Monday, July 1, 2024

The History of the Treasure Box Series

Patrice Lejeune and W. Patrick Edwards show off their creations, the "Treasure Box" series, 2008-2024. 

 When the economic crash of 2008 happened, all our business plans for making expensive marquetry furniture changed. We needed to revise our approach to creating new and exiciting objects in order to follow the money which was still available in a dramatically changed market. Previously we had had little difficulty in selling objects that involved roughly 800 man hours of skilled labor and a fair amount of expensive materials for six figures to wealthy clients. After all, we were known for producing high style marquetry covered spec pieces and our clients were happy to support us. 

 That dynamic changed in 2008. I decided to take a new approach to production, using a special method of creating marquetry surfaces that I had studied at ecole Boulle, in Paris. That method, called "piece by piece," allowed the worker to create multiple identical marquetry surfaces in one process, cutting the elements of the design separtely from the background. It required a very high degree of precision and my partner, Patrice Lejeune, was more than able to do that perfectly. 

 Therefore, instead of spending so much time creating one object, we could spend the same amount of time creating multiple identical objects, which allowed the price for each to be much more affordable. We decided to make four at a time, since a small limited edition run was attractive to us as well as the client.

 I searched the internet and found a late 17th century marquetry box which sold at Christies in Monaco for 18,000 euros.  It looked like the perfect object for our new production series, which we called "Treasure Box I."

Here is the photo of the top of the antique box:

Here is the interior:

We used only the methods and materials which would have been available during the last decades of the 17th century.  We created four identical boxes in the first series, and were able to sell all of them before the construction was completed.  Three sold for $15,000 each and one had a different customized interior which sold for $20,000.

Here is the result of our efforts: Treasure Box I

Here is the top image:

Here is the standard interior with a secret compartment:

The interior is veneered in olive wood with kingwood and boxwood accents.  The exterior is Gabon ebony with various exotic and rare tropical hardwood sawn veneers, purchased in Paris.

The instant success of our first Treasure Box series encouraged us to look for another example, and we found this antique box on the internet:

Here is a photo of the interior:  (we like marquetry birds)

In our production we used bleached bone instead of ivory and were able to actually color some of the bone green for the leaves.  Here is our version: Treasure Box II

This is a photo of the top of the box.  The detail is amazing, considering every element was cut separately from the ebony background.  Some of the elements are less than 1mm in size.

For the interior, we essentially copied the original, but we added a secret tray with gilt leather surface which pops out automatically when the owner pushes on the wood interior in a special spot.  The interior has tulip wood framed with ebony on a bloodwood ground.

Once again we were fortunate to be able to sell all four of this "Treasure Box II" series before the project was completed.  This gave us a lot of encouragement to continue this effort, even though it had taken us nearly 6 years so far.  These latest boxes had sold for $25,000 each and we were pleased with the results.

When we decided to create Treasure Box III we aimed for the moon. Patrice and I had spent a lot of time at the Getty museum in Los Angeles and were fascinated with the late 17th century marquetry Coffer on display.  It was essentially an empty oak box with amazing marquetry surfaces on the exterior.  However, its size was too large for a practical use and we took our inspiration from this design and reduced the size overall to 1/3 scale.

Here is the original Coffer courtesy Getty Museum:

We contacted a good ebeniste friend in Paris, also a graduate of ecole Boulle, and hired him to find a stock of old growth French white oak, and rough out all the components for the case.  This allowed us to focus our efforts on designing and creating the marquetry surfaces, as well as the custom hardware we wanted for the complex interior elements.  We were not just making an empty box.  We wanted several secret compartments, silk writing surfaces, and mirrors to make it decorative as well as practical.

This is the photo of the top of our box:

This is a photo of the side of our box:

As we were in the middle of production of four of these boxes, we were approached by the wife of one of our best clients.  She asked if we could complete a box in 3 months so she could give it as a surprise birthday gift for her husband's 50th birthday.  That order changed our plans completely, as all our efforts went into completing one of these on a deadline and the other three were put on the side of the shop.

