Some passions are easy to grasp — chocolate, the sea, or Marx Brothers movies. Others are more elusive, harder to explain. I’m afraid the love of chairs falls into the latter category. It’s the sensuous lines, the curve of the back, the embrace of the arms, the carved details that reflect fashion, station, history, and artist. I played verbal volleyball on the phone trying to get an appointment with someone to talk about the subject.
“I’m doing an article on chairs, and I was wondering if I might talk to someone there.” “Chairs?” “Chairs.” “Chairs?” “Yes, chairs.” Chairs are the most common form of furniture, but when you think about what it is to sit, the chair takes on dimension and depth. From chairs we survey, ponder, decide, judge, confide, relax, recline, dine, read, think, rule, and watch TV. As children we play musical chairs; you lose when you are without one.
Chairs are the most anthropomorphic of our everyday tools. They have backs, legs, bottoms, knees, ankles, arms, feet, and ears. They even wear skirts.
In general terms, a chair consists of legs, usually four, a seat or bottom, and a back. But an infinite number of variations are possible. It may have arms; one, two, or three legs; and two or more splats —the upright, wooden, central support of the back — and that splat may be pierced or carved.
Fancier styles may have aprons (or skirts), the decorative horizontal support just below the seat rail, and one of 17 different stretchers, or no stretcher.
A stretcher is a crossbar that joins two of the legs for support. This visible undercarriage adds decoration and/or function to a chair. If the stretchers are a simple box type at a low height, the front piece can make an easy footrest. Regency chairs, in vogue at the time of George IV, have graceful outward slashing saber legs with no stretchers.
The form and function of a chair are about support. Each piece adds to the function. You might assume all four legs are the same length. Look again. Chances are the back legs extend the full height of the chair, forming the side supports for the back. Above the seat, they’re called stiles. The top, or crest, rail is mounted atop the stiles. The splat goes into the bottom of the crest rail and the top of the seat rail, adding strength and balance.
Lathes, invented in the 9th Century, elevated the art of furniture making through a new process called “turning.” While the lathe turned the wood, the craftsman used a hand tool to make the piece round.
Early furniture making was the craft of joining together wood, shortened to “joinery.” Chair makers were called “turners and joiners.”
Antique chairs are held together with pegs or mortise and tendons, not nails or screws. The joints had to be as perfect as a human could make them or a few years of sitting would rock them apart.
Just as with the hula, in chair making every movement has a meaning, or I should say, every style of every piece has a meaning. For instance, the pierced splat of a Chippendale, when topped by carving reminiscent of a pagoda, means the chair is not an early-18th-century piece but a later one influenced by what is called chinoiserie, or “in the Chinese taste.” I always thought the pagoda was a Japanese motif, but it doesn’t matter. In a time before political correctness, oriental was oriental. Because many different variations of each part of a chair exist in a single example, interpreting a chair can be tricky.
What kinds of chairs are valued and preserved, bought and sold, in San Diego? When the need arises, where can you take a chair for repair? Where do you begin to hunt for something that is literally everywhere? I discovered the answer was easy — almost anywhere.
On West Washington in Mission Hills, the smell of the area was more memorable than the look of the shops. Eau de Taco Bell wafted for blocks before and after the fast-food outlet. Atmospheric conditions, I supposed. There was a slight haze that kept all the odors as well as the heat in. It was a warm November. I saw a green awning that said “Antiques” and walked into the shop called the Private Collector.
Dark Victorian furniture, statues, and display cases made islands with narrow walkways. My large shoulder bag was a hazard. I wandered around to get a feel for what was available. In the back-room office were two small sheltie dogs behind an accordion-type gate made to keep children at a distance. The younger one started making a racket to get out and I couldn’t help but encourage him. He let me pet him after the usual coy shyness, but the older dog was more reserved.
David Schutte, the owner, was on his way to a haircut appointment. John Zarling, a salesperson and dealer of antique chairs, answered my questions.
“When you see a chair you might purchase for resale, what’s the first thing you look at?” I asked.
