Monday, February 25, 2013

Art Institute of Chicago Project

Last year we here at the American School of French Marquetry were contacted by staff at the Art Institute of Chicago to see if we could provide assistance in a project they were developing.  It seems that, in our modern age, most visitors to museums expect some form of electronic interaction to enhance their experience.  As usual, I am showing my age.  Lately the most common term I have been using to describe myself is "dinosaur."  "Back in my day," I say to anyone who will listen to me, "we would just go to museums and actually look at the objects, instead of a video screen."

Anyway, I want to encourage any activity these days that will keep people interested in decorative objects, and increase their understanding of the process used to create these wonderful artifacts of the past.  So Patrice and I were enthusiastic about being asked to help.

The AIC flew me back to see the original objects we were being asked to interpret, a Boulle coffer made of tortoise shell and brass, and a secretary by Roentgen.  It was my first visit to the Art Institute, and my first return to Chicago since I was there about 40 years ago.  I was impressed with the way the downtown has changed, the look of Millennial Park, and the new skyline.  What a nice place.  I also want to compliment them on their public transportation system.  I stepped off the plane, crossed the airport terminal to the metro and was dropped off directly in front of my hotel.  Then I had to simply walk across the street to the Institute.  (In San Diego, there is a trolly system, but it doesn't go the one mile to the airport.  You need to get a car to go from the airport to the trolly system...)

Working with the staff of the European Decorative Arts department, it was decided to use one corner of the Boulle coffer design and one element of the marquetry on the drawer of the secretary as a demonstration.  I returned to work with photos and dimensions of each.

We decided to divide the project, according to our strengths.  Patrice has a talent for accuracy and was assigned the Roentgen design to create.  I selected the Boulle pattern, as most of my work has been using that process.

One thing I changed was the material for the Boulle.  Although I have actual tortoise shell which was purchased legally prior to the C.I.T.I.E.S. ban on endangered species, I did not want to use it.  Instead, I used common animal horn, with colored paper backing, to simulate the look of the shell.  Also, I decided not to use a chevalet to cut the design, as it is still not conclusive that this tool was used by Boulle.  Therefore, I used the foot powered frame saw, as that was a tool I believe was available at that time.

You may note in the video that I do not worry about following the design.  I worry about symmetry and clean curves, and since all the materials are cut simultaneously, it doesn't matter how close to the design the cutting is done.  Also, at one point it says that the toothing of the brass "keeps it from moving in the packet."  That is not correct.  We explained that the toothing of the brass was to remove the oxidation and increase the gluing surface, but that got confused when they created the subtext.

Patrice used a hand held fret saw and a bird's mouth support, cutting the internal elements with a perpendicular angle and the exterior of the design with a bevel angle.  That means that, by cutting the cavity in the background veneer with a similar angle, the elements will fit nicely.  It was interesting to do the research on Roentgen's method, as the Metropolitan Museum in New York was exhibiting works by Roentgen and the book they published, "Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens," is well written and informative.  As it turns out, on page 230 a very similar flower is shown being cut and inlaid, using the same methods as Patrice.  We got the book only after we had completed the video project, so seeing confirmation of our work was rewarding.

It is interesting that at the same time as we were creating this video for the AIC, our friend, Yannick Chastang was creating a similar video for the Victoria and Albert museum.  It is fun to compare these videos, as there are slight differences in the process, as I am sure there were slight variations in the methods used during the period.

Here are the videos:

Patrick does Boulle

Patrice does Roentgen

Yannick does Boulle

I want to thank the kind staff at the Art Institute of Chicago.  They made this project fun and rewarding.  As a special thanks to our patron who sponsored the project, Patrice and I used one of the Roentgen flowers and framed it with a Boulle design and purpleheart and ebony trim.  We sent it off to the AIC and they presented it to our generous sponsors, with our compliments.

A Small Token of our Gratitude

Of course, if you have any questions or comments on these videos, please ask.


Renewable Community Power said...


What sort of shell did you use instead of the turtleshell? Where can I get this from?

Anonymous said...

C'est la vie

I do not deal with change well, as some of us 'dinosaurs' do. However, anything that keeps people interested in the arts is OK by me.

Thanks for unlocking some mysteries of the packet, I was looking at the Gole table, wondering how the marquetry was accomplished on that piece.

Were do you source the material for marquetry such as you did on this Boulle piece?

Warm regards


W. Patrick Edwards said...

Both of these questions have the same answer: Patrick George. He is near retirement age, but his nephew, Frederic, is the 6th generation of the same family to continue the business, J. George et Fils, located on the east edge of Paris, at the end of Metro line 3.

I have spent a lot of money there over the years, and the quality and selection of their materials is unequaled. They operate two antique saws which saw hardwoods into 1.5mm thickness, and also offer sliced veneers, bone, mother of pearl, horn, inlay banding, sharkskin, and a diverse selection of other materials necessary for furniture restoration.

I used cow horn for the Boulle project. They sell it as flat stock, and it is not expensive. You need to sand and scrape it to the proper thickness, then add color and paper to the glue side to simulate shell. It polishes nicely and looks very authentic. As you might know, cows are not endangered.

