In 1990, 23-year-old Heinz Gautschi left his home in Bonau, in northeast Switzerland, intending to travel around the world as a journeyman woodworker and electrician.
His mistake, at least for his travel plans, was first coming to New Orleans.
"One night turned to five nights," he said, beginning a story familiar to New Orleanians.
Gautschi, 43, did continue to travel for several months, but after a three-month return to Switzerland, he emigrated to New Orleans -- "and I never left," he said.
In the intervening years, Gautschi has immersed himself in his trade, applying the meticulous skill of his Swiss training to the facelifts of New Orleans' rich historic housing stock.
His company, Gautschi Holz Works, ("holz" is "wood" in German), specializes in millwork and historic renovation, but Gautschi also makes furniture and works in contemporary styles.
"The freedom I have with (the business) is beautiful," he said. "I love the diversity."
Finding a niche
Gautschi wasn't so much raised in the trade as incentivized into it.
"The way we were raised in my family, when you wanted something and you didn't really need it, my dad's favorite thing was to say, 'You can get whatever you want -- as long as you pay for it.'"
So, at 13, Gautschi started working at a carpentry shop, and at 16, he began apprenticing as an electrician. He initially set his sights on becoming a pattern-maker, carving patterns for iron casting, but "that profession was dying out," he said. "The field was too specialized."
He ended up becoming a certified electrician, which led to a well-paying, secure job. But Gautschi wasn't satisfied.
"I made a lot of money in Switzerland, an ungodly amount of money for my age," he said. "My personal satisfaction is more important than the money."
Upon emigrating to America, Gautschi worked with master carpenter and millworker Ron Tipton, who showed him the spectrum of New Orleans architecture.
Gautschi spent long nights studying the composition of historic building components, taking apart window frames to understand them better.
"You need to take the time to analyze how it's made and what is the possible reason it's made like that," Gautschi said.
He opened his own shop in 1997, first under the name Crescent Woodworks, with the financial backing of Cindy Keuffer, who encouraged him to stay in America when Gautschi was considering returning to Switzerland. It was her support that kept Gautschi in the States and led him to open Gautschi Holz Works in 2000 and, in 2007, G-Moebel, his furniture business.
"She basically said, '(New Orleans) needs somebody like you,'" he recalled.
Inside the business
In his Lower Garden District workshop, Gautschi's labor of the past 20 years shows.
An intricate transom, a duplicate from a custom order he particularly liked, hangs from one of the metal rafters. Deep cubbies hold dozens of molding samples.
In the middle of the shop, Gautschi recently worked on a contemporary-looking bench, which he was planning to display at the New Orleans Home + Interior Design Show.
One component, a 13-by-4-inch beam with a sanded-down white tint, rested between two stands. The beam would become the bench top. Gautschi examined the curvature of the bench's two legs, shaped into slender parabolas and ready to be set into the underside of the bench seat.
Gautschi had spent 30 hours working on the minimalist piece, and he was only three-quarters finished, he said.
"I knew it was difficult to make, but it was more time-consuming than I expected," he said. "The problem is figuring it out. I've never made this design before."
Such time-consuming projects eat away at more lucrative business, such as fashioning sets of moldings from his many patterns, but for Gautschi, variety and challenge are more important than making piles of money or having loads of free time, he said.
"I don't have a problem being here until 2 or 3 in the morning figuring something out," he said. "I'll have (WW)OZ on, listen to music, have a party in here."
And, because it's New Orleans, the party often grows, as friends stop by with beers and hang out.
"I'm definitely very fortunate I can do what I do here and having creativity," he said. "Driving through the city I can say, 'I made that.'"
Molly Reid can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3448.
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