“General overall appearance. Is it unique? Does it have any striking features? Does it have nice lines? What condition is it in? Is this a kind of chair people in San Diego are looking for? We carry a lot of Arts and Crafts chairs of the plainer oak — there’s a large amount of building that goes on in San Diego. There are people who like very formal looks, French chairs or the English Chippendale or Hepplewhite style.”
“Which styles are the toughest to keep?”
“The Hepplewhite style is tough to find, period.”
“I don’t know. There’s quite a range of everything else. The Asian look goes very well in San Diego.”
“Does every culture have its own style of chairs?”
“That’s an interesting question. I’d say there is a wide range in what people expect in chairs, depending on perhaps economy and material even more than cultural.
“We’ve found there’s a lot of Arts and Crafts that really borrows heavily from Korean furniture. They all select very straight lines. You can also get very straight, almost Swedish-looking lines in Chinese furniture. Chinese chairs are taller off the ground. They were constructed so people would be up off the dirt floors.
“Let me show you.” I followed John through a succession of progressively smaller showrooms. A set of four Asian chairs surrounded a table. Clean lines dictated the style.
“These are 1865 Chinese,” John said, caressing the curved, rounded crest rail of one of the horseshoe-back armchairs. It had rounded stiles and a curved, solid splat above a shaped seat. The legs were square and straight and joined by a footrest and stretchers. John was not sure of the wood; it might be elm. Each chair was $495.
Several other Asian-influenced chairs sat in the back room. One was a farmer’s, or pheasant’s, bamboo bentwood chair.
“It’s bent by a process combining water and pressure,” John explained, “and this is a scholar’s chair,” he said, pointing to a small, square, low-to-the-ground carved chair. New-age music that had filled the front room pleasantly felt intrusive in the more confined space. David and I were shouting and we barely knew each other.
“Is it an old one?” I asked.
“I’m not sure this is one of the originals. They were made about 1860. These they still reproduce because they still use the same techniques. That may be what this is.”
“How do you tell the reproduction from the real thing?” I asked, surprised but pleased by his candor.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult. You can’t necessarily tell from type or technique. You can sometimes get hints by shrinkage and staining, but even then…” his sentence drifted.
“So a crack, like this one in the back, might be considered a good thing because it means the wood is so old it shrank?” I asked.
He laughed an uncomfortable laugh. “You can talk to two experts who will give you two completely different opinions.”
“How about someone who’s not selling me something?” This time, I laughed.
“Some of the new stuff will shrink and crack because it’s new wood, not properly cured. Even the old antiques, when they come out of southern China or Southeast Asia, it’s a very humid, tropical climate. They come out here and they shrink and crack because of the change in humidity. So even that isn’t a guarantee.
“The best thing to do is know and trust the people you are buying from. Trust the feeling you get from them because anyone in this business can be taken. I don’t care who they are.”
His caution still ringing, I went from dark to light, stepping back onto the street. I’d parked about a block off Washington. The area shifted almost instantly from commercial to residential, and then back again. Passing a couple of small houses squeezed between businesses, I noticed one with its own landmark. The house was small like its neighbors, but there was a five-foot-tall fountain in a front yard no bigger than three by nine feet. For all practical purposes, the three layers of dripping stone cherubs were the front yard. I found it touching, a grappling for gracious living.
The House of Heirlooms on University looked promising. Wide plate-glass windows displayed furniture, stained glass, mirrors, and rugs. Inside, wood floors let the salespeople know they weren’t alone. Jane Depka offered her help after I explained my mission. “You need to talk to Joyce Ferrante. She’s the only person I know that even comes close to being an expert on antique chairs.”
Driving west on the 8 in the afternoon, the only thing that told me this was fall in San Diego was the quality of light. The late-afternoon sun was thin and delicate in November. It was like driving into a painting by Constable. Not a force to be guarded against as in August — in November, you savor.
Construction or a burst pipe had backed up Point Loma traffic. The opposing lane on Rosecrans was a barely broken line for three lights, and water gushed from somewhere off my path. Finding the right house was easy. Finding a place to park was trickier. Two blocks past my destination, I parked on a side street and walked back.
The house was a lovely, gracious two-story stucco with a red tile roof and an offset entrance. Built in the ’20s or ’30s, it was stylish with old vegetation.
