Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sand Shading

There are many individual steps to create a marquetry panel, and I love all of them except one. From the inspiration to the design, the selection of materials, putting the packets together and cutting out the elements, shading each piece in hot sand and gluing the picture together on an assembly board, making the mastic and gluing the final picture in place, and...finally...removing the kraft paper to discover your finished work of art. I look forward eagerly to each step of the process, except shading in sand.

This is kind of weird, since the first "Is Good!" compliment I got from Pierre was when I shaded the ribbon on my third etude. Up to that point, which was two months of school, I had only heard him say "Is Bad." So I assumed I had done something right.

To be blunt, shading elements in sand is boring and a little dangerous, if you forget for a moment what you are doing. The sand is very hot (around 600 degrees at the bottom) and the pieces are very small. There is a strong temptation to reach in and grab a piece if it disappears. Resist that temptation. In fact, do not place any part of your hand over the pan. Use very large tweezers and keep your body parts away from the pan and the sand.

In the winter there is some relief that the heat is comforting, but in the summer...

If, for example, your project has 1500 elements and you made 3 copies then you have about 4500 pieces of wood to place carefully in the sand at exactly the proper depth and angle. Each piece sits in the sand for a few seconds. That means you will need to sit in place working without stop for 22,500 seconds, which is over 6 hours.

When I first tried to burn wood in sand, I just went to the local beach and brought home some sand and heated it in a pan. Not only did I destroy the pan but the beach sand created the most interesting smells as some of the "foreign matter" burned up. I then tried Home Depot play sand, but the grains were different sizes and I could not get an even burn. Then I tried sifting sand but couldn't find the proper screen to work.

So, during my first visit to Paris, I purchased a kilo of sand from the supplier to the school. As I went through customs I was stopped and asked to open my bags. The officer asked me what was in one bag, and I replied: "Sand." He just stared at me and repeated, "Sand?" like I was an idiot. I started to explain the technique of marquetry and what the sand was used for, but he simply waved me through.

This happened again at the airport in Portland, Oregon. I was vacationing with my wife at Cannon Beach and discovered the high winds created wonderful spots behind rocks which were full of the finest sand, very even in size. I picked up several pounds and put them in my bags. At the airport I watched from a distance as my checked bags were opened by TSA and the officers gathered around to sift through my "special" sand. They shrugged and I could tell by their body language that they also thought I was an idiot.

Isn't it amazing how we choose to spend our time?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tradition Preservation

One can only imagine what it must have been like standing in the center of Andre-Charles Boulle's workshop during the peak of his career. The piles of exotic materials, like imported hardwoods from all corners of the world's forests, the tortoise shell, ivory, brass and copper sheets, gilt mounts, complex hardware, all formed a backdrop for the magnificent projects which were being constructed with great precision by dozens of talented workmen. From time to time the king or his representative would visit and verify that all the work was done to the highest level possible anywhere in the known world

All that was destroyed by a fire in the workshop around 1720, and the loss was beyond measure, both to the King and France, and to the history of furniture making. Boulle never recovered and died a decade later in debt. The fashion for "Boulle" decoration declined and was replaced by the more colorful marquetry decoration of the mid 18th century made possible by the French invention of the picking machine and the development of the chevalet.

By the way, I must admit that I like the work of Pierre Gole better than that of Andre-Charles Boulle, but that is another post.

The reason I mention this brief history of the trade is to discuss how tradition is kept alive through the centuries. During the 19th century the use of marquetry surface decoration almost disappeared. Many of the shops closed or changed their work to adapt to the clean, "modern" lines of the newest fashion. What tradition persisted in the old ways was transmitted by individual workers to their assistants. Even the traditional Guilds were abolished by the Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution threatened to eliminate much of the historic knowledge of the past masters.

Around the time of Napoleon III it was obvious that a school needed to be created to reestablish the methods of furniture making which were made famous in the 18th century. It took about 20 years, but at the end of the 1880's a new school was built and opened its doors to the first class of 60 students. That was ecole Boulle, and it stands today as one of the most important trade schools in Europe. Its mission is to preserve the historic trades of the past.

During the 20 years that this foundation of learning was being established there was a renaissance in the Faubourg St. Antoine, in Paris, where workshops again returned to making highly decorative marquetry. Much of this marquetry was applied to local creations, but some of it was made for export, and one of the more well known New York shops, Herter Brothers, purchased their marquetry at this time for their own use. I was restoring a famous Herter Brothers table before I attended ecole Boulle, and took pictures of this table with me when I entered Pierre's class for the first time. He pointed to page 60 of his book and stated that the marquetry on this New York table was made in the Guilmet workshop of Paris around 1880. More research needs to be done on this particular transmission of material from Europe to America during the late 19th century.

