When John Thayer designs a piece of furniture or cabinetry for one of his clients, he often builds a scale model first. It prevents misunderstandings, Mr. Thayer said, gesturing to an unfinished dining-room table the size of a skateboard in his workshop on Lagoon Pond Road. 

“The drawings only tell you so much,” he said. And don’t even ask about computer-aided design. “We’re not a CAD shop,” said Mr. Thayer, whose bespoke furniture and interiors are found in some of the Vineyard’s most stunning homes. 

Aloft.
Jeanna Shepard

“I was trained by grumpy old men,” he added, with the hint of a twinkle that often accompanies his words. 

By no means grumpy himself, Mr. Thayer doesn’t waste any time getting straight to the point — whether answering a question with practical examples, demonstrating hardware options or vanquishing design dilemmas with a miniature rendering.

“I’m not into meetings and drawings,” he said. “They don’t really resolve anything.”

Mr. Thayer’s small-scale pieces and hands-on approach to design give him a place in the Martha’s Vineyard tradition practiced by celebrated 20th-century boat builders Manuel Swartz Roberts of Edgartown and, later, Erford Burt of Vineyard Haven, who created small wooden half-models of the boats they were making for the skippers who commissioned them. 

John's 1952 Bass boat was built in the shed where his shop is now.
Jeanna Shepard

In fact, when he moved to the Vineyard more than 40 years ago, Mr. Thayer first worked as a boat builder himself, for Tom Hale at the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard. Later on, he built floats for SailMV when the Island youth sailing program was just getting started. 

Now he’s got a foot in both worlds: His expansive workshop, a former boat shed at what was once Burt’s Boatyard on Lagoon Pond, opens directly onto the Martha’s Vineyard Marina, where he keeps a 1952 bass boat that was built in that same shed.

A curved teak bench shows the influence of nautical design.
Design Associates

You could think of him as a boatbuilder for homes. The graceful lines of the Swartz Roberts boat models — Mr. Thayer has some of these collector’s items in his workshop — are echoed in many of the indoor and outdoor pieces he has created over the years for Vineyard clients. His curving outdoor benches, sofa tables with subtly arched edges, scroll-back chairs and elegantly practical demilune tables are not only good-looking, but are handmade in Vineyard Haven with high-quality materials and finishes. Built to last, they are destined to be heirlooms in future generations.  

Dining table, chairs, and sidebar for a client.
Robert Schellhammer

By necessity, John and his team of four to six year-round workers can only take on so many clients. The fit has to be right, too. But once a relationship is established, it often lasts for years and can extend well beyond furniture and interiors. One recent afternoon, as Mr. Thayer and some of his workers were preparing the shop for an expected tidal surge from tropical storm Jose, others were in the paint room finishing segments of porch railing — not an everyday job for the Thayer shop.

“It’s for a customer who has been with us for a long, long time,” he said. “We do anything he wants us to do.”

Other commissions include a dining room table that could fit the inhabitants of a Viking longhouse — he won’t even say how many yards long it is, out of respect for the client’s privacy — and accompanying chairs.

A demi-lune table in English sycamore.
Robert Schellhammer

Once a design has been approved, the next challenge is color. Mr. Thayer’s paint room is lined with wood samples, each one stained, bleached or painted in a different finish. “We have a huge range of color,” Mr. Thayer said. Clients sign off on their chosen finishes before the work is done — once again, to prevent disagreements over the final product.

Special requests, such as inlaid compass roses on a sideboard, are not unusual, but there are some things that won’t fly. “We just don’t do reclaimed wood,” Mr. Thayer said. 

No doubt there are hundreds of beautiful Thayer pieces in homes all over Martha’s Vineyard, but short of trespassing, we can take a peek at some of them here on this page and in the galleries of work on his website, johnthayer.com. Galleries include not only tables and chairs but bureaus, vanities, interiors and even a line of campaign furniture inspired by the portable desks of military leaders in past centuries. Naturally.

Louisa Hufstader is a journalist and cheesemonger in Edgartown.