I don’t know what I expected a chair expert to look like — maybe dressed in slipcovers? But when Joyce Ferrante opened the door, I was mildly surprised. She was small and trim with blue eyes and free-flowing, curly, chin-length silver-gray hair, dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, and a black leather vest with colorful embroidery, South American style. The gray hair and the Springsteen outfit were a nice juxtaposition. Just casually guessing, you would put Joyce in that 50-plus group that doesn’t usually get much scrutiny. It’s a shame too, because appearances can be deceiving. At first I thought her accent English, but she told me she was from Australia.
Her manner was cultured, open, and friendly, not the surface “Hi, how are you?” kind of friendly, but genuinely welcoming. She gave the impression of an effortless grace in entertaining strangers, an ambassador’s wife used to receiving on short notice. Only after I produced the tape recorder did she show any sign that a drop-in interview was out of the ordinary. We stopped and started a couple of times, then she hit her stride talking about the chairs in her house.
“I used to manage the House of Heirlooms, the antique store. I worked there about 17 years. Then I taught classes on historical perspectives. We studied antiques and the decorative arts, and the students came to my home. I think it was very successful because nobody else in San Diego did anything like that. The decorative arts include all furniture and furnishings. You could include paintings, rugs, glass, tapestries, and silver. The students were collectors and many local antique dealers. I would do two-hour lectures with good preparation. It wouldn’t be so much slides, as I had a great walnut table and if we were studying silver, I would begin with my earliest piece, which is 1600 — it’s a tiny spoon — and I would go all the way up to the present day.”
“Tell me about the chair you’re sitting in,” I urged.
“It’s French. It has a carved wood frame of beech and an oval back.”
Carved oval fluting decorated the apron’s edge. “It’s almost an egg-and-dart design,” Joyce said, following the outline with her finger. Also called egg-and-anchor, it’s a repeating band of ovals with alternating darts. A classic element, the egg-and-dart design graces everything from picture frames to fireplace molding. Decorative medallions on square-block vase turnings accented reeded legs with no stretchers.
“An original Louis XVI side chair like this would have been painted in the 18th Century. This is a copy. Instead of being made about 1770, it was made about 1880, a hundred years later, when this style was back in fashion. The fashions probably changed every 25 years because that’s how we measure a generation. In other words, when somebody grows up, at 25, they don’t want to have what their parents had; they want something different.
“The styles are labeled in actual periods, you know.” She listed some. “In England you have the Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean, William and Mary, and Queen Anne. Then about the beginning of the 18th Century, you hit the peak of design and execution with the Georgian period, Kings George I, II, III, and IV, although that period, George IV, is more commonly referred to as the Regency period.
“Robert Adam and his brother James were both architects who believed that every detail of a house and its furnishings should grow out of one mind. They employed and influenced all of the great cabinetmakers of England — Chippendale, Sheraton, and Hepplewhite. They even designed the carpets, the table services, everything for decoration for each home.
“Of course, the other countries have their fashion periods — in France, you have the Louies, Empire, Regency, Napoleonic, Directoire, and so on. Then there are phases within periods that are reactions to other styles. The Rococo fashion — an extravagantly free naturalism with curved irregular forms — was a reaction to the more pompous, heavy classical style of Louis XIV.
“America was so far away from Europe. While the Queen Anne period was roughly 1600 in England, the fashion didn’t filter through to this country until about 1650, so you’ll find a discrepancy in the chairs in the early, early days, even though they are still period pieces.
“For the most part, America caught up by the beginning of the 19th Century. By then there were ships to bring them over and communication was so much easier.” Joyce spoke from memory; there was no running to check dates. An hour earlier, I hadn’t even phoned her; now she was delivering a lecture off the top of her head.
“How about the chair I’m sitting in?”
“The chair you’re sitting in is a copy of an American wing chair that might have originally been a copy of an English wing chair. It was done by the Williamsburg foundation, the early American museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. The early wing chairs were designed because houses didn’t have good heating systems and very often the back would be a lot higher to protect you from the cold and the sides came around for enveloping you even more because it was cozy and it saved you from drafts.”
“Tell me about the little half-round gray chair,” I asked, indicating an accent chair by the fireplace. It looked like a short barrel cut in half vertically and then horizontally, stuffed and covered in velvet.
