Friday, July 7, 2017

Curious Collector Cabinet

Beautiful and Functional But Why?

I need your help.

A few weeks ago one of my old clients came in with this curious box.  He hangs out at estate sales and finds things on Craig's list and is always looking for something unusual.  He often discovers amazing things.

After all, isn't that one of the reasons we collect stuff?  Not that we need it.  If we need something essential we go out and get it.  If I need gas I go to the gas station.  Not much excitement there...

On the other hand, when I travel I always take time to explore old used book stores, antique stores, used tool shops and even, in some cases, thrift stores.  It's the lure of the unknown which keeps me searching.

So this client walks in with this box.  It is amazing.  Made of Brazilian rosewood with boxwood trim. Made by a professional, probably British.    It is about 11 x 12 x 22" in size.  I think it' either British or even American since the writing on the drawers is in English.

The locks, keys, hinges and screws all indicate a period before 1850.

Mid 19th Century Script?

The secondary wood is Spanish Cedar.

Lift Top With Two Trays Inside

The front has double glass doors and the top lid lifts up.  There is a lock on the glass doors and a second lock on the lid.  Whoever had it wanted to keep the contents secure.

When you lift up the top there are two trays in a till.  A very shallow tray on top of a deeper tray.  The deeper tray is missing a divide which would go from side to side.

What Are These Trays For?

Inside the double glass doors are 4 fake drawers over 6 functional drawers, each with turned ivory pulls.

The amazing and curious feature is how the drawers are divided into strange and complex compartments.  I have no idea how these compartments could be used.  My only guess is that there was a fad of collecting exotic sea shells in the past.  Perhaps these compartments could be designed for shells.

When I Saw These Drawers I Was Speechless 

However, as the drawers are fairly deep and the compartments rather small, it would be difficult to reach some of the contents.

What Would You Keep In These???

Please help me find out what this is.  If you have any idea just post in the comments.

Understanding the lost mysteries of past cultures is why we explore.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"Modern" Upholstery Conservation Methods Destroy Evidence

Grecian Sofa with Modern Upholstery
For the past several years (actually, since "alternative upholstery conservation" methods were first introduced early in the 1980's) I have had a serious problem with museum conservators destroying original upholstery and the evidence of its traditional construction.  I am a scientist by training.  I believe in analysis, documentation, evidence gathering and research.  I am shocked constantly by what I see in the most important museums in America as the practice of upholstery "conservation."

Two recent events are now pushing me to blog once again about my concerns.  First, as you know, I just got back from an extensive tour of the East Coast.  From Williamsburg to the Met to the Boston MFA  and the Getty, I saw the same thing over and over:  Important and iconic examples of early upholstered furniture with obviously fake upholstery, evident from across the room.  It doesn't even pass the smell test.

The second event occurred this week as I picked up a copy of the 1997 book "American Furniture" edited by Luke Beckerdite.  I love this series of books, published each year by the Chipstone Foundation.  They are wonderful and full of research.  But, when such a distinquished journal publishes articles which can damage the field of decorative arts they need to be identified as such and the article needs a full discussion among professionals.

Surviving Example of Easy Chair Upholstery

This is what concerns me.  The process of removing original upholstery and replacing it with modern materials has been established by "tradition" for so long that it is no longer questioned as valid.  I feel like I'm fighting an uphill battle to get authentic upholstery methods understood and properly conserved before they all are lost forever.

The article which caught my eye is by Leroy Graves and F. Carey Howlett, titled "Leather Bottoms, Satin Haircloth, and Spanish Beard: Conserving Virginia Upholstered Seating Furniture" (Pages 267-297).  It represents the state of the art of this process of saving the wood frames at the expense of the upholstery, and, if you go to the Wallace Collection at Williamsburg you will find nearly every piece in the collection has been treated this way.

Let me quote from this article and then respond using simple logic and scientific questioning.

"Because so few objects survive...the preservation of the chair in its current state takes precedence over restoration to its original appearance."

This statement indicates the concern that more and more examples which retain original upholstery layers are being lost.  I would therefore conclude that the surviving examples must be protected in their untouched state for future analysis by more competent conservators.

Untouched Upholstery 

"The conservator is faced with two difficult tasks: preserving extremely fragile upholstery materials when they survive and reconstructing the appearance of the original upholstery..."

Of course the visitor to the collection should be presented with an object which reflects, as nearly as possible, its original condition.  My question is: does the replacement of original upholstery with copper, plexiglass, Ethafoam and Velcro effectively present a visually authentic result?  Also, what methods are to be used to conserve the fragile materials which are surviving?  Are they to be placed in a drawer in a research laboratory completely removed from the object to which they belong?

