Sept. 14, 2001
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In Memoriam
Conference gets jiggy with creativity
Cabinetmaker builds career crafting raw wood into pieces with Jeffersonian elegance
Robbie Campbell
Cabinetmaker Robbie Campbell restores and reproduces period furniture and details in the Academical Village and elsewhere on Grounds.

Cabinetmaker builds career crafting raw wood into pieces with Jeffersonian elegance

By Matt Kelly

When special announcements are made in the Dome Room of the Rotunda, they are usually made from behind Robbie Campbell’s podium.

Campbell, a carpenter supervisor in the University’s cabinetmaking shop, built the podium to specifications designed by J. Murray Howard, curator and architect for the Academical Village.

“We were making some decorative modifications in the Rotunda and we thought the podium needed to reflect the building,” Howard said. The podium, in the Dome Room of the Rotunda, is used for special occasions.

Howard’s design was standard 18th-century church lectern, with elements that drew from the building. The podium was built from mahogany, reflecting the wood used in the handrails. The podium panels echo the windows and the base of the podium matches the rail that runs around the base of the Dome Room itself.

“It’s not as big as some — and it rolls,” said Howard.

The design needed a skilled craftsman and Campbell, 47, was just the man for the job: he had already built a podium for the music department in Old Cabell Hall.

The podium took Campbell two weeks to build, because, he said, not only is mahogany a hard wood, but a sound system and amplifier were built into the structure. He said the top two panels of the podium are not wood but speaker cloth and the amplifier is connected to the Dome Room’s sound system. Plus, Howard’s design specified intricate moldings, which Campbell had to cut in separate pieces and then nail together in place.

“We do all the pavilion restoration,” said University cabinetmaker Robbie Campbell, whose shop has recently built fireplace mantles, made from 150-year-old, recovered heart pine, for the renovated rooms on the Lawn. Kenny Graham, a carpenter for Facilities Management, replaces the doorsill on Lawn Room 44.

“I knew where it was going, a lot of people would see it, so it had to be a piece of furniture, not just an ordinary podium,” he said. “There was some added pressure, knowing it was going to be in the Dome Room, it had to be real nice.”

While he crafted a lot of the detail, Campbell said he did not do everything.

“Howard got someone else to sandblast the Rotunda emblem and the Z in the podium,” Campbell said.

Howard said he was very pleased with Campbell’s execution of his design.

“Robbie is wonderful to work with, so attentive to what needs to be done. His skill level has improved in the over 19 years I have known him,” Howard said.

“I try to put quality in all my work,” Campbell said. “I believe if it’s done right in the first place, people won’t call you back and say it needs to be fixed.”

Like a true craftsman, Campbell signs his pieces in hidden places. In addition to the podium, he and his crew have been replacing some of the mantle pieces in the Lawn rooms. Campbell said he and others signed the mantle pieces so when they are again replaced, years from now, those carpenters will be able to see whose work they are replacing. They used 150-year-old pine for the job.

Campbell, who has been a cabinetmaker for the University for 22 years, has been a woodworker throughout his adult life, after getting into the business as a fluke. He had graduated from Albemarle High School in 1972 and was having a graduation lunch at Jak’n’Jill’s restaurant on High Street when Lee Hall, his cousin’s husband, approached him and asked him what he was going to do with himself. When Campbell said he was looking for a job, Hall suggested he report to Hall Brothers custom cabinetmakers. After a trip to New Orleans, Campbell took him up on the offer. Campbell spent six years with Hall Brothers, starting out sanding, then moving up through cutting, case work, counter tops and installation, learning the trade from Pete Hall, who learned the trade from his father.

While he learned at the hands of an old-fashioned cabinetmaker, Campbell said the more sophisticated modern tools make the work easier. He does not long for the old days of woodworking.

“I’m intrigued by how long it took them to do things years ago,” Campbell said, noting that he does not want to duplicate their effort.

Campbell said he is still excited about his work.

As a University cabinetmaker, he has built countertops, windows, doors and moldings, as well as cabinets.

“I’m still learning,” he said.

One challenge he tackled required making and installing arched cabinets for the Medical Center in the old hospital, cabinets that extended into a hall and had a retractable countertop. Campbell said the designer got the idea from cabinets on his sailboat.

“I like to take a raw piece of wood and make it into something,” Campbell said.


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