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Cartographic coffee tables chart the history of Kansas City

Furniture maker and antique restorer Stuart Brown is surrounded by tools in his shop. Brown crafts cartographic coffee tables that feature historical maps etched in tempered glass.
Furniture maker and antique restorer Stuart Brown is surrounded by tools in his shop. Brown crafts cartographic coffee tables that feature historical maps etched in tempered glass. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

What happens when an English-born furniture maker and a Kansas City attorney with an eye for design put their heads together? An artistic celebration of location that you can rest your coffee cup on.

The idea began a few years back, when attorney Scott Kaiser began a quest to decorate his newly renovated 1925 Brookside home with artwork and decor relevant to the time the house was constructed. This led him into library collections, where he discovered historical Kansas City maps that were as artistic as they were informational: plats of the Country Club Plaza, trolley trails, J.C Nichols company sales maps.

“I realized these aren’t just maps, this is art,” Kaiser says. “If you display them right, frame them right, they have great font, they have negative space, they are really cool.”

The aesthetics of these cartographic treasures inspired Kaiser and his father to design a table that would feature a map’s image, professionally restored, etched in glass and set inside a midcentury-inspired hardwood frame. Enter local furniture maker Stuart Brown, owner of Tudor Woodworks and a gregarious perfectionist whose skill and attention to detail elevated the tables to the level of art. A partnership was born.

The two men formed Karte, a Kansas City-based furniture company offering custom cartographic coffee tables, what they call statement pieces for those who want to celebrate the power of place to define us.

How do you select the maps you use in your collection and offer to potential clients?

Kaiser: Not every map is a great map to use for this kind of project, so we’ve spent a lot of time sifting through collections to find at least three of the best maps of a given area in all 50 states that best represent the cities or landmarks within them…

The maps that are a part of our collection have been carefully curated and edited for quality. But if someone comes to us with their own map, we’ll use it. At the end of the day, it’s about celebrating a place that’s really important to them. The essence of this product is that people are very passionate about where they live, and they want to celebrate that within their living space with a custom-made product.

Were you inspired by a seeming push from consumers toward hyper-localization?

Kaiser: Definitely. People are buying everything local, they’re buying bread local and T-shirts with LA, KC, NYC written on it. Still, we saw a gap inside the local movement of the more durable high-end finishes and thought, “This is the right time for (Karte) to jump into those uncharted waters. Nobody else is doing this.”

We’re using local fabricators, local contacts, but these tables have a national appeal and relevance.

Is it fair to say that these pieces will become heirlooms for the people who purchase them?

Brown: Every piece I build will outlast me.

Do you think about that a lot?

Brown: Only when people don’t want to pay my prices (laughs). But that’s what people get: pieces that they can hand down through their family members, heirloom-quality furniture.

You’ve gone through several prototypes before launching Karte earlier this year. How did the table’s design improve along the way?

Kaiser: Stuart invented a hidden joint that works really well on this table, a mortise and tenon joint with an inverted spline.

Brown: As far as I’m aware — and I’ve been in this business since I was 7 years old — I’m the first person to use this particular joinery. I inverted that joint especially for this table after Scott said he didn’t want to see it on (the outside leg of the table). If you don’t have good joineryin furniture — and really most modern furniture does not — it falls apart.

Kaiser: We also have our tolerances figured out, which leads to better quality. And Stuart’s come up with a way to make this table so that it can actually be disassembled and shipped, which is huge.

With its midcentury-inspired lines and angles, how does this table fit with other design elements in terms of style?

Kaiser: We wanted these tables to play nice with a lot of different furniture, to fit within a more traditional living room, but also feel at home with more contemporary decor as well. The metal-framed tables obviously would do better in a loft/condo environment.

To learn more about the tables, go to kartecollection.com.

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