I have direct evidence of this trade. Years ago, at the end of a lecture I had presented on Decorative Arts, I was approached by an elderly woman, Jonna Aase. She asked me if I would be interested in some marquetry she had inherited. I asked "What kind of furniture is it?" She replied, "It's not on a piece of furniture. It is just marquetry."

When I visited her home, she produced several pieces of marquetry which had never been used. After I purchased them, she provided me with a note: "These are imported inlay woodwork brought to Odense Denmark by a Danish importer of veneer woods. Made in Paris about 1874. This date established by a newspaper backing on the reverse of the inlays dated in March of 1874 in the French language. Purchased in Odense by Chris Anderson and brought to America in October 1914." These panels were made with sawn veneers, highly tinted and faced with paper, as is the normal method. They even have prices!

I used these examples in my lectures and classes for years. Since I had several examples, I took many of them back to Paris and presented them to Pierre Ramond and Michel Jamet and Patrick George and other mentors who had helped me in my studies. I felt that returning these small samples of French work from a century ago would somehow contribute to the continuation of the grand tradition of design and culture.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Don't You Loose Pieces?

The craft of marquetry does not travel well. By that I mean that, during my career I have demonstrated in public at woodworking shows, SAPFM conferences, school classrooms and, for three years, in the Getty museum galleries. What a chore!

You need to move the chevalet, all the hand tools and materials, set up the glue pot, assemble the picking machine, and not drop the trays which are full of pieces. Any unnecessary movement of the trays means that time must be spent putting all the pieces back in order. That can easily take hours...

At the workshop in ecole Boulle there is a wall cabinet which holds all the trays of work for the students. Each student is provided with a tray or trays according to his project, and the position of his trays within the cabinet is decided by the teacher. You do not put your tray back in a different slot. There is no messing around with the trays; too much is at stake.

I noticed that, like all students where there is a close friendship bond, there is a certain amount of humor and jokes. It happens from time to time that one student will do something to another student to create a moment of laughter. This is really because the work is serious and challenging and it makes the working environment more enjoyable when people have fun.

However, it is never fun to mess with a student's tray. You do not touch it. If it is in your way, you find the owner and ask him to move it. Too much is at stake.

I was at school for so long that I took this rule as absolute and obvious to all. Unfortunately, not all Americans understand this idea. Years ago, when I was demonstrating at the Novi convention center in Detroit (I think?) I had all my work and materials spread out on the tables for the public to see. I was working for several days on my chevalet, making a project, and putting the parts in the tray on the table as I cut them out. I encouraged the visitors to handle much of the material and tools which I used to show the process, but I had a small "do not touch" sign next to the tray of parts.

When my back was turned a kid about 10 years old, standing with his father, used his hands to stir up the parts in the tray, breaking many of them, and spilling them on the floor. What I said next caused all the people within a 50 foot radius to stop talking and stare. It was not nice. The father covered his kids ears and quickly disappeared into the startled crowd. It was several minutes before I regained my composure, and I never was able to complete the project, which had taken 3 days to cut.

Now that I have my own school, the American School of French Marquetry, I never need to travel. Everything has its place, and the space is wonderful to work in. I am a lucky camper.

You are all invited to visit when you are in San Diego. Anytime...just don't touch the trays!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Kraft Paper

Before I went to Paris to study with Pierre I had been working over 20 years restoring antiques and making marquetry. I had read all the books that existed in English and that was the source of much of my knowledge as well as my problems.

I have mentioned before in this post that the first time I saw a copy of Pierre's book, "Marquetry," which was published by Taunton Press in 1989, I was introduced to methods which resolved many of the difficulties I had encountered. I was already using a chevalet to cut designs, since I built my first tool 15 years earlier. However, it did not come with any instructions! I had to teach myself by trial and error as well as deduction.

My first mistake in building the chevalet was that I placed the blade in the saw in the wrong position. I knew that it cut on the push stroke and was held horizontal in the jaws. However, I positioned the blade with the teeth cutting on the left side, not on the bottom. That meant I had been cutting for 15 years by feeding the material into the blade from the left, cutting sideways.

When I arrived at ecole Boulle, I knew that I would be able to use the chevalets with confidence, since I had been sitting on one for a long time and had lots of experience. After all, my first project was cutting a table top which was 4' x 15' (which took 300 hours). Imagine my surprise when I sat down and realized the blade cut down and not sideways!

