An unlikely muse—unique and meticulously restored vintage automobiles and motorcycles—serves to inspire the work of Joe Fratello, a sculptor, architectural woodworker and furniture maker living deep in Manorville’s pine barrens.
Mr. Fratello, 59, has been sculpting forms from wood and metal since he was a teenager growing up in Northport Village in western Suffolk County. In addition to designing and crafting wall units and cabinets, he also sculpts and carves wall moldings like roses and cornucopias.
Pursuing his other passions, Mr. Fratello also restores automobiles such as the British-made AC Aceca, and motorcycles like the Italian Ducati Elite. This dovetailing of his great loves not only influences his furniture-making and sculptures but also provides an additional outlet for his abundant creativity.
“It’s burning in me since I was a kid,” Mr. Fratello said about his duel enthusiasm for design and car restoration. “It’s in my blood.”
Mr. Fratello’s workshop, a garage heated by a blue wood-burning stove and attached to his large contemporary home on Mill Road in Manorville, provides a convenient area when inspiration suddenly strikes. A tomato-red Ferrari Dino 246 sits in one corner of the space, three motorcycles sit in another, and cans of paint for his sculptures sit in rows on shelves along a wall.
Mr. Fratello’s home, which is contemporary on the outside, is surrounded by a smattering of his metallic sculptures painted in primary colors. Inside, impressive wall units and detailed moldings are tucked into every corner of the house.
Although Mr. Fratello and his family moved to Manorville in 1989, the home didn’t arrive at its current, completed state for about 10 years, as Mr. Fratello needed time to work on the interior.
“I don’t really know what style you would call this house,” Mr. Fratello said of the mélange of differing influences and design elements.
The majority of Mr. Fratello’s clients live in the wealthy Nassau County enclaves of Brookville Village and Old Brookville, though he also has clients in Manhattan and on the East End. The designer has been working with some of his customers for nearly 20 years, and now even works with the second generation of some families.
Mr. Fratello said he has never had to advertise his work as he’s known mainly by word-of-mouth. He does custom-designed and commissioned pieces in addition to the original creations for which he is known.
“He’s an enormously gifted man,” said David Jackier, Mr. Fratello’s sculpture teacher from Northport High School, with whom he still keeps in touch. “He’s a top-notch craft man. His work is masterful in terms of craftsmanship and it’s inventive.”
That very same inventiveness, and a larger than average dose of curiosity, are what keep Mr. Fratello interested in so many of his passions. He said that the hunt of finding the perfect automobile part keeps him interested in car restoration and that he is just as passionate about that hobby as he is about making furniture. Mr. Fratello even writes letters in German and Italian to get original, authentic parts for his cars and motorcycles to be shipped to the United States from Europe.
It does not come as a surprise that the furniture maker and sculptor also enjoys doing the painting and bodywork on the automobiles himself.
He explained that he enjoys a wide variety of creative expression, just as long as he can pursue his passions ... and keep paying the bills by doing what he loves.
Counting yet another set of skills in his arsenal, Mr. Fratello explained that he is considered to be a “motif” artist, meaning that he knows how to identify motif designs from any era and can then sculpt them himself. He frequently uses his motif skills when decorating a room or creating commissioned pieces.
Learning a variety of artistic skills has been imperative to Mr. Fratello, who said that versatility is what keeps him busy.
“I’m a realist, I do busts of people and I do abstract art, too,” Mr. Fratello said about the style of his work. “I enjoy both ends equally.”
Mr. Fratello’s showroom is a testament to his diversity as an artist and craftsman. The large room, which sits adjacent to his workshop, is decorated in rich hues of maroon, green and mustard akin to the color palette used by the Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli.
The current centerpiece of the eclectic space is a large abstract piece in a gilded, antique-looking frame, which takes up nearly one entire wall. This painting, as well as the room in general, seems to exemplify Mr. Fratello’s ease with mixing styles from different eras and schools of creativity.
In addition to the oversized painting, the showroom also houses two restored motorcycles, a deep-red and carved wall unit, and a number of hand-crafted cabinets. One of the cabinets depicts a love story in the style of the Renaissance artists and features gold leaf. The whimsical piece invokes spiritual stirrings in the artist.
“I nicknamed it ‘The Trinity,’ but I’m not religious, I’m just having fun,” Mr. Fratello said.
Next to the Medieval-looking, ornately decorated cabinet is a piece of furniture that is 180 degrees different in terms of style. That more modern-looking piece, called “Three Shapes,” features a triangle, circle and square in the design.
Each shape is cut into the three drawers of the table and all are connected by brightly colored piping. Continuing the pattern of threes, the piece sits on three legs.
“I had to work for four years to get this thing to sculpturally suspend,” Mr. Fratello said about “Three Shapes.” He explained that it took a lot of trial and error to achieve the final product.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Mr. Fratello honed his artistic skills in order to make a successful living out of his artwork. First, he undertook apprenticeships at well-known Long Island companies Klaus Kiess in Port Washington and Old World Moulding in Bohemia. He later worked at Directional, a now-closed Manhattan contemporary furniture design company.
“I learned the old world ways of working wood,” Mr. Fratello said about his work at Klaus Kiess.
During those apprenticeships, Mr. Fratello learned how to take his natural sculptural talent and channel it into something more lucrative. “The arts are an unforgiving world—you have to be able to do something,” he said.
After working at Directional, Mr. Fratello set out on his own. He opened his own showroom in his hometown of Northport and worked out of there for about eight years before moving to Manorville in 1989. Explaining his reason for moving east, Mr. Fratello said he sought a refuge from “the madding crowds” of western Suffolk and Nassau counties.
“It’s all woods, it’s the country,” Mr. Fratello said about his new home. “It’s desolate, I wanted to live here for the isolation.”
Creativity runs deep in Mr. Fratello’s blood. His parents, Joseph and Francesca, who hail from Italy, were artistic but never had an opportunity to fully realize their talents, he said. His father owned a factory that manufactured church candles in Brooklyn.
But Mr. Fratello’s siblings leaned toward the arts, too. His brother, Liborio, 60, who lives in Smithtown, made a living as an artist in Italy before moving to America. And his sister, Claire, 51, studied art history in Italy as well. She currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Mr. Fratello credits his parents with fostering the creative drives of his family. “They were very supportive of us, of art,” he said during a rare moment of restive stillness before diving back into his work.
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