We were successful in delivering our first "Treasure Box III" on time and the client was very pleased.  However, as he sat looking at it, he had an idea and turned to us.  "Can you make a stand for it?"  Patrice and I looked at each other and knew what we had to do.  We had to make a series of four stands to compliment our boxes, each in the Louis XIV style.

This is the stand:

Instead of using Gabon ebony for the "fond" or background, we decided to use a rare wood, popular during the 17th century and not commonly known in English work.  This wood is ferreol (Swartzia Caesalpiniaceae).  It is found in the Amazon forests of Brazil and Guyana. It is a dark chocolate brown, very dense and has the hardness of brass.  It is so dense that it sinks in water and is known by natives in South America as "ironwood".  I was fortunate to have purchased several flitches of this wood in Paris during the 1990's and wanted to use it for only the best pieces.

This is the result: Treasure Box III on stand

Since the original production run was disrupted, and the subsequent efforts to make matching tables further delayed our process, the creation of four "Treasure Box III" series took nearly 7 years to complete.
During that time we were able to sell three of the Treasure Boxes for $35,000 each and one of the tables for $15,000.  We still have two nearly finished tables, which haven't sold and one complete box and table which remains available for $50,000.  This is the last of its kind, as we probably will not continue spending time and energy on this series.  We are very proud of our efforts and need a break.

In particular, we want to sincerely thank our patrons who purchased our work.  They make this possible.

You can see all the boxes on our YouTube channel "3815 Utah"

Saturday, January 29, 2022

With Age Comes Wisdom

 I have not posted on my blog for nearly a year.  Not because I have nothing to post but because the activities of my life have kept me busy with work.  It has not been a couple of "normal" years and I do not need to explain why.  The most obvious result of the global pandemic is that people are spending most of their time indoors and not spending money on entertainment, restaurants, parties, and other diversions.

For me the result is that more and more pieces of furniture are being restored and I have plenty to do.

Another reason for my absence from this blog is that I reached a point where I thought I had said everything about my life that was needed to be said.  I am content with my success.  I have a wonderful personal life and cherish my few friends and I love my life partner, who has stood by me for half a century. 

I even have returned to music, which I have always enjoyed.  When I was in college at UCSD in the 1960's I was the violist in the university quartet, and played in several community orchestras.  Because I went into this business after I graduated, I neglected to play the instrument for the next 40 years.  However, a few years ago I decided to pick it up again and started taking lessons and playing in a local amateur orchestra.  Tonight we are giving a performance and I am excited to be a part of the viola section again.  Playing music is one of the most important arts that humans can create.

It is another start of a new year and with that the mind turns to reflection of the past and anticipation of the things to come.

Last night I was getting ready for bed and for some reason looked into one of the small drawers of the dressing mirror by the bed.  I found some hand written notes from a long time ago and they made me want to share them with you.  

The first line was a quote from Kahil Gibran, "The Playground of Life" (1949)

"This is life.

Portrayed on the stage for ages;

Recorded earthly for centuries:

Lived in strangeness for years:

Sung as a hymn for days;

Exalted for but an hour, but the 

Hour is treasured by Eternity as a jewell."

I was born in 1948 and read Kahil Gibran's works during the 1960's when it was popular.  I am not sure when I created my response to this quote and wrote this response, but at some point I put down my thoughts on note paper and placed it in the drawer of the dressing mirror.  Finding it last night was a special reminder of my journey and I wanted to share it here.

Our Place In The Universe

1.  Each year we celebrate the full cycle of the Earth around the Sun constantly returning us to a new place in time and space.

2.   Every month we feel the full cycle of the Moon which illuminates our nights with subconscious dreams.

3.   Each week we experience the daily activities that weave the colors and texture of the fabric of life.

4.   Every day we circle the globe in pursuit of happiness.

5.   Each hour is a new commitment and a fresh reward.

6.   Every second we stare at reality.

All of the history of Human consciousness is less than a second in the life of the Universe.