There was another aspect of the French method which had eluded me as well. I had used lots of gummed veneer tape to hold my work together, as most workers do in countries outside France. I would start to salivate as soon as I saw a roll of tape, and had licked miles of tape in my career. I wonder what the protein content of veneer tape is?

The biggest problem with taping projects together is that the layers of tape are not even all over the surface. In some places there were many layers of tape and in other places there were only a few layers, or none. That created problems when the marquetry was put into the press, as the pressure did not evenly reach all the surface of the veneer at the same time. Other problems were caused by tape not properly adhering or not pulling the pieces together properly.

In reading Pierre's book, I noticed a short mention of the kraft paper, which he uses. On page 73 is a paragraph which describes the 4 types of paper used in marquetry. "Grey kraft paper for gluing and inlaying," is the only mention of this material, and no where does he discuss making an assembly board with this paper. Clearly, it is such an obvious trick that he does not feel it necessary to explain further.

I have posted previously the proper method for making an assembly board using kraft paper. (Post dated 10/10/10).

When I saw the students building such amazing projects with this method I realized what an important part of the process this was. It allowed the pictures to be built face down, which created a clean front with all the elements pressed forward properly. It allowed the work to be done from the back, where tool marks and mastic were not seen in the final result. The paper was easily removed after the picture was glued to the project by using cold water and gentle scraping. Most importantly, it allowed even pressure to reach the entire surface, since there was only one layer of paper holding everything together.

Unfortunately, kraft paper is not available in America. I have to import it at some expense from France, and I sell it for my students to use at a reasonable price. I wish it were more generally available. It seems that in our modern world we are so anxious to have the newest electronics, but who cares about such a simple material as traditional paper?

Friday, December 24, 2010

But Is It Art?

I have had a lot of experience in the world of Decorative Art. I have read literally thousands of books, visited hundreds of museums and attended professional conferences all over America and Europe. I have reviewed auction catalogues and had lengthy discussions with museum staff and still do not understand the prejudice against considering marquetry as "fine art."

Clearly, the marketplace makes a distinction between fine art and decorative art. It is obvious that paintings will easily bring millions of dollars and that only a rare few examples of furniture have sold for above one million dollars.

So, in effect, the marketplace has determined that paintings, considered as fine art, are more than one hundred times more valuable than furniture, considered as decorative art.

Even the terms are inherently prejudicial. "Fine" is naturally a good term. "Decorative" is somehow less important, as if it is just wall candy. "Fine" stands the test of time. "Decorative" can change as fashions and fads change.

On one hand, I can accept that porcelain, furniture, silver and other "trinkets" are not in the same market as a Picasso. (When I include porcelain, I immediately visualize the incredible painted decoration which is used and wonder...) But on the other hand I cannot understand why marquetry is not considered a fine art by itself, which just happens to be attached to a cabinet.

Then there is the wall art, produced by marquetry artists. Even in the 17th century this was referred to as "Painting in Wood." Isn't that enough to be classified as fine art today? If not, why not? After all, modern artists work in mixed media, and their work is often considered fine art.

Just click on the two photos I have posted here and tell me if it's "fine" or "decorative."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fantastic Realism

As I watched the students in the marquetry workshop at ecole Boulle choose their projects, I noticed that there was a preference for transforming art into marquetry. Some of the most popular design sources were from M. C. Escher, who was responsible for much of the black light art posters of my young college days. Yes, I experimented...

Another source of inspiration was that of a Polish artist I had not heard of previously. Wojtek Siudmak was born in 1942 and moved to Paris in 1966 to study art at the ecole des Beaux-Arts. He is the most famous proponent of "fantastic realism" which, to the normal viewer could be described as "science fiction art." I suggest you visit to see for yourself.

I have included with this post the original paintings by Siudmak along with the marquetry panels which were produced by the students while I was there. The detail is amazing.

I have included a photo of one of the students, Stephen Delage, who is shown in front of his work during a marquetry exhibition around 1992. These exhibitions were grand affairs, with the Minister of Culture and other official dignitaries opening night. They were usually held in some large room, which by itself was worth viewing. It was an impressive feeling to see the artists, their work and all the public standing around discussing the works.

Stephen also produced the second image of "the man who stopped the world" loosely translated by me from the official title: "L'homme qui arreta la Terre." The name of the work which Stephen is standing in front of is "L'infranchissable obstacle." That means something like "the insurmountable obstacle."

