On the coffee table in front of the fireplace the maid set out Earl Grey tea and thick slices of Christmas cake. A German shepherd dozed on the Oriental rug near the crackling, popping fire. Every wooden surface in the room that could take a polish had been rubbed and buffed. It all glowed with firelight. The room’s taste was so refined you would never know that each stick of furniture in it was worth many thousands of dollars.
The two men standing in the entry hall ignored the furniture and the steaming teapot, the slices of cake, and the cozy fire. They admired the front doors. The men made an odd pair. The taller of the two, Brett Hesser, boyish, lanky, animated, towered over Maurice Kaplan, the homeowner, who in his late 80s speaks in a soft, pacific voice. It takes a while to realize that many of his comments are laced with lethal irony. Maurice Kaplan has been around the block a few times. He is nobody’s fool. His anecdotes begin with phrases like, “Last week, when my daughter, who writes for the Economist, was introducing the Turkish prime minister at a conference in Istanbul…” and, “I remember the day Nelson Rockefeller walked into my office…”
Kaplan and his wife are board members of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. They have donated big bucks to both institutions — and to the San Diego Museum of Art, an act of generosity that some people, including the Kaplans, fear was about as useful as tossing money down a rat hole. But Maurice Kaplan is philosophical about his philanthropy. His true love is the collection of fine woodwork in his home, one of the largest and finest collections of its kind in North America.
“You know, Brett,” Kaplan says, “these doors are really the showpiece of the entire collection.”
Hesser blushes and gazes at the white toes of his squeaky high-top tennis shoes.
“Thank you, Mr. Kaplan.”
The doors, eight feet by five feet, are magnificent. They are composed of more than 200 separate handcrafted pieces of glass, brass, Honduran mahogany, and primavera wood from the Yucatán Peninsula. They consumed more than 350 man-hours of effort. The hinges alone took two full weeks of work.
Hesser made the “mesmerizingly labor intensive” doors. He charged $7200 for them, but Kaplan was so pleased with Hesser’s work that he gave him $8000. When the exquisite doors were installed in Kaplan’s Rancho Santa Fe home, a delegation from the American Craft Council in New York flew out to admire and take pictures of them.
“Yes, yes,” Kaplan sighs, stroking the chocolaty mahogany with his pale hand. “You did a very fine job, Brett. You have every right to be proud. These doors are spectacular.”
Kaplan’s home faces south. On the drizzly late afternoon he and Hesser stood in the entryway admiring Hesser’s craftsmanship, the light was turning the thin watery blue of not quite day, not quite night. You had on the one hand a young artist at the beginning of his career and on the other an elderly businessman now long settled into his success. The doors seemed especially suggestive of inside and out, beginnings and endings.
It took a long time for Hesser to arrive at Kaplan’s entryway. Before he could warm his scarred hands before Kaplan’s Rancho Santa Fe fireplace, Hesser had to do time in rural western Massachusetts, where he lived in a filthy, windowless basement with three anxious lunatics.
“I am the son of a child-psychologist mother and Marine Corps colonel father who taught computer science at the Naval Academy,” Hesser explains. “When my dad would holler at me, my mom would explain why. It worked like that. I had the sort of typically strict upbringing you would expect of someone who had a Marine Corps colonel for a father, and I had the sort of typically wild, rebellious adolescence you would expect of someone brought up like that. When I graduated from high school I had absolutely no direction. I was crazed. I was drinking and crashing cars and chasing women. We were living in Rhode Island at the time. And my parents were at their wits’ end trying to figure out what to do with me. I didn’t have any idea what to do with me either.
“But my mom remembered that I had done well in shop class in high school. So, she starts doing research and she finds out about Leeds Design Workshop, this incredibly great, fine woodworking school in western Massachusetts. She sends away for an application and I fill it out. One of the requirements for admission was that you had to show an example of your work — a box, the basic component of cabinetry. I remember my dad driving me up to the school, and I had this ridiculous box I’d made in woodshop class. For whatever reason they decided it wasn’t so ridiculous. I remember the day I got my acceptance letter. You know, usually when you get accepted to a school you get this really thick envelope. But Leeds sent me this very thin envelope. My mom, the child psychologist, saw the envelope and thought she’d cushion the blow for me. She opened it. And when I walked in the door that afternoon, she said, ‘You’ve been accepted!’ And I ran out of the house, waving the letter, dancing up and down the street of this Navy housing project where we lived in Rhode Island.
“That’s how I ended up at Leeds Design Workshop in Easthampton, Massachusetts. It’s a bucolic, very serene little town of about 30,000. It’s in what they call the ‘educational breadbasket’ of Massachusetts, the five-college area — Smith, Holyoke, Hampshire, Amherst, and U Mass aren’t far away. The school I attended was founded in 1970 and held its classes in an old textile mill. Easthampton had been a big textile producer until the mid-1800s, and this huge mill in which I studied was filled with all kinds of different artists — potters, four or five world-class furniture makers, bookbinders, leathersmiths, metal workers. It was a wonderful environment in which to learn. To really understand fine art, you have to be immersed in artistry of all types. We were up on the fourth floor and had these huge windows that let sunlight flood in. In the fall, you could see the trees, watch the leaves turn from day to day. And in the mill, you could trade skills with the other artists. You could trade a bookcase, for example, for gold-leaf work on a project you were working on. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It took a while before I was doing projects.