At the end of the notes I had written a quote from the Shakers:

"Live your life as though you had a thousand years to live and yet were to die tomorrow."  

Monday, March 15, 2021

More Than One Way To Cane Chairs

 I guess you could say that at my age I am an "old dog."  People always say that "you can't teach an old new tricks."  Well, I am happy to say that this idea is not always true.

I have been hand caning seat furniture for my entire career.  I can't remember the first time or even how I figured it out, but for over 50 years I have done it the same way every time.

If you search online for videos that show how to cane you will find the exact method I have taught myself.  That is to start weaving front to back, then side to side, then front to back.  The fourth step is always the most difficult, since the next side to side weave has to go over and under each of the two front to back strands.  This always pulls them out of place and makes it difficult to get an even pattern.  You need to use  your finger nails to push them back in line, and that is difficult and takes time.

The fifth step is weaving diagonal one direction and the sixth step is weaving the opposite diagonal. 

The seventh step is to attach the binder cane around the perimeter, or in some cases to use round spline to plug the holes.  Depends on the style of the chair.

During my career I have relied on Cane and Basket Supply in Los Angeles for supplies.  They were established in 1934 and are still in business.  They are friendly, efficient and helpful.  Susan usually answers the phone and takes my order which I receive the next day or so.  I appreciate the established relationship I have with them and like to support them as much as I can.  Here is the link:

Cane and Basket Supply

Lately I have been getting a lot of cane jobs, both pressed and hand woven.  It seems that I might be the only business left in San Diego which offers this service.  In any event, when I ordered cane a few weeks ago, the topic of the process of weaving somehow came up.  I mentioned to Susan how I did it and she immediately said that she was taught a different method.  I couldn't believe that there was any other way to do it (thoughts of an old dog!) and she patiently explained what she meant.

"The third step is to weave the first diagonal."

As I write this statement, I am stopped in my tracks thinking about what she meant.  It was like someone telling you how to tie your shoes differently.  After all, you think you know the correct way to tie your shoes!

So the next day, after I received the cane, I was determined to try her method.

First I wove front to back.

Then I wove side to side.

Then I wove the first diagonal, like Susan suggested.

At this step I was stopped in my tracks.  I did not understand what to do next.  I just stood there and looked at what I had done and my impulse was that it was so wrong that I needed to just tear it out and start over.  Fortunately, I did not.  I just decided to quit work and go home.

During the night, as I slept, I thought of the cane process.  At some point before I woke up I had resolved the struggle and realized how smart this method was, compared to what I had always done.  By weaving the first diagonal, the relative position of both the horizontal and vertical strands remained in place.  It was also much easier to weave the second horizontal when the time came, as you will see from the next photos.

The next morning at work I confidently approached the chair and applied the forth step, adding cane front to back.

This is a close up.

Now it was surprisingly east and fast to weave the second horizontal.

Just be sure that the diagonals fit nicely between the horizontal and vertical corners like the arrows show.

Now it was time to weave the second diagonal.

You can see from this closeup how both diagonals fit nicely between the horizontal and vertical strands.

Adding the binder is always the last step.

I was pleased with the results and happy to learn a new more efficient method of caning.  I still do not expect to ever make a profit or earn a living just with cane work, but I do find it relaxing.  

Perhaps if I ever actually do retire, I can take up basket weaving...

Monday, February 15, 2021

Not A Leg To Stand On!

There are several components of antique furniture which take a beating over the years.  Often it is the drawers that show their age first.  The constant opening and closing of the drawers during use causes the wood to wear down quickly on the sides of the drawers and creates uneven grooves in the runners.  At the same time that the sides wear down, the bottom of the drawer starts to drag on the blades of the case, and if the drawer stops are nailed in place on top of the blades, the nails will eventually saw completely through the bottoms of the drawers.

I am not even mentioning the shrinkage of the drawer bottom which pulls out of the dado in the front, which then allows the bottom to fall out when the drawer is over loaded with junk.

Just a note: Traditional drawers were intended to hold clothing...not books, or dishes, or a large coin collection or fishing weights.  Just clothing.  I have seen it all.  Nothing would surprise me.

