Thursday, August 14, 2014

Tarsia a Toppo or Inlay?

The Cube Design "inlay" around the Drawers is Tarsia a Toppo

Charles Montgomery was one of the most important men in my life, even though I only met him once.  Isn't it amazing how someone can have such an impact in such a short time?  Of course, I had followed Mr. Montgomery and his work for nearly a decade before I met him.  During my time at Winterthur, I managed to find a drawer in the back room of the library where his 3x5 index note cards were kept and I read every one more than once.

At that time I was working on my personal research project: "The Regional Characteristics of American Empire Furniture 1815-1845" and wanted to show it to him.  So in August, 1977, I travelled to Yale and walked into his office.  His secretary was very pleasant and told me he was returning from Europe and would be in the following Monday.  I left my name and contact information for where I was staying in Hartford and left, unsure if I could actually get a chance to see him.

To my surprise, early on Monday I received a phone call from the secretary telling me that Mr. Montgomery would be pleased to meet with me the next day.  I hurried down to Yale and was waiting for him when he arrived that morning.  I noticed that his secretary had a desk full of work that I assumed needed Mr. Montgomery's attention after his trip.  Instead, as soon as he walked in, he shook my hand, smiled to his secretary, and said that he would be in conference and not to be disturbed.

He invited me into his office, which was a desk surrounded by books and file cabinets.  He pulled out a yellow legal notepad, picked up a pen, sat down and said:  "Tell me what you have found."  We talked for 4 hours.  At the end of my "presentation" he said that I needed to follow up on some other lines of research, in particular the "Price Books" of that period.

As you can imagine I floated out of that meeting and the rest of the day was a blur, as I continued on my trip.  When I returned home the next week, I found a letter from him.  It was dated August 16, 1977 and said:

"I enjoyed seeing you last week and remembered after you left something that I should have told you about, namely, an article I had on regional characteristics in a wonderful book, American Arts, 1750-1800: Towards Independence.  It dealt with regional characteristics and I enclose a xerox copy for you.
Good luck to you."

The next year I heard that Charles F. Montgomery, Curator of the Garvan and Related Collections of American Art and Professor of Art History, had died at the age of 68.

The reason I am thinking of this episode of my life is that Charles Montgomery wrote one of the most important books on American Furniture I have: American Furniture: The Federal Period, published in 1966.  I asked him to sign my copy when I was there, and he graciously wrote: "For Patrick Edwards, on the occasion of a most interesting discussion about Empire furniture.  Good Luck."

In this book, he began to create the basic structure for "regional characteristics" as a way to understand American furniture, and his work is certainly responsible for the quality of research and analysis that is currently being conducted.  He discussed form and design, including decorative elements, as well as wood species and construction features, and started the classification of these features using documented examples from each region.

One page of the book, in particular is significant, as it is the first time I am aware of that the "inlay" motifs found on furniture are attributed to a region.

Taken from Montgomery's Book

Charles Montgomery referred to this material as "Stringing and Banding" and most woodworkers I know just call it "inlay."  Mr. Montgomery did not explain how it was made or why he considered it to be a regional characteristic beyond the fact that it was found on documented pieces from a certain area.

It was a decade later that Dr. Pierre Ramond published his work, Marquetry,  that I actually began to understand the process of how this "inlay" was made, and why it might be localized to a certain region. In addition, I learned the proper name for this decoration: Tarsia a Toppo.  The real problem with the term "inlay" is that it is both a verb and a noun.  Thus, I can describe "inlaying the inlay" into my furniture, but it is not clear what I mean.

Pierre shows the process of making Toppo in his book.  His chapter on "Procedures" breaks down the historical development of marquetry into 5 methods, each with a uniquely different process.  Tarsia a Toppo is one of these.  The reason it is local to a specific region is that a workshop making Toppo generally only makes Toppo, and not other work.  The design is built up in a block which is quite large, and then strips of "inlay" are cut off and sold.  To survive in the market place, a Toppo maker must have several cabinet shops in the area to purchase his stock.  That is why a Toppo supplier in New York would usually supply New York cabinet shops and a maker in Boston would supply Boston and the surrounding area, and so on.

Pierre illustrated the making of Tarsia a Toppo here:

Taken from Ramond's Book

I am sure that there are an infinite number of possibilities for Toppo design.  That is one of the exciting things about the process.  If you can imagine it, then you can build it.

These days, inlay banding or Toppo is manufactured commercially and sold in supply houses.  Here is an example of "store bought" and "home made" strips:

Commercial Strips on top and Home Made on bottom
Over the years I have made toppo for projects and restoration, generally since I work in thicker material and modern strips are too thin for my use.  Also, I like the subtle irregularity in the design which matches the hand made work I do.

Here are some of my examples:

Home Made from Sawn Veneer
And for lectures, I have made a larger than usual example to pass around:

Sample Toppo
There is a sub-set of Tarsia a Toppo which is unique to England.  It became popular during the 19th century and is called Tunbridge Ware.  I have a book written by Brian Austen and published in 1989 which goes into great detail about how it was made.  I usually compare it to needlepoint, in that the design is made up of small squares of wood in different colors.  Like Tarsia a Toppo the design is made up into a large block and then cut into thin strips which are glued on the project.  Here is a page from Mr. Austen's book:

How Tunbridge Ware is made
Here are two examples of this type of work which are also from his book:

Two examples of Tunbridge Ware

Rosewood Box with Tunbridge Ware 
Another example of this type of work is a method used in Japan.  I first heard about it from Pierre and almost didn't believe it was possible.  However, now that I see it on YouTube, I believe it.  It involves the same method of making a pattern in a block.  The big difference is that the strips are not sawn off the block, but instead a razor sharp plane is used to strip off the surface, which is then glued down on the project.  Simply amazing.  

Here is one example of the Japanese Tarsia a Toppo method: Japanese Work

Like the Tunbridge Ware I would not like to be asked to restore this kind of surface.  I am kinda spoiled by working with 1.5mm thick sawn material.  As to my mentors, Charles Montgomery and Pierre Ramond, I can only express my deep gratitude for the time they spent to answer my questions.

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