“It rather looks like a tub chair, doesn’t it? But it has beautiful turnings. It’s English. I believe it’s walnut, about 1830. It was strictly for an English library, probably a fairly wealthy person. The advantage of this tublike structure is that if you’re reading, you have somewhere to rest your arms, to hold the book.” The style had a vague oriental look to it.
“Styles have been copied. I’m sure that the original ball-and-claw foot that was used in this country on the Chippendale furniture in the 18th Century was a variation of a Chinese design.”
Where did Joyce get her antiques education?
“The House of Heirlooms opened in 1972. The store was truly beautiful. They brought in things from England, and at that time there was a lot more to be bought in Europe. So about every six weeks, I had the privilege of hands-on experience. I got to look at everything, see how it was built; I saw everything before it went on the floor to be sold. You sort of absorb it by the process of osmosis. Plus, I kept on reading — I think I’m sort of a latent scholar. I didn’t work that hard in school when I was younger,” she said laughing. “I did when I was much older. And I love the scholarly part of it, the academics.”
I asked Joyce to tell me about the easy chair next to the couch.
“That’s an English chair, about 1920. That’s very English with the rolled arms. The advantage of that is that it has a very deep seat, and, also, sometimes I put a stool there for the person’s feet. That’s an extremely comfortable chair. It has a down cushion. I don’t believe that today you could buy a chair with those proportions with such comfort.”
Just to see if comfortable for her size person was comfortable for my size person (at least ten inches taller), I sat down. The chair had great lumbar support for being made almost 80 years ago, a time when most men were not my height, never mind women. Joyce brought me a small footstool she described as a “cricket stool.”
“Queen Victoria was a very short woman, barely five feet. It was said she always had to have a little stool, even under the table. In her reign, about 1850, is when the cricket stool came into fashion.”
She pointed out two small children’s chairs. One was a school chair, made in America. “This would have cost about 15 cents in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The chairs for adults cost 49 cents in the same catalog.
“This is a little English chair.” Joyce picked up a Windsor-style youth chair. “See the grain with the wide marking to it? That’s elm. Anytime you see elm seats, you know you’re looking at an English chair. They used a lot of elm. Mahogany wasn’t indigenous to Europe so it wasn’t even a fashionable wood until the 18th Century. Before that, they had to use what they had, which would have been oak or walnut.
“In earlier times in England and America, the rich dark woods — walnut, mahogany, and such — were for the upper classes. It was the lighter woods — pine, light oak, and elm — that the lower classes had in their homes. However, my feeling is that pale furniture is much more sophisticated than very dark furniture because you can put more of it in a room.”
Joyce’s pride and joy was the petite French Directoire chair in the small hub of the house. “It’s in this busy space so no one will even think about sitting in it.
“This is 18th-century, right after the French Revolution. It was stripped and stained this light, warm brown wood color sometime in the 19th Century. Originally, the carved wood frame would have been painted. But as far as symmetry and design, this is probably the most sophisticated chair I have in the house. The turnings, proportions, and scale — everything is lovely. You can see the pegs where it’s joined.
“Because it was painted once, originally it wouldn’t have had a leather seat. But because of this lovely beech-walnut color, the leather is quite right for it now, I think. Another thing about the French, they use a lot of beech and they always have it pale.”
The wood frame glowed with the warm, rich patina of at least 120 years. The crest rail rolled back gracefully.
From the center of the house, we pushed on. In her office, Joyce showed me what she called a country chair. “They are plainer and have an elm seat. The elm seat is what makes it a country chair. Again, this one is a beech wood. It takes the dye so beautifully. There were many itinerant carpenters, as opposed to the true cabinetmakers, that would go around saving wood and making chairs.
“When I found this piece, it was painted a ghastly shade of blue and I had it stripped off. That’s called ‘skinning,’ when you take off the original finish. Of course, I’m the one who lives with it and I’m not counting pennies as to what anything is worth. Although, I would have had enough sense not to destroy the original finish.
“If you watch the Antiques Roadshow and see the Keno brothers dealing with a country Queen Anne chest or something, if it’s been refinished even 200 years ago, instead of being worth $35,000, it’s worth $5.”
