Monday, January 31, 2011

Porte Ouvert 2011

One of the great consequences of the internet age is the ability to have strangers around the world share common interests. I know the movie industry has discovered this. I expect the movie about facebook to win an oscar. Who would have thought, just a decade ago, that you could tweet or unfriend someone?

I have only blogged (again, a modern concept!) for a few months, but I am amazed at the international response I have received. I imagine my words as just a few data drops in the immense ocean of internet content, but people have found me, just like a message in a bottle is picked up on the other side of the world by a stranger. It boggles the mind.

One of these kind souls is Filip Tanghe, and I believe he lives in Brussels. He also attended a Stage at ecole Boulle and returns each year, when he can, to tour the open house. This year he offered to take some photos for me, since I am not able to make the trip. Looking at the photos I am filled with warm memories of my years in school in Paris, nearly 2 decades ago.

I knew that when Gabriel Fuchs replaced Pierre Ramond there would be changes. I heard that Mr. Fuchs wanted to "modernize" the atelier and invite more contemporary work from his students. Pierre was always passionate about the past, and admired the great works from the 18th century, as well as supporting newer ideas.

I had no idea that the school would tear down the entire wing of the building and start over!

The school is built in a large "U" shape, with a courtyard in the center. The original wing still stands in place, with the names of great ebenistes posted in tiles on the outside wall. The front wing is now draped in construction scaffolding and I assume will also be modernized. The wing which housed the marquetry workshops on the 6th floor, as well as the finishing workshops and other classes, has been replaced by a modern glass structure. All the classrooms are new.

In addition, the old cast iron jig saws have been replaced by modern jigsaws. Filip reports that there are 5 of them, as well as two new chevalets. One of the new chevalets is designed to work either left or right handed, as well as being adjustable in height. These new chevalets also have carved masks on the front block, perhaps since I note the carving workshop is in the next room to the marquetry atelier.

He also sent me a photo of Pierre, who is now 75 years old. I note he is older and grayer than I remember, but there is one feature that hasn't changed in 20 years. His passionate smile still fills the workshop.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Porte Ouvert

Since I was invited by a professor to attend a stage at ecole Boulle, I had no idea how difficult it was to visit the school. Once I was provided with my student identification and pin, I realized how special it was to be accepted into that institution.

Assuming you were visiting Paris as a tourist and wanted to see the school, this is probably what would happen: you would enter the front door and meet a security guard sitting behind a window. He would ask you what your purpose was and, if you had not made prior arraignments to visit, send

you away. Assuming you got past the entry, you would find yourself in a lobby without any information on where to go; just the normal crowd of students passing on their way to class.

The actual administration is located on the second floor, and, since the school is 6 floors high, you would need to ask them where the workshop is that you wanted to visit. There are many different workshops in the school. Classes in upholstery, chair making, cabinet making, carving, engraving, metal working, industrial design, marquetry, finishing, sculpting, and so on. Everywhere you go there is amazing talent. The teachers are all outstanding in their profession, and the students have such a high level of ability that it is taken for granted that anything is possible.

Once a year, however, the school opens its doors, and makes it possible for the public to see the work. This happens at the end of January, in a few weeks. I can imagine that this week the entire school is cleaning up its floors, ceilings, lamps, windows and setting up dioramas in each workshop to show off their projects. It is a busy time for all.

Busloads of people arrive, from all over Europe. Italians, Germans, English, French and many other countries arrive to tour the school during this special time. As an English speaker, it became my duty to explain the marquetry workshop to these visitors who did not speak French. It was a treat I will always cherish.

It also gave me a chance to tour the entire school during this time. Normally, I had very little chance to see all the other workshops, since I was busy doing my student work. But during "open door" I could wander all over the school and discover for myself what was going on. Behind every door was a new experience and a chance to see some wonderful work.

If you have the chance right now, go to Paris, take the metro to Place Nation and walk two blocks to ecole Boulle. It is worth the trip.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Douville Family Veneer Saw

During my first year at school, I was joined by two other marquetry workers who, like myself, were invited by Pierre to study for a "stage" of work. One of these workers was Danish and the other was Spanish. It was an interesting period for the three of us, starting with the language issues. Fortunately, the Danish spoke English and understood enough French to explain to me what was said. Unfortunately, the Spanish spoke French, but with such a strange accent that I was more confused than ever.

One day Pierre announced to the three of us that we were invited to visit a workshop just outside Paris which had been in business since around 1800. I had no idea why this was such a special opportunity, except that it was a historic atelier. From the comments of the other students I began to realize this was the chance of a lifetime, and something which not everyone was given the chance to experience.

The workshop was that of the Douville family, who were responsible for creating the first mechanical saw for veneer around 1805. The saw was still in place, and the two elderly brothers who lived there were the 5th generation of the family. They were still in business, sawing veneer, and rarely opened their doors for visitors.

Before we went, Pierre related a story to us which helped us to appreciate what to expect. He said that there was a museum conservator from a major American museum who had visited the workshop previously. During the visit this curator asked if he could use the restroom. "Is it a petite affair or a grand affair?" inquired one of the Douville brothers. "A petite affair," replied the conservator, properly dressed in a nice suit. "There's the wall," was the answer.

When we arrived it looked like any other home on the street, surrounded by the famous wall. We were greeted by two men, both in their 80's and unmarried. They excitedly showed us the car which had sat in the garage since the 1920's and was in perfect condition. We went to lunch and they drank several bottles of wine. It was a very interesting conversation, which became more interesting after lunch.

My first impression of the workshop, which was in a building in the back yard, was that it was just a large building full of wood and tools. The wood frame saw stood in the center of the room and around the walls were cabinets with piles of wood, veneer and tools scattered everywhere. The most amazing thing was that the entire room was full of a dark, heavy sawdust that was at least 3 feet deep over every square inch, except the narrow paths where people walked. The sawdust was mahogany, rosewood, tulip, kingwood, and I can only imagine what other woods, and it actually covered the drawers up to the top surface of the cabinets. The walkways, or paths if you can call them that, were narrow clear trails which were only about a foot wide.

"Have you ever lost anything?" I asked, incredulously. "Only once," one replied, "Remember when dad thought he had lost that diamond ring?" The other answered immediately, "But then he found it years later." They both agreed that nothing was ever lost in the mess, it was just not readily available at that moment. Surely it will turn up later...

I was not allowed to take any photographs during this field trip, which is unfortunate. Within the next 5 years the shop would be sold and closed. Patrick George purchased most of the veneer and the original saw was taken apart and moved to his veneer store in Bagnolet. Patrick George operates two veneer saws, which were made later in the 19th century. I include a photo of one of these tools with this post. The other photo is a tool collector in the South of France who owns a similar saw.

I had originally posted a story about this special type of veneer saw on July 26, 2010. To my knowledge, there is a German shop and a shop in Belgium, in addition to Patrick George and the person in the South of France, which is the total list of these saws currently operating in the world.

I now realize how important is was to visit the original tool and talk with the original family. At no time did I ask to use the bathroom.