However, there is another part of furniture which is often more damaged than the drawers and that is the feet.  People push furniture around without lifting it, they bang the feet with vacuum cleaners, they put things in storage for years and let the feet sit in standing water, they tilt heavy cabinets up on their side putting pressure on the legs, they sit in chairs and lean back or twist the chair around without getting up...

Again, I thought I had seen it all, until this latest project appeared.

A collector in Colorado saw a good French Regence Commode in an auction in San Francisco and placed the winning bid.  He then hired a mover to deliver the commode to his residence on the top of a mountain. This mover put the commode in his truck and placed the heavy marble on top, wrapped it in blankets and drove to the client's house.  I doubt that the mover even checked the feet to see if there was any previous damage or bug infestation.  He also did not consider putting the valuable marble in a wood crate and packing it separately.  It is fortunate that the marble did not break as well.

When he arrived and opened the door there was a surprise.  All the feet had broken off and the commode was sitting on its bottom.  This was no real surprise.  The surprise (and mystery) was that 3 of the 4 feet had somehow completely disappeared!  Since the two front feet had original mercury gilt bronze mounts, of course they had also somehow fallen out of the truck and probably are laying on the road between San Francisco and Denver.  The only surviving foot was a single back leg, which we used as a pattern.

The client delivered the commode to us for restoration at the end of 2019.  But before we began the process of making new feet we thought it was appropriate to photograph it while it rested in a handicap zone...

When we returned to work Patrice indicated he wanted this job, and I went to work on the legs of a wonderful French Louis XVI commode.  So Patrice put the commode upside down and took much of it apart.  Since the legs were badly damaged by years of bugs, we immediately had it fumigated with methyl bromide.  Patrice also had to lift up much of the veneer to get to good solid wood and attach the new leg elements.

At this point it was necessary for Patrice to make a duplicate leg blank, which was sent to Paris for the new replacement mounts to be properly fitted and shaped.  It was about that time that everything shut
down due to the global pandemic.  All we could do was wait and see what would happen. 

The surface veneer was sawn period kingwood, which is a controlled species due to C.I.T.I.E.S.  However, I have a good supply of this and other similar exotic species in stock which I purchased in Europe years before they were listed as endangered, and legally imported them to my workshop.  The original veneers which were carefully lifted were put aside, and when the replacement leg blank was ready they were glued back in their proper position.  It was necessary to "age" the new kingwood with acid to match the color and patina of the rest of the surface.

Finally we were able to receive the replacement bronzes from Paris and spent some time to "age" them to match the original surfaces of the rest of the piece.  All the bronzes (except our two feet of course) were completely authentic and original to this commode, so it was important to complete the set.  

This photo shows the new bronze during the process, but before it was a complete match.

Here is the end result.  Now the piece can stand proudly on its own feet.  

Meanwhile, I was occupied with the legs of my Louis XVI marquetry commode.  They were originally veneered in purple heart, but the veneer was so badly damaged it was necessary to replace it.  I have posted videos on my YouTube channel (3815Utah) about my method for veneering columns using Old Brown Glue.  In this case, the legs were solid oak and tapered.  The same process worked perfectly.

I also had to match the faded color of the old surface, so I used a two part bleach to get much of the color out of the new purple heart veneer.  Then I added finish and color to get a good match.  This is what it looks like now.  My job was much easier than that of Patrice...

It was fun work and Patrice and I ended up completing our respective projects at about the same time.

PS:  The photo at the top of this post is one of my original art sculptures.  It is a piece of a tree that I cut down for firewood many decades ago.  I just didn't have the heart to throw that particular piece in the fire...

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Technomania Cult

 When I was an impressionable young man, I wanted to be a nuclear scientist.  I have written here many times about that period of my life.  The worlds of science fiction and the reality of my existence were so mixed up that I did not even try to keep them apart.  The future was exciting.  Man had entered space, landed on the moon and was able to control the atoms themselves.  Nuclear power promised us that soon we would have access to all the free electricity that we wanted.  Movies like "Back to the Future" showed us that not only was time travel a real thing but you could power your flying car with garbage!  How cool is that?