Joyce’s wood chairs felt smooth and elegant. I asked her what kind of oil or wax she used to care for them.
The next thing I knew we were rummaging under her kitchen sink for Pate Dugay, a French paste wax in a pecan color. How often did she use paste wax?
“Once every six months. You can use a car buffer with the hard French paste wax, but not with this; it’s a soft wax, almost beeswax, like a cream. You put it on, leave it for five or ten minutes, and use a piece of old wool blanket to polish with. It’s better than any other cloth.”
Her kitchen chairs were Windsor-style maple from the turn of the last century, not very comfortable for long periods of time. When I expressed a personal distaste for maple, Joyce asked, “Did you know the ‘bird’s-eye’ in bird’s-eye maple is actually a fungus that grows on the tree?” I can’t say that changed my opinion any.
Scottish country Sheraton-style chairs surrounded her dining table. “The wood is cypress. It has a very tight grain. I stained them that color. Actually, there is a shop in town that has some really early ones, like these, and, oh my, what a buy. They’re up on Rosecrans, in a little shop called Ruth’s. They have elm seats like this one, beautifully colored. Ruth’s only asking $400 or $500 for four of them.”
I asked Joyce if she would call to see if they were still available.
“Ruth brings things in from Scotland. Her daughter and son-in-law live over there. They do the shopping and send containers to Ruth.” While she looked on her desk for Ruth’s business card, Joyce told me about the wonderful items she’d found at Ruth’s over the years. She made the call and confirmed that the chairs were still there. In 90 seconds we were out the door, in the car, and on our way to Ruth’s.
It was a day of surprises. I felt my eyebrows work, which is wrong. One should never feel the delicate small facial muscles unless it’s the laughing muscles.
Ruth’s Antiques was in a white one-story building with Copenhagen blue awnings that faced onto Rosecrans Boulevard. It shared a wall with a 24-hour Martinizing dry cleaner.
Inside was archaic chaos. No new-age music wafted gently, no soft lighting created a warm glow; there was no affectation to grander times. Porcelain, furniture, European glazed fireplace tiles, silver, paintings, hall trees, hampers, and linens occupied every bit of space. Even the sloped concrete passageway, once the handicap ramp for whatever business came before, was lined with furniture. This showroom housed many treasures, but the treasures didn’t sit on silk pillows of presentation; like Easter eggs, they had to be hunted.
The owner, Ruth Sloan, a small, gray-haired businesswoman with a direct stare through slightly owlish glasses, greeted us. Her stare might have been unnerving except for her easy manner. And, I came in with the best of references, Joyce. Ruth’s husband Sam sat beside Ruth, smiling while she wheeled and dealed from a cluttered desk in the center of the shop.
The four Scottish country chairs we came to look at sat on a riser close to the front window. Three were the same vintage, 1810, and entirely handmade of English yew wood, a light- and warm-colored, heavy, tight-grained wood. The fourth was stained slightly darker and was not as old. Joyce told me it was made in approximately 1840.
Dating a chair is a bit like sexing a cat. You need to turn it upside down to really get to know it. How is the piece joined? If the joints are held together with screws, are they at least handmade? Handmade screws have visibly uneven threads. By the mid-19th Century, most of the screws used in furniture were machine made.
“Even the wood used in making a chair can date it or give you the country of origin at a glance,” Joyce explained. “In the 18th Century, King George II decided to tax items made of walnut, but he lifted the duty on mahogany from the colonies. The use of mahogany swept through the English cabinetmakers’ shops, making the dark reddish close-grained wood the wood to have.”
The joinery underneath the chair seat we were examining was rough hewn with a quarter-round block at each corner supporting the straight legs. The price was only $100 per chair, not even a dollar for each year of their existence (how’s that for fast mathematical justification of a purchase?). In fact, everything at Ruth’s was priced at just about wholesale or better. The condition of many things was less than pristine, but the price usually reflected the condition. One of the chairs was missing the front stretcher. No problem, I could have it repaired. Joyce knew where I needed to go: “He’s the best chair restorer in San Diego.”
