On the Cutting Edge in the Brookfield Hills
Vance Smith and Al Wilker, who live and work at tteir home on Ridge Road in Brookfield, are in the happy position of being exactly where they want to be, doing exactly what they want to do.
What they do—designing, engineering and making models of stoves—used to be done only in big factories. Vance, however, works out of an office on one end of their home and Al has a shop filled with an astonishing array of high tech equipment in three bays of what used to be an oversized garage.
"I commute across the kitchen and Al commutes across the dooryard," said Vance. "Two things we don’t have are meetings and employees. We’ll never have employees, unless you count our dog, Fredericka. We get a lot done without a lot of corporate distractions."
And they’re very successful at it. "Hearth and Home" magazine, which profiled them at length several years ago, noted that "the hearth products of Vance Smith and Al Wilker integrate form and function. They have become the standard of our industry."
The couple, who now work exclusively for Jotul North America, a subsidiary of a Norwegian company, met almost 20 years ago, when Al was a pattern maker for Vermont Castings. Vance had worked there earlier and left in 1980 to form Red House Design.
"She started at Castings in the early days of the company and designed most of what they did back then," Al explained.
"Randolph occupies a unique niche in the wood stove world," Vance noted. "It’s the Mecca of wood stoves. Central Vermont is still a hotbed of stove design. Vermont Castings spawned quite an alumni association."
In 1991, the couple’s world changed radically when Vance was diagnosed with melanoma, which metastasized in 1994. In 1998, when Al left Vermont Castings and took over Red House Design, Vance semi-retired.
A proud cancer survivor, Vance looks vital and healthy, but wears a black cloth sleeve/fingerless glove on her right arm and hand to protect her skin. The cancer damaged her radial nerve and she lost the use of her thumb on that hand, severely hampering her ability to do the finely detailed drawing she was known for.
"I tried to be left-handed for a while, but my left-handed writing didn’t appeal to me," said Vance. "My business is about the way things look."
Although her hand is impaired, today’s high tech computerized design programs mean that her ability to work is not.
"Now we do together what we used to do as separate entities," Vance said.
"When Vance had to slow down, we had to change the way we worked together," said Al. "She’s the creative genius. My biggest strength is that I understand and can interpret her ideas. I can take the idea out of her mind and translate her vision into a product."
Their main work is the design, engineering, modeling, prototyping and pattern production of stoves and fireplaces, mostly in cast iron, "but we’ve also done the random oddball job like designing a line of accessories for a start-up American heavy cruising motorcycle, the gazebo in downtown Randolph, or a line of cast iron garden furniture," Vance noted.
"We feel lucky because in today’s world we can live here in ‘God’s country’ and with modern communication technology, we can still do what we do," Al said. "I can e-mail designs to Norway and get feedback very soon after."
"Working at home does distance you though," Vance commented. "We can sit out here and cocoon ourselves and not go into town for two or three days. When he was still going into the office, six days a week, it was quite different."
"Our work is our vocation and our hobby," Al said. "I think one reason that living together and working together works so well for us, is because both of us had parents who worked together. We grew up hearing business discussed at the dinner table, so it seems natural to us."
Spending time with Al and Vance, you observe the easy give and take of a happy couple who have been together a long time. They finish each other’s sentences and say they often communicate with just a word or two.
"I love her and I love living here," Al notes with a grin.
"We’re really very fortunate," Vance concludes.
By Martha Slater