How Does This Preserve Upholstery Methods?

"The conservator's work is typically complicated by the overlapping evidence of numerous upholstery schemes.  Distinguising individual schemes can be time consuming and in some instances virtually impossible.  To produce a credible reconstruction of historic upholstery, one needs to develop a thorough understanding of the techniques, materials, and tastes of the period and place of production."

This single statement reveals the most important flaw in the logic of this process.  Frankly current museum conservators are not seriously researching the upholstery methods, including subsequent upholstery commercial restoration treatments, as much as they are researching the wood frames.  When a conservator uses "time consuming" as an argument, he is neglecting the most essential part of his job description.  He is tasked, by definition, with taking all the time he needs to fully understand every aspect of the historic object under his control.  Upholstery is actually more important than the frame, but the frame gets all his attention.

There are still many old professional upholsterers in most large cities who understand traditional methods of upholstery, and how those methods changed over the centuries.  I am a good example.  You can just search this blog for "upholstery conservation" and see what I have learned over the past 50 years or so.  In particular look at the post from last November (11/29/16) and see what simple conservation methods can produce.

I have learned traditional methods of upholstery by careful deconstruction of original layers, which allows me to understand what was original and what was restored, and when the restoration must have occurred.  I then simply replace any damaged or rotten materials with similar materials as closely as I can to the original.  Jute, burlap, muslin, cord, twine, cotton are used to replace the same. The springs and organic stuffing are cleaned and retained in all cases.  That means treating horsehair, wool, Spanish moss, straw, excelsior, and any other organic material used as stuffing with respect and care.  The final result is as close to the original appearance as possible, and can still provide comfort for many years.

As to the damage the upholstery nails cause to the wood frame, which is the main reason for this new "non invasive" upholstery method, that can be resolved with proper techniques.  Using the smallest upholstery nail which works is one way.  Using a protein glue and a covering of muslin or burlap on the wood is another.  In serious cases it is also possible to remove a portion of the damaged wood (which is under the upholstery) and replace it with similar wood.

In the worst case, where the wood frame no longer supports the upholstery a "chassis" or new wood frame can be built to fit inside the old frame.  This new frame can then be properly upholstered with traditional techniques and that serves to provide understanding of traditional methods for future analysis.

This Is Not Period Upholstery

"The goal of treatment may be to re-create the appearance of one of the early schemes, but this task must be accomplished using unconventional, nonintrusive techniques."

This final statement, which is at the beginning of the article, represents the actual failure in the logic of this approach.

I consider the task of deconstructing upholstery layers similar to that of archeology.  In each profession it is the job of the scientist to carefully analyze and document each layer in succession as it is exposed.  During the 1870's there was a German archeologist and con man, Heinrich Schliemann, who claimed to have discovered Troy.  In fact, he dug without any consideration to the process, throwing all the debris in a trash pile, passing through the historic layer of Troy itself, continuing until he found gold.

Subsequent archeologists now have the difficult task of digging through the trash pile in an effort to understand which object came from which strata.

I see a similar fate for future conservators who struggle to understand historic upholstery methods by looking at a naked frame, covered in nail holes, without any context or relationship to the missing materials.

The next time you wander through a museum looking at the upholstery, take a moment to determine if what you are looking at is authentic or fake.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

What A Long Strange Trip It Has Been

I Miss John Every Day
I apologize, dear reader, for not posting in several months.  I have the standard excuse: I have been rather busy with my life, having fun and working in the shop.  In fact, they are the same activity.

Every year around this time I make an effort to do something special for Kristen, who has a birthday in April.  Spring is the best time of the year to get out and enjoy the outdoors, so we usually end up at a nice hotel with gardens, ocean, lakes or mountains.  This year I thought I would put them all together.

I made a promise to spend her birthday at the Du Pont Hotel in Wilmington, where they have one of the most famous Sunday brunches on the East Coast.  I started planning the trip last November, and carefully plotted the activities, using maps and the web so that the trip would run like clockwork.

Just before we left I completed and delivered Clock #6 (photos to follow in another post) and an Art Deco cabinet for a special client in Bel Air.  That provided the funds and a good excuse to take a trip. My partner, Patrice, ran the business in our absence and spent his time building a large Renaissance Library Table for another client.