I do not know who made the marquetry picture of the third image or the original title. This panel was located under glass in the office of the school, and was made before I got there. I cannot actually find my picture of the full panel, but I was able to find a picture of a detail, which I show here. When I get the time to search for the full picture, I will post it.

In the meantime, just enjoy the detail of the work, and the faithful interpretation of the original work. Far out, Man!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Size Matters

In total time I spent ten years at ecole Boulle, staying only once or twice a year during that decade, and less than 3 months each time. It was like I discovered a new existence, and (like an untold number of visitors before me) I began to consider parts of Paris my "neighborhood." I would sit on the metro or in a cafe and read French newspapers, carefully holding them up between me and the tourists next to me so that they would not ask me directions (in English!)

I was reminded of my first time in France, way back in 1967, when I was a healthy, young bicycle racer. I had purchased a custom Rene Hearse bicycle and was traveling around Europe for the summer. It was the "Summer of Love" and there was a very unpopular war in Viet Nam, which the French had lost and we were losing. I carried a small Canadian maple leaf flag which hung from my bicycle and that prevented people I met from asking questions about the war. I discovered that Canadians were generally treated with polite respect, and I was free to experience the true excitement of being a cyclist in Europe. There are some great mountains and many days I would spend all day climbing, only to be rewarded with the entire next day descending.

So my goal in returning to Paris as a student was to be assimilated into the local culture as a resident, not a tourist. It was obvious that I was not French, since I stood a foot taller than everyone on the Metro, so I became a German or American or Dutch or Canadian visitor, depending on the situation. By that I mean if an American asked me directions, I would answer in German, or if a German asked me directions I would answer in French Canadian, and so on. It was just a game, and a lot of fun.

One thing I did have which connected me to the city was a pin, which I wore on my shirt at all times. This pin changed each year, and was made by the students at ecole Boulle, to identify them as students. I have ten different pins, each one designed and manufactured by the students in the engraving/jewelry workshop.

This pin opened doors. When I would walk into any museum they would immediately notice the pin and grant me free entry, as well as clear passage to the workshops and back rooms. Versailles, the Louvre, Musee Camondo, D'Orsay, all museums large and small were happy to let me in and show me anything I wished to see. It was amazing.

It also worked in visiting different cabinet shops and supply houses, since they also showed preference for the students of ecole Boulle. I was spoiled and soon took it for granted that I would get "special treatment."

One year there was a request from the administration for the marquetry workshop to produce a small number of unique pins for some visiting dignitaries. This was unusual, since the pins were normally made in the metal shop. However, the marquetry students were happy to provide the pins, which were made in pewter, bone and purpleheart.

The cutting was done on one of the overhead saws which sat in the center of the marquetry workshop. I was completely amazed to see the precision of the work, as well as the size of the elements. It is hard to believe but the students produce this kind of precision on a daily basis, without any obvious consideration that it might be difficult.

You can judge for yourself by looking at the metric ruler next to the pin. This is not a pin that I was able to get. I had to be content with the normal student pin, but that was just fine with me.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Pierre Makes Glue For All To Use

I cannot say enough to explain how much Dr. Pierre Ramond, professeur d'marqueterie a l'ecole Boulle, changed my life.

On a human level, he demonstrated to me that passion and enthusiasm are just as important as solid research and knowledge in your work. We live our lives surrounded by thousands of acts of human genius, and it is normal that, since we are involved in our own egocentric world view, we often fail to open our eyes to the miracles that surround us. The difficulty is understanding the balancing act which is necessary between passion and objectively.

On a professional level, he demonstrated how much there is to appreciate about the range of methods, materials and historic processes used over the centuries in our trade. He would look at a marquetry surface and explain at great depth how the woods were selected, how the colors were achieved, how the pieces were cut and glued together, how the style and complexity could be used to indicate the age or origin, what was good and what was bad.

In fact, when I first met him, he did not speak much English, and I spoke no French. The first three months I existed on two phrases, which he used often: "Is Good" and "Is Bad." In the beginning I thought all he could say was "Is Bad." It was several weeks before I knew he could say "Is Good." Understand that he did not say these phrases with any particular emotion. It was not punishment to hear my efforts were "bad." It was just a fact. There was no way to explain to me how bad or what I could do to make it better. Just the fact that I could make it better was the only conclusion I could make.

When he finally said it was good, I was elated. At the same time, since it was just a simple fact, I had no idea how good it was or if I could even make it better. As I worked in the school, the other students began to help me understand what he meant and how I could better communicate my questions.