They can ship small orders by post, and larger shipments by air or sea. They are very professional and take personal attention to each customer.

Just click on the link on my blog. Tell them I sent you and they will treat you right.

Chuck said...

Patrick, Patrice, Shop Cat et al,

Your blog continues to be an amazing source of informative ancient technology and yes, entertainment! I relate fully to the dinosaur syndrome. I have not yet embraced smart phones, tablet computing or Facebook; the latter primarily from a philosophical difference of their usage of the terms "friend" and "like". But the retirement years gap was thrust on us interestingly enough at a visit to the Metropolitan Museum to see the "Extravagant Inventions" exhibit of Roentgen furniture. It was extremely well displayed so you could get a good look at the furniture. Where needed, videos and wall mounted screens showed the furniture items in action as appropriate. The Queen Marie Antoinette dulcimer automaton had videos showing the action and also the music it played. Musical clocks with pipes and dulcimer actions were played from ceiling speakers at a volume consistent with their live "performances" but only at reasonable intervals. all in all it was an amazing visit experience well enhanced by the videos that showed the furniture pieces in action. Alas, not wanting to lug the catalog around the museum the rest of the day, I postponed purchase and they had run out when we were ready to leave. It is on order however but is delayed and I am anxious.

A further display of my personal antiquity happened at the Thomas J. Watson Library at the Met. Our local librarian had helped me make contact there and they issued a reader card. Two days earlier I had requested the book on mahogany that you referenced in your interesting post a while back. They had it ready and showed us to the reading room where we looked at the book. Then they showed me to a special book scanner that held the book in a cradle at a slight angle and with no stress to the book spine. Two pages were scanned simultaneously and the images retained in computer memory. Scanned 63 pages in ten minutes. Then because I had forgotten to bring a "thumb drive" for the USB connection it allowed me to email the pages to myself. All at no cost! Felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up in the 21st C.

The videos created by you, Patrice and Mr. Chastang are excellent showing the elements of the processes at just the right level for the museum visitor. In Patrice's video it appears that in the first sawing scene he is sawing at a bevel angle? In a subsequent scene the saw is vertical. I'm guessing that vertical is correct but wanted to ask. Of keen interest to me is the dyeing of the individual pieces for his design. Can you share any information about the dyes used and concentrations?


Renewable Community Power said...

Thanks for the reply.

Do you put coloured (ie pre-patterned) paper on the back of the horn, or colour it by hand then back with paper?

If the former where is that style of paper available - it's particularly beautiful but I've never seen anything like it; if the latter do you have any video etc links to show how it's done?

As always, I am in complete awe :)

W. Patrick Edwards said...


I noted in my post that Patrice cut all the internal lines of the design with a perpendicular angle. However, he cut around the outside line of the flower and the other elements, like leaves and branches, at an angle. That is because Roentgen carved out the cavities in his background veneer with a slight angle to the edge, so the inlay elements would fit tight.

Note that in our example and the original furniture of the 18th century, they used sawn veneers, which were often 2mm thick or more, so it was much easier to do this. Final scraping of the surface left a nice marquetry panel, which ended up about 1mm thick at least.

The dyes we used are traditional French natural dyes such as acajoutine, chicorée, brou de noix and others, mixed in water. The only "modern" dye we used was for the green, and we used Transtint, which works excellent and fast.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

There are many types of paper and methods to color horn and shell. I use Japanese paper, some of which has pre printed colors which look good without any additional color.

However, I use shellac and pigments to paint some designs which I thought looked more like the panel I was trying to copy. The horn was completely clear and transparent, so it worked well. The paper was glued to the horn with fish glue.

This is something I just figured out. I don't know about any videos that show this.

Anonymous said...

Jeff Jewitt has done really great formulating the TransTint dyes I've used them several times on figured veneers.

I was interested in the fact you didn't use the chevalet to cut the packet, opting for the frame saw. What was the earliest known date of that chevalet was used?

Thanks Pat



W. Patrick Edwards said...


You raise a good question. I will sit down today and write a blog post on the history of this tool. The answer is more than a simple response.


Mike Lingenfelter said...


You said Patrice used dyes that were water base. Even after drying are their no issues with the wood "distorting"? Is dying piece by piece more practical then having a piece of veneer already dyed that color?


W. Patrick Edwards said...

Yes, Patrice used traditional natural water based dyes on the Roentgen exercise. Water, of course, will expand the wood across the grain, so there is distortion.

Note two things about this exercise. One, we used sawn veneers, as did Roentgen. They are more stable and it takes longer for the dyes to penetrate. Two, the entire flower was cut out of one layer of wood, so there was a lot of wood removed by the kerf of the saw blade. Even if the wood expanded, the pieces still fit, and the expansion just closed up the saw gap.

I do not recommend using this process with the piece by piece method, as the parts fit much more tightly, and the expansion will create a problem.

At the same time, using very hot sand to darken the pieces will eliminate the moisture.

We always use pre tinted woods for our work.


Velma said...

This is cool!