Kristen is a dedicated gardner and I am somewhat of a woodworker.  Here is our home in San Diego with the Craftsman house we built using a 1926 design, and her front garden.  The back garden is much larger and more spectacular.

Home is Where the Heart Is.
 We took a Holland America ship from San Diego.  We like the smaller ships (with no kids!)
Leaving San Diego
Our cruise went South along the Mexican coast, and we stopped in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama Canal and Columbia.  The best coffee was in Guatemala.

Back Country Transportation in Mexico

Beautiful Mexican Coast 

Wonderful Town in Mexico 
This stop in Mexico was amazing.  They had a first class museum and an ancient pyramid to visit.  They also recycle 100% of their water!

Jungle in Costa Rica

First Time on Panama Canal

Impressive Doors in Columbia
After we left Columbia, we headed North to Florida with only one more stop.  Holland America has a small private island and they usually end up the cruise with a rest stop.  It is a real chance to completely forget everything else in the world.  One of the best beaches we have ever seen.

Time to Rest
When we arrived in Florida we picked up the rental car and began our land portion of the trip.  The first stop was in Savannah.  Kristen got an ice cream and I got some oysters.  The city is designed around parks which are situated about every other block.  It is a wonderful place to walk.

Ancient Trees in Savannah
Our next stop was with an old friend, Bert Declerck and his family.  Bert is a true genius in many areas, and, in particular, in woodworking.  When he was 19 he taught himself how to build furniture and cut marquetry.  His first project was to copy the Oben desk which is sitting in the library at Musee Nissim de Camondo.  Everyone thought he was crazy, but he proved them wrong.  His copy is absolutely perfect in every respect, and is the only copy ever made of this iconic desk.

Bert's First Woodworking Project
From Bert's home, we traveled to visit Roy Underhill.  Roy and Jane live in a Mill House on a river.  It is a magical place and Roy has imprinted it with his particular personality.  I have said many times that Roy is a National Treasure and has single handedly kept alive the tradition of hand crafts for the past 30 years, with his PBS show, "The Woodwright's Shop."

Tree Grows Through Tractor

I Love This Man!

Roy and I went to his School for a visit and I had to spend some time (and money) in Ed Lebetkin's store above the school.  Ed is a great tool dealer and collector and I always find something "necessary" when I visit.

Must Have Tools!!!
The next top was visiting Andy Rae and Brian Boggs in Asheville.  Andy is coming to San Diego this Fall to speak to our local woodworking group and Brian is actively designing some of the best new furniture in this country.

In Asheville, Kristen and I spent the day visiting Biltmore, the largest residence ever built in this country.

"Just a Modest Summer Home"
Driving up the Blue Ridge Parkway along the mountains, we came to Monticello, where I had a chance to sit and reflect on life.

Sharing The View With Jefferson

They Use Old Brown Glue To Repair Furniture Here
We also stopped at Madison's place down the road, driving to Fredericksburg and ending up in Washington at the Capitol.  We were invited to tour the workshops on the House side of the Capitol.  I must say that after the tour, wandering around the tunnels under the Capitol and observing the creatures who work there, I have a new opinion of the TV series "Veep".  It is not a comedy.  It is a reality show.

My host was Josh English, who has taken some classes at the American School of French Marquetry, and was kind enough to take me on a tour of the cabinet, finishing, upholstery and drapery workshops, as well as other interesting stops on the House side.  It is important to note that there is an invisible line down the center of the Capitol where the House and Senate population never cross.

Josh English, House Cabinetmaker
While we were in Washington, I made a point to stop at Hillwood House, built for Marjorie Merriweather Post, of cereal fame and fortune.  Her collection is certainly one of the best I have ever seen, and in the best condition.  It is a pleasure to visit and the gardens are spectacular as well.

Amazing Tapestry

Italian Pietre Dure Table Leaf
Ms. Post had several homes and is responsible for building Mar a Lago, in Florida.

When she sold Mar a Lago she kept only one piece of furniture, which she had transported to her Hillwood House in Washington.  This was a Dining Table, with leaves, which weighs over 6 tons.  One of the leaves is shown here, and it takes 4 strong men to put it in place.  The table was made for her in Italy and took several years to manufacture.

One of a Thousand Flower Photos I Took On the Trip
Leaving Washington, we went next to Winterthur for a conference organized by the Society of American Period Furniture Makers.  It was extremely well managed and we were able to spend the day visiting the Conservation Lab, Scientific Lab, Research Library and Selected Objects Study room.

