When we visited Ricky Allman’s studio in the Hobbs Building last year, a seed was planted. On our way to the central freight elevator, we walked past a wide doorway that opened onto a long room full of fresh lumber of several kinds. The bank of windows at the north end bathed the whole place in pleasant cloudy light. In that instant, the smell of finely cut dust made our distraction complete. We saw something special. Ricky whispered an excited invitation, “Oh yeah, you gotta see Dick’s place.” A moment later, a smiling older man emerged with a long cigarette dangling from his mouth. He kindly welcomed us with a snapped and gravelly hello.
Even though Fox isn’t an artist in the mold of those we’ve visited thus far, when we saw the place he works—and lives—from, we knew his shop was the sort of place our project was started to find. Nearly a year later, after promising ourselves (and Mr. Fox) that we’d be back, we finally paid him a visit.
The charm and presence of Fox’s shop isn’t easily transferred through words and pictures. That’s because the primary element of the experience is Fox’s guided tour. From one oversized table to the next, Fox relays his story with an aged, electric energy. His passion for woodworking sparked in 1949, when as a nine-year-old he began “piddling with wood.” That passion survived until he was 30, at which point he got his first tools. Despite what eventually became a successful practice in dentistry, Fox’s obsession with woodworking lived on for decades in a Lenexa basement.
When it came time for him to retire, in 1999, he decided to take his hobby more seriously (one imagines he was no slouch in the basement though). By 2004 he had a studio unit in the Hobbs Building, and then another. He joined them, and in the meantime built himself a fully furnished apartment within. He had transformed into a second iteration of himself. “It just evolved,” he said, as though he was a witness, but perhaps not the central actor.
That tale is impossible for Fox to tell without taking tangential strolls through the stories of particular jobs, which led to particular tools, which then opened up the possibility for more jobs, and more tools, each requiring more material, and more space. One small decision at a time, he has built a practice—and made a name for himself—as someone who can manipulate his basic material into any number of items. His range is demonstrated by a thick set of custom southern yellow pine doors sitting across the way from a tiny immaculate box made of seven varieties of wood.
Fox’s work is sought after. Though he only began working for pay after he retired as a dentist, he is working with Kansas City’s most active and ambitious designers and developers. A particularly stunning example is the 2004 restoration of the Hotel Frederick in Booneville, Misouri; a project that included doors and windows on every floor. “I’m not sure how this all happened,” Fox sighed with a hint of pride, “One day, I’ll have to retire again.”