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GETTING CLOSE TO THE SUBJECT

If it looks impossible, Bob Ballard wants to build it.

The custom woodworker spent most of 2004 crafting a series of intricate, 10-foot-long bread boxes shaped like missiles. The prestigious commission, called Panera, came from Los Carpinteros, native Cuban artists who live and work between Havana and Madrid. They sent Ballard watercolor paintings of what they had in mind.

"Very complicated." Ballard said. "I used 40 different jigs and fixtures to make the various parts." Imagine his delight when Angelina Jolie bought one of the eight Panera sculptures, a Christmas present for Brad Pitt.

A second, more labor-intensive commission followed. This time they sent computer drawings for nine Estantria bookcases. Distorting the dimensions of the lacquered maple shelves, Ballard explained, conveys a range of reading material, from weighty subjects to narrow topics.

"I do like a challenge," said Ballard, 45, gesturing to works in progress in his immaculate workshop in east Tampa. A black, high-gloss lacquer buffet awaits leather-wrapped drawer fronts. An audiovisual console will get shagreen doors and metal legs for an Art Deco appeal.

The stack of reclaimed wood trusses? "Going to be ceiling beams for a farmhouse kitchen in Lake Keystone," Ballard said. "The refrigerator will be concealed in wood to look like a piece of furniture."

No two stains, glazes or topcoat finishes are ever alike. Occasionally clients ask the craftsman to "retire" their formula so their designs truly are one of a kind.

"My favorite projects are when the clients become engaged," he said. "Then it becomes a collaboration."

Ballard began Environstudio in 2003, after 10 years creating high-end residential work and upscale church interiors. For their fine art fabrications, Los Carpinteros found him through USF Graphicstudio, where his wife, Sarah Howard, curates public art and social practice. But most business emanates from clients who often become close friends and can't help but spread the word. One couple recently invited them to travel to Cape Cod for a week.

Tampa client Norma Gene Lykes says an email from Ballard is just as likely to note a particular hardware or hinge as a recipe, a new restaurant or an HBO series he thinks she would like.

"He gets to know you personally, and that's how he comes up with a design that fits the person," said Lykes, who hired Ballard to build out an office, kitchen, laundry room, bathrooms, closets and bookcases in two homes.

"He knows the music that I like, and the food and where I vacation," she said. "Every quarter-inch is according to the way we live, and that's why he's invaluable."

Jeff Avery, owner of Magnolia Inspiring Interiors in South Tampa, met Ballard at a party after complimenting the host on the handcrafted range hood in his kitchen.

"Bob happened to be there and could talk about his work," Avery said, "We've done several projects together and been friends ever since."

Ballard has built and sold furniture to friends and relatives since his early 20s, using the woodworking skills Robert Ballard Sr. taught him in their north Tampa garage. Still, his parents were none too pleased when he took an entry-level cabinetmaker job in 1993, "after six years of college and at least that many majors," said Ballard, who has a business degree from the University of South Florida.

Returning for studio art and art history classes is how he met his wife, who is handy with shop tools and has come to his aid many a late night to get a job done. The couple reside in Seminole Heights, close enough that Ballard can ride his bike to the workshop.

Tampa residents Russ Blain and Jeff Otterman challenged Ballard to design and build a "chef's dream kitchen" in their never-been-renovated, 1964-vintage Parkland Estates home.

"He's the sort of guy who won't rest until he has what you want, and in his mind, is the perfect product," Blain said. "He's a craftsman, carpenter, artist and designer all wrapped into one."

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