For me it was a chance to reflect on the summer of 1978, when I lived for 3 months in a camper on the North edge of the parking lot.  I was attending the Summer Institute, and fondly remember Frank Sommer, who gave me full access to the library and its collection of rare books.

I had a chance to meet and talk with Charlie Hummel during this conference.  He still works there and seems to defy aging.  Remember, he first came as a student to Winterthur in 1952!  His book, "With Hammer in Hand" and the purchase and installation of the Dominy workshop at Winterthur was one of the first inspirations I had to encourage my career in woodworking.

Charles Hummel in the Rotunda

Dominy Workshop at Winterthur

We spent two beautiful days at Winterthur and the gardens were in full bloom.

Not Photo Shopped!

Springtime at Winterthur
Driving all the back roads and avoiding the Interstate meant that we had time to stop in bookstores and shops out of the way.  We found this ancient barn in Bucks county which had 5 floors of books.  I managed to find quite a few that needed to go home with me.

Bring Money Take Books
Finally, it was time to enjoy Kristen's birthday at the Du Pont Hotel in Wilmington.  We had a nice evening, great room and took 4 hours to consume the brunch the next day.  If you are ever in Wilmington on a weekend, take the time to visit.  It is very civilized.

Looking Better Every Year
Leaving Winterthur we next went to Longwood Gardens.  Open 365 days a year, this is clearly the largest and most interesting garden in the country.  The green house is over 4 acres in size!  What a joy it must be to work there.

My Favorite Tree

More Tulips Than You Can Count

One Small Area of Longwood Gardens
On the way to New York City, we had a chance to have lunch with Frank and Edith Klausz.  Frank made us Hungarian Goulash which was one of the most memorable meals on this trip.  He is happy in retirement and we had a wonderful visit with them both.  Frank has always supported me and my work and I owe him a lifetime of gratitude and thanks.

I Love This Man Too!
We were able to stay in New York City for three days, thanks to a good friend, who lives on the upper West Side.  We had a free parking space on the street in front of the apartment, which is amazing, and we were directly across Central Park from the Met.  I spent some quality time with Joe Godla at the Frick and Cynthia Moyer at the Met, both old friends from the Getty Conservation Lab years ago at Malibu.

We first went to the New York Historical Society museum to see Duncan Phyfe's tools.

Very Clean and Sharp
Then we went to the Frick.  Joe said that they don't allow photos in the museum.  They tried it for one week and people were falling all over themselves taking selfies, so they decided just to forbid any photos.  I find it sad that people go to museums and take photos of themselves.  However, when I do it I think it is fine...

Perhaps the Best Museum in America

Three days is not enough to even walk through the Met.  I was able to see most of the objects I like, but every time I turned a corner I was faced with the choice to go ahead or turn one way or another.  No matter what route I took it was wonderful.

The American Wing

American Craftsmanship
The Met has the most precious work of art from the Italian Renaissance in this country, the Studiolo from the Ducal Palace at Gubbio.  It is a room 12' x 16' (ironically, the same size as my workbench room at the shop) and to stand in it is a real thrill.  How many people have had the chance to stand in this space during the past 500 years?

Standing in the 15th Century

The three days we spent in New York City were sunny, warm and clear.  It was San Diego weather.  The day we left they had a record 3" of rain.  The subways were flooded.  We didn't mind; we were driving away from the storm, up the Hudson.  We stopped at Olana and then spent the night at Pittsfield, in the Berkshires.

I have written many times about my relationship with the Shakers and Faith Andrews.  I am always excited to wander around Hancock and experience the energy left behind by the Shakers.  It is a magical place.  I am not crazy, but their ghosts speak to me.  

Hancock Shaker Village

It's A Gift To Be Simple

We drove across upper Mass, avoiding large roads, exploring the mountains, on our way to Salem.  There we spent 4 days, enjoying New England and visiting with Phil Lowe.  I was able to give a lecture to a small group at his school, the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts and have some more oysters.

I did not visit the Salem Witch House, but stuck the camera out the window and took a shot as we drove by...

Tourists Stop Here
We ended up our tour in Boston, and spent the day at the Museum of Fine Arts.  This is another great museum, and they are always changing their displays. 

MFA Boston

Interesting Floor under 18th Century Room Group
We flew back home from Boston and reflected on our journey.  First of all, we live in a great country and it is essential for all of us to take the time to enjoy our riches.  Travel while you are able and spend time off the beaten path.  Take the road less travelled...

And finally, in the immortal words of a young actress, "There's no place like home."

"There's no place like home."

"There's no place like home."