Pierre had a small class, compared to the other teachers. He normally had about 15 students, which included in the same class first, second, third and fourth year students. Each student helped the other. Pierre watched over them like a proud parent. Most of the time he listened to the sound of the saws as they worked. It was amazing how sensitive he was to the sound of the workshop. Anytime there was an unusual sound, he immediately was at the student's side to assist in the problem.

He always encouraged. He was always positive. He always was ready to discuss new ideas or elaborate on old techniques. He was also involved at the same level as the students. By that I mean that he had the ability to relate to students, visitors and staff on an equal basis at their level of understanding. As a direct result of this ability he was able to elevate their insight to his level, which was at the highest professional level possible.

I first noticed this during class, each day at 10am and 3pm. That was coffee time. Class would start as usual in the morning with all students greeting each other and starting work independently. Pierre would stop class at times for all to meet together to get a short lesson in some technique, then back to work. Promptly at 10 coffee would appear in the center of the room, and all would stop to drink and tell stories, like a big family. The coffee was prepared and cleaned up by different students each day, and this task was organized among the students for the benefit of all. It was strong coffee and, after 15 minutes the group returned to their tasks.

Pierre was just one of the gang, during coffee time, and he even had an open door for the school staff and workers to show up and take a break. After coffee, he transformed into the professor who was always assisting the student as needed. His quick smile and honest sense of humor was always ready to warm the room.

Pierre provided the glue which held us together. I will be forever grateful for having met him. "Is good!"

Thursday, December 9, 2010

20 Years Ago In Paris

Nearly 20 years ago I looked at my wife, Kristen, over the dinner table and asked her if we could borrow money against the house so I could go to Paris and study with Dr. Pierre Ramond. What made this conversation more difficult than you might expect is that we owned the house free and clear. It is a tribute to her trust and understanding that she agreed to the proposal.

Pierre had met me at the Getty museum and had invited me to study with him in Paris for a "Stage" which is a short term of study for a specific project, usually lasting less than 3 months. It was the most exciting offer I had ever had in my career. After all, he was recognized as the world's expert in the field of traditional French marquetry, and ecole Boulle was the most difficult trade school in France to get into. Without his invitation, it would be impossible to even visit the school, except during the annual week in January when the school opens its doors to visitors.

The first day I arrived in Paris I was invited to dinner at Chez Jenny, a famous restaurant at Place Republic which specializes in food from Alsace. More importantly, the walls were completely covered with marquetry by Spindler, a three generation family of marquetry artists from that area in Eastern France. Around the table, at the request of Pierre were the conservators of many museums from France and England, and I realized that this was my official introduction to the world of marquetry, at a very high level.

Of course I was tired after 12 hours of flight and I wanted desperately to have some French coffee. The maitre d arrived (in a tux) and asked everyone at the table (in French, of course) what they would like to drink to start. "Wine, beer, wine, wine, beer..."etc was the response as he went around the group. When he looked at me, I said "coffee, please." He took a few moments to speak and raised his eyebrows, looking sternly at me and repeated "coffee???" I just said "Yes, please, I would like a coffee." He turned and walked away.

As he left the room, I turned to the only person at the table who spoke English, the conservator from the Wallace Collection, and inquired why the strange response. He just looked at me and replied, "Coffee will damage your taste for the food, and should be consumed after the meal." I looked around the room at the other, elegant diners, and said, "That person is smoking, that person is smoking, all those people are smoking, and that person is smoking and feeding her dog oysters from a silver tray!"

"Yes, of course!" he answered, and then clarified his response, "But tobacco does not affect the taste." Welcome to France. Immediately, the maitre d returned and served everyone their drinks, without looking at me. I did not get my coffee until after dinner.

The real reason I am remembering all this is because I spent several years in Europe and always had my cameras at my side. I managed to take thousands of slides and prints of the school, marquetry exhibitions, workshops and the trade in general, as it existed at that time. Little did I know that I would document the end of an era, since I have noticed, in recent visits, that most of the business activities of that period have changed completely. It is a different world today, and I hardly recognize it.

Fortunately, I have the record on film, and I have begun to transfer this material to digital format. I will use this blog to post much of this material so that others can appreciate the work of the European masters, both ancient and recent. I think you will be amazed at what professionals and students are able to do with the technique of marquetry.

As I write this post, I am enjoying a nice hot cup of Peet's coffee, black, made with a French press. I have not yet eaten. Fortunately, food has not spoiled my taste for the coffee!