many kinds of materials. It’s hard to find a lacquer anymore that’s pure nitrocellulose lacquer – the old stuff – and not an acrylic. Polyurethane and varnish are both blends now of many different substances all meant to limit the amount of ‘fuming-off’ during the drying process.

The only other choice that a film finish offers is sheen level. That is, you can specify glossy, satin or matte.

With oil, there used to be only linseed oil and tung oil. Nowadays a new variety is available that’s made from soy products and has superior polymerizing – read protective – qualities. It even smells wholesome.

Oil’s sheen level is somewhere between matte and satin, depending on the wood and how vigorously it’s rubbed.


No one size fits all: there are pros and cons to each approach

A film finish has the reputation for providing better protection against damage from moisture and scratches; however, this feature can be misleading.

For one thing, the surface hardness and resistance to scratches, dings and dents is only as sound as the substrate; that is, even if you put the toughest finish on a softer species of wood, its scratch resistance is less than optimal.

For another thing, wood moves (see wood for not-woodworkers). As wood expands and contracts, it opens up tiny fissures in the film finish surface. Each of these cracks has the potential for allowing moisture to penetrate the surface and get between the wood and the film finish. Usually this occurs when liquid is left standing for extended periods of time on the furniture. Haziness in the finish, ‘clouds’ or white areas and particularly white rings are evidence that moisture has penetrated the film finish.

Few if any film finish moves elastically with wood. The very hardness that supposedly protects the surface eventually causes its degradation and decline. The harder the material, the more brittle it becomes over time, the less it moves with wood’s expansion and contraction and the more cracks and fissures open up, further compromising its seal. (In my humble opinion, film finishes are better suited for veneered pieces of furniture which aren’t prone to as much movement as solid wood and also need the protection that lacquer affords).

Polymerized finishes are not as scratch and moisture resistant as film finishes. Some would say they require more care and attention than lacquer finishes, which is true at face value; however, one of the primary advantages of oil finishes is that they can be spot repaired. If a scratch or other damage does occur, that area can be fixed without compromising the finish of the rest of the piece. With lacquer finishes, the whole surface must be stripped in order to perform a repair and then it must be refinished.

Perhaps the biggest pro or con to either kind of fine finish has to do with its look and this is an entirely subjective value. There are those who love to see a certain sheen level uniformly highlighting the surface of a well-made, handcrafted piece of furniture. Others prefer not to have something between them and the wood obscuring the figure and grain qualities they love so well. Over time and through many hands on it, an oiled piece develops a patina which has an alluring quality of its own, a testimony to its usefulness.

How a piece is finished represents the final choice of the soon-to-be owner of a custom made piece of furniture and the last touch of maker. It’s the culmination of a long process and while it’s probably the simplest stage, fine finishing is the most crucial on so many levels. An ill-considered choice or a hasty conclusion can compromise the integrity of an otherwise exemplary effort.



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Custom Millwork by peaslee design

Desk1RszThese days, it isn’t always easy to let your furniture make a statement about who you are and what you want your home to be. In this age of mass production, it seems the only statement you can make is the one the mass furniture manufacturers will make for you and everyone else. At peaslee design I want to change that. I offer professional custom millwork and have crafted custom wood furniture – including custom wood tables, custom wood chairs, and custom wood cabinets – for many satisfied clients. With the ability to design and craft just about any type of custom millwork you can think of, peaslee design creates custom wood furniture that is entirely personal and unique to each client.

Custom Wood Tables

One type of custom wood furniture that I produce is custom wood tables. The centerpiece of any dining area, the family table is where stories are shared and memories made – if you want to make a statement with your furniture, a custom milled table is a great way to do it. Custom wood tables can be as conservative or bold as you want, designed and built with your custom design in mind. I will create a table that is your table, generated from your concept, an heirloom-worthy piece that can be handed down from generation to generation.

Custom Wood Chairs

Many of my clients believe no custom table is complete without a set of custom wood chairs. The best thing about custom chairs is you can order as many as you think you’ll need. Order more if you have a large family or entertain often, and order less if your dinner parties are regularly small and quaint. Order every chair the same or in two different designs – one design for the side chairs and another design for chairs at the head and foot of your custom table.

Custom Wood Cabinets

Many people don’t pay much attention to their cabinets – which is unfortunate considering how much space cabinets take up in a person’s field of view. Every inch of cabinetry and potential cabinetry is square footage that you could make truly your own with the help of custom millwork from peaslee design. No matter where you want to install custom wood cabinets, from the kitchen to the bathroom and from the basement to the bedroom, I can transform cabinet space into conversation pieces that are absolutely striking and practical one-of-a-kind creations.

Custom Millwork

On top of looking amazing, my custom millwork is made strong and built to last. I sell my pieces as heirloom worthy because that is exactly what they are. All you need are loved ones to pass your custom furniture down to, and my furniture can serve your family for generations. Contact peaslee design today. I look forward to working with you. Write to me at [email protected] or, if you’d prefer to talk, call me at 845-594-1352.

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Custom Built‑Ins for Your Home

peaslee design can design and build strikingly beautiful custom built‑ins for your home. In the 24 years I’ve been operating independently, I’ve gained depth and breadth of experience and have become accomplished at my craft. Your imagination coupled with my expertise can create custom built‑ins that are works of art. My one‑of‑a‑kind creations will be a realization of how you envision your living space. If you’d like to take that step and turn your vision into reality, choosing custom built‑ins from peaslee design is a reliable way to get there.

Your custom built‑ins are created with your collaboration. The products handcrafted at peaslee design are not just created with you in mind, they are generated from your direct input.  I guide you step by step through the conceptual process, help you to articulate what you have in mind, produce renderings and shop drawings to flesh out your ideas and then plug in my expertise to bring your ideas to life.  This will truly be your signature piece.

Many of my customers come back again and again; they recognize this process as something that resonates with them. At peaslee design my intention is to provide you with originally conceived items that are tailored to your needs. I use the highest quality and most appropriate materials in all my cabinets and furniture. This is part of what gives your custom built‑ins value unavailable from more conventional stock cabinetry. By choosing peaslee design to help you create your custom built‑ins, you are adding substantial value to your home as well as to the way you live.

I believe custom built‑ins are an effective and practical way to connect you and your family to the place you call home. Custom built‑ins help to convert your home into a personal home.  Some of the custom work I’ve designed include:

• Entertainment Centers
• Custom Libraries
• Murphy Beds
• Cherry Kitchens
• Home Office Desks
• Bathroom Vanities
• And more

peaslee design custom built‑ins are thoughtfully developed, handcrafted using time‑honored techniques, durable for a lifetime of use as well as enhancing your living space. You’ll be delighted with your custom built‑ins in no small part because you’ve been so integral to bringing them to life.

Custom built‑ins often become the focal points of rooms. peaslee design custom built‑ins as individualized expressions turn out to be show‑stoppers. My approach to custom design is about personalizing style. I know that you’ll enjoy the whole experience, start to finish, of expressing yourself with truly authentic and tailored custom built‑ins. At peaslee design building custom creations is not something I sometimes do, building custom creations is all I do. Everything I do is held up to the highest standard, your standard.

I guarantee you’ll love your custom built‑ins from peaslee design. Go through the different tabs of the peaslee design website, get some ideas of what I can do for you and then give me a call. I look forward to working with you.

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