With 60 exhibitors and an expected draw of about 2,000, this year's event is far smaller and more narrowly focused than it once was. No doubt it could be way bigger if cast as a full-blown craft show, but craft shows aren't the boon for furniture-makers that you might think.
"Eighty percent of the people at craft shows are women looking for jewelry and wearables, and when you're a furniture-maker at a show like that, you're wondering, 'Where's my consumer?' They pass by your booth," says Markel, show director and an exhibitor who's been making furniture for 35 years.
So small is good, as is the focus on "furniture and furnishings," whether modern, traditional, or transitional. The mix makes for an unusually intimate experience for artisans and visitors alike.
"There is a part of the public that wants something made by someone they know, that allows them to visit with the actual person making it," says Jay Paulukonis, a glass artist from the Scranton area. He and his wife, Mary Ann, work with fused and slumped glass, similar to stained glass, making pieces that range from $30 to $300.
"You get more than just something to use. You own a piece of handmade work that the artist was really interested in making and that will last a long time," Paulukonis says.
Bradford Smith, a furniture-maker from Lansdale, has been in the show since it began. "I do well enough to keep returning. All you need is a couple decent sales," he says.
Actually, a couple of sales is very decent, considering that "studio furniture" - pieces made one at a time, rather than mass-produced - can cost a few hundred or tens of thousands of dollars and are rarely an impulse purchase. (Markel estimates the show generates about 30 commissions a year.)
More often, the deal is sealed over time, as the relationship between artist and client is nurtured, year after year, at the show.
"Very few people walk in and buy something the first time. They come back again and again," Smith says. "I literally had somebody buy a bed last year, and he said to me, 'I've been looking at this bed for 10 years. It's about time I bought it.' "
Smith isn't the only artist in the show whose woodworking interest began in a high-school shop class. But, unlike some, this has been his only career.
Smith grew up on a dairy farm, and it has deeply influenced his work, which he calls "farm-fresh furniture." He incorporates ax handles, pitchforks, tractor seats, tent poles, and mower and shovel handles into his chairs, benches, tables and stools, working in Pennsylvania cherry and ash, and, occasionally, salvaged barn beams.
"The idea is to make something special out of something ordinary," he says.
Newcomer Ryan Meacham of Chester Springs is a 2012 graduate of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine and winner of the show's new Emerging Artist Contest. His prize is a free booth at the armory.
"It's always been one of my dreams to have my furniture at the show," says Meacham, who visited it as a child with his father, a hobbyist woodworker.
Among the five pieces Meacham will be selling is a modern version of the classic demilune table, named for its half-moon shape, made of domestic cherry and African wenge. Price: $5,000.
He's also bringing what he calls "my quirkiest piece," a $5,000 bench whose legs are filled with 1,700 pencils.
Hard to explain, but the work was inspired by a client who wanted "a bench that was unique and that kids would enjoy looking at," says Meacham, who previously worked as a cabinet-installer for new kitchens - averaging $500,000 and up - on the Main Line.
While the show's pieces are mostly contemporary - one exception being those great big clocks - the overall emphasis is on quality and design.
"We're not the large, trendy thing we once were, but there will always be a niche for what we do," Markel says.
With an economy on the rebound, albeit slowly, organizers and exhibitors are hopeful that 2013 will be a good year.
"We should be really rolling good," says the self-taught Marschark, of Bedminster, whose clocks sell for $3,000 to $16,000.
After a career as a sales rep for a medical device company, Marschark has been making clocks full time for the last 15 years. No doubt he speaks for everyone in the show when he says, "I wanted to do what I was passionate about."
Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show
Where: 23d Street Armory, (between Market and Chestnut)
When: April 5,
6 p.m. to 9 p.m., preview party, $20 (order by March 29). Includes weekend pass to show, food, drink, live music, auction to benefit artisans who suffered losses in Hurricane Sandy.
April 6, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and April 7, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tickets at the door are $12 for the day, or $15 for a weekend pass.
Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or email@example.com.