I was a willing participant in a cult, if such a belief system can be called a cult.  Technomania means that you have a passionate enthusiasm for technology.  We were told that, no matter the problems we faced, science and technology would soon provide a solution.  And, of course, since applications of scientific discovery were market driven, it would be affordable to everyone.

I was working as a research physicist in my 20's when I had an epiphany and a dramatic revelation about my personal cosmology and quit my job.  I went from the cult of Technomania to the cult of the Luddites. Just to be clear, if you are not aware of the history of this group, the Luddites were a secret, oath driven group of radicals in England who decided to destroy the weaving looms.  It was clear to this group that the new invention of the loom for weaving would eliminate thousands of manual jobs, mostly employing women in the lower or middle class.  It was argued that technology and the emerging Industrial Revolution was dangerous to traditional jobs, which drove the economy.

Of course, the argument made by the makers of these looms was that it would make fabric better, quicker and much cheaper.  This was the argument that won the day and it was impossible to stop progress by attacking the machine itself.

The essential force behind the Industrial Revolution was the introduction and widespread use of low cost fuel, starting with coal and ending up with the illusion of my youth: nuclear power.  Natural power sources, like water and solar, have remained in the background during this entire time.  This is an interesting observation.  Water power has been used since the dawn of man.  Building dams in recent times has proven to be a reliable source of electricity, even at a certain cost to the environment.  Sunlight has been essential for all growth, plant and animal, and recent developments in solar panels has begun to be accepted.  I have solar panels on my house.  If every house in Southern California had solar panels, we would be exporting electricity to the rest of the country.  However, for that to work, we would need a Federal electrical grid distribution system that doesn't exist.  

The universal decision to use coal for heating and steam power started the introduction of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in increasing quantities, leading to the global greenhouse effect we see today.  The similar introduction of nuclear power and widespread distribution of nuclear waste elements has created biological diseases that were previously unknown.  This has been the cost of progress.

So, I am not an actual Luddite.  I have solar power.  I drive a car.  I use the internet.  I am not a caveman.

But I still believe in the initial concepts promoted by those early 19th century radicals.  Human jobs are essential for human happiness.  Jobs that are rewarding and well paid.  Jobs that provide a certain intellectual challenge for workers to achieve a sense of pride of accomplishment at the end of the day.

This is why I have been content to do the same job every day of my life with pleasure.  As a furniture conservator in private practice I am constantly faced with new challenges.  I am always looking for solutions to problems, while following the simple rules of my trade:  Conserve all original material, respect the original intent of the maker, use reversible materials at all times, follow the "six foot six inch" rule.  (That means that the restoration should not be visible at a distance of six feet, but a knowledgeable person who examines the object from a distance of 6 inches should be able to see the difference.)

There is a considerable amount of forensic analysis required for each project to determine how it was made, what historic repairs have been done, and what should be done to restore it to its original function, since furniture is essentially functional art.

When I sat down to write this post, my initial point was to illustrate that antique furniture was designed to be repaired.  Those woodworkers in the past knew that the business of furniture making was supported by the job of furniture repairing.  They could sell a piece of furniture from time to time, but there was always work and money to be made repairing damaged furniture that was in constant use.  That is why they designed their furniture so that it could be taken apart and repaired by another furniture maker when necessary.  Protein glues, shellac and wax finishes, and general construction methods were all used to support this secondary business of repairing damage.

The Industrial Revolution changed all that.  Can you imagine a business today which relied on repairing IKEA furniture?  Modern furniture is designed to become obsolete and also to be so cheap that it makes more sense to just throw it away instead of paying a worker to fix it.

The same can be said about cars, phones and televisions, clothes, and all modern consumables.  They have an enormous carbon footprint, are designed to become obsolete in a fixed amount of time, and are also economically impossible to repair at some point.  Just more waste for the planet.

