Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Biedermeier Jewel Chest

I have discovered that there is a curious relationship between who you know and what you do in life. People you met in school years later show up in new and significant relations which provide opportunities. Clients which brought you an insignificant job, like repairing an ordinary kitchen chair, then refer you to the best client you ever had. Business relations, even though unrelated directly, often end up with referrals which pay the day's wages.

For nearly a decade in the 70's and 80's, I was working as the furniture conservator at the Phineas Banning Residence Museum, in Wilmington, Los Angeles. Although not as well known as some historic houses, the Banning house is the most important Greek Revival private residence still on its original foundation West of the Mississippi. Built in 1864, it is 3 stories high and, when I arrived, my job was to assist the Director in placing the furnishings appropriately. We decided on the Period Room format, setting up each room as if it was a different decade, from 1850 to 1900.

Years later, the Director moved to San Francisco and was in charge of the California Historical Society before retiring to operate a business selling fine art. Nearly 20 years after completing the Banning project, I received a call from a Sacramento collector to ask about making a cabinet. It turns out my name was recommended for this project by my good friend, the Director.

I had purchased a flitch of highly figured French walnut veneer previously in Paris, so I took the entire bundle of wood with me to meet this new client. As I laid out the veneer on the floor of their front room, both clients looked at me strangely and asked, "What is that?" They were sophisticated collectors in many fields of fine and decorative art, but they had no idea how a bundle of wood veneers would look when glued onto a cabinet. I just said, "Trust me."

The lady of the house showed me her problem. In the large walk in closet of the master bedroom, there was no room to walk. The entire floor was covered with shopping bags from jewelers. Each bag had its purchase inside, and that was her system of keeping them in order. She would just seek out the Harry Winston bag, or Cartier, or Tiffany, and then locate the appropriate item for the evening. After the big event, it went back into the bag on the floor.

I realized she needed a rather large jewel cabinet.

She produced a photograph of a Berlin Biedermeier secretaire, with a fall front. She said she wanted the doors to open 135 degrees to the side, and the top to be low enough for her to reach the clock she wanted to place on top. Also, she wanted a secure locked safe in the base, and as many secret drawers as I could create.

I built the cabinet in three sections. The base supports the center cabinet, and the top fastens with secret bolts. Therefore, the doors pivot on hinges located in the base and center section, and the alignment needed to be secure to guarantee proper function. There are more secret compartments than visible drawers, and for several years after delivery I would get the occasional phone call asking me to explain how to open a certain area.

The figured walnut was spectacular. I veneered the columns to match. The interior section was covered in a similar but more dramatic veneer, creating "hearts" in the wood. The inside doors was veneered with walnut which created the German eagle figure (if you squint your eyes...).

There is not a single square inch of wasted space in the interior. What you think is molding is really a pull. What you think is structure and solid is open inside. There are secret levers, and releases, and springs and lots of hidden features which open everything for use.

Needless to say, the cabinet is completely full, and the clients were very pleased with the result.


Anonymous said...


Patrick, you're work is truly stunning! I've been enjoying your blog very much. Sounds like an interesting life you lead.

This cabinet is just wonderful. Would you please list the dimensions? I'm not sure if i have the scale right. Thanks!

John Kissel

W. Patrick Edwards said...

The original photo she showed me was on page 207 of the book "Biedermeier 1815-1835" by Georg Himmelheber. Illustration #97 is a Bureau-Cabinet made in 1820 in Berlin and was 46 x 22 x 74" in size. As my client wanted the top to be within her reach, and she was not that tall, I made the height 61". To achieve the proper proportion for the rest, I reduced the width to 39 (1 meter actually, the entire project was built using metric dimensions), and the depth only 18".

Building in metric allowed proper and easy graduation of the drawers, since all the blades are 2cm, and each drawer is reduced by 1cm in height.

As usual, no power tools were used. I cut all the small drawer dovetails on the chevalet.