As I write these words, I am aware that this post has ended on a sombre mood.  People are out of work and the climate has dramatically changed due to our desire for faster, quicker and cheaper goods.  

I am old enough to remember the television advertisement slogan: "It's Not Nice To Fool Mother Nature!"

It is time for me to get back to work.  I must put down the computer keyboard and return to my work bench where an English marquetry tall case clock is waiting for my attention.  It has stood the test of time since 1690 and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future after I am finished with the restoration.

I am a fortunate survivor of a lost trade.

Saturday, September 5, 2020


                                "ICI NOUS SAVONS LE PASSE POUR LE FUTUR"

 Yesterday I participated in another Zoom group presentation sponsored by the Ruskin Society of Los Angeles.  It was 90 minutes and generally focused on my workspace and projects.  At the end I sat down for a short time to try to discuss my philosophy of work and naturally, when it was over, I immediately thought of concepts that I failed to introduce.  

It seems that every time l end a conversation or lecture and am alone with my thoughts, my brain starts to bring up ideas that were important.  There is always more to add to any discussion no matter how long it may last.

The minute I pressed "end" and the meeting went dark, I thought of the wisdom of Toshio Odate, a nationally recognized woodworker who lives on the East Coast.  I have mentioned this anecdote before in this blog and many times in lectures, but I failed to bring it up during the Ruskin talk, when it would have made an impression on the viewers.

It happened during the American Woodworker shows that were popular many years ago.  These shows brought together noted woodworkers to present their skills.  I was invited to demonstrate French marquetry, Roy Underhill was the keynote speaker and always brought the crowds, and Toshio would set himself in a booth to silently work his skills.

I was in a nearby booth and set up my chevalet, cutting a marquetry project out during the three days of the show.  This would involve many small pieces of wood and lots of discussion with the spectators.  In general, most middle age woodworkers who attended these shows were retired engineers, and they would often look at my wooden tool for a few minutes before offering their opinions about how they could improve it.

"Why don't you hook it up to a motor?"  they would suggest, more often than not.  I would patiently reply that it was designed before the Industrial Revolution when human power was normal, and that I had a lot of respect for the traditional methods and tools.  

I could see in their eyes that they were not satisfied with my answer, as if I was some old hippy who was reluctant to join the modern age.  At some point, when they determined that I was not going to see it their way, they would wander off to look at some new power tool demonstration, searching for that elusive tool that would make them a better woodworker.

However, there was another common statement that I would hear several times a day.  As I would carefully saw out tiny pieces of wood and place them in my tray, over and over for hours, I waited for the inevitable response: "That must take a lot of patience!"

My reply at the time was this:   "No.  Playing golf takes a lot of patience.  I don't see the point of hitting a ball and then chasing it, only to hit it again.  That takes a lot of patience."

I now realize this was a poor answer.  Many of the men who were standing around watching me work were amateur golfers.  This reply only served to alienate them.  I failed to see what they liked about playing golf and they failed to see what I liked about creating marquetry.

During one of my breaks I walked over to watch Toshio demonstrating.  He had an enormous Japanese hand saw in his hands and was re sawing a piece of wood that was about 24" wide, 2" thick and 6' long.  He was slowly and carefully sawing this piece of lumber into veneers.  Without saying a word, he would work for long stretches of time, paying no attention to the audience.

At one point, as I was watching, one of the woodworkers spoke out: "That must take a lot of patience."

Toshio would stop for only long enough to reply:  "No, it takes passion."  Then he would continue, silently.

At that moment I realized the problem with my response to the same question.  These woodworkers loved to play golf because it was a passionate hobby of theirs.  I loved to make marquetry because I was passionately involved with the process of the trade.

When I was working as a physicist, so many years ago, I patiently waited for the end of the week so I could do something that I really loved to do.  As soon as I made the decision to quit working in physics and was able to spend all my time working as a furniture conservator in private practice, I started hearing from my clients the same comment: "You are so lucky to be able to make a living doing what you want to do!"  

Isn't that the point of life?  Do what you love.  Follow your passion.  Be happy.