A conservator tries to preserve an artifact. A restorer tries to make things look “as good as new.” Patrick Edwards was both, depending on the situation and the object. His business card was printed on two-ply beech veneer. It read, “W. Patrick Edwards, Antique Refinishers, Traditional Upholstery Professional Restoration Since 1969, 3815 Utah Street.”
The shop was in North Park, 100 yards south of the intersection of University and Utah, on a little side street. It was a 1930s bungalow, painted a rich colonial green with terra cotta awnings and accents. Two long wooden planters, one in front of each window, sat on the sidewalk out front. Each contained a succulent with blooms the same terra cotta shade as the containers. Nice coordination. A six-foot wooden fence flanked the building on both sides, painted a matching green.
While I was looking at the plants, Patrick Edwards opened the door to meet me. He was a tall, lean, good-looking man with dark blond hair, a mustache, blue eyes, and glasses. He wore a black T-shirt and jeans. When asked about the type of flowers, he smiled and shrugged. “You know, I don’t know the name of it. But it’s pretty hardy. It hasn’t died yet from all of the people walking by and taking samples. See, the pieces break off instead of tearing.”
Once inside, I realized the windows had security bars. “I’ve never had any problems, but I don’t want anyone to get the idea they could just come in. I like bars and dogs.”
A large, open room with white walls and a beautiful but scuffed oak floor housed a showroom. The eclectic mix of chairs lined the front wall on both sides of the door: a Victorian balloon-back, an aqua ladder-back rocking chair with a woven rush seat, a Hitchcock rocker, and a set of beautifully carved Gothic dining chairs. Coffee tables, desks, footstools, chairs, chiming clocks, small chests, and a mahogany pole screen with a needlepoint face filled the rest of the space.
A pole screen consists of a small panel and an upright pole on a pedestal foot. The panel (which is never made of screen) adjusts in height by a sliding mechanism to shield the face but not the body from the fire’s heat. A gentlewoman could work her needle in comfort without melting her makeup.
The shop didn’t feel quite ready for the general public. Patrick explained that, until recently, it wasn’t a retail shop. (The shop has since closed.)
“I’ve been doing restoring for 30 years,” he said with his arms crossed across his chest. Once again, I thought my eyebrows betrayed me because he smiled faintly. “I started when I was 20. The room we’re standing in used to be floor-to-ceiling storage for pieces that needed work, pieces that were unshowable. For 30 years, people have come in and said, ‘How come you don’t sell anything?’ Now, because I’m going to teach a school here in January — the American School of French Marquetry — I’m parting with some of the pieces I’ve restored.”
Something else confirmed you weren’t in an ordinary antique shop. It smelled different. I began to identify the odors associated with a woodworking shop — mineral spirits, furniture polish, and sawdust. It created pleasant associations, like the rich smell of a tobacco shop. When I mentioned it, he smiled, “I don’t notice smell so much but everybody who comes in says, ‘Gee, it smells like an old workshop. It smells like something in Europe.’ ” He laughed. “ ‘It smells like you know what you’re doing.’
“A lot of the repairs come to me after the other people have tried and failed. I tend to be the last stop for certain pieces.” He smiled modestly, like the Lone Ranger. “I use a lot of medical analogies — I run a triage. Some things are doa and we bring them back to life. We have the advantage that we can wait and decide what to do. The client that arrives doa could be resuscitated a year later.” He laughed. “That’s an advantage over a medical situation because you don’t have that time factor, but aside from that, it’s very, very much the same thing, that objects have to go through intensive care and treatment.
“And with every single item, if you use the original materials and methods, you’re going to be successful. The original glues, the original woods, the original types of tools, that’s real important, but I don’t give up easy so I can’t say that I’ve had any notable failures. I just keep persisting until I succeed. The important thing is the patience of the owner of the piece, the willingness to wait.
“I’m a member of the American Institute of Conservation. We have a code of ethics that dictates the object is the client. I know what that object needs; you may not.
“I had a customer that wanted a table like this made into a coffee table.” He was standing beside a mahogany entryway table that reached mid-thigh on him. “I said, ‘Fine, that table has a pedestal, a piece of wood that makes it taller than coffee-table height. We’ll take that out and you keep it with the table. I’ll make a smaller pedestal just like the original, only coffee-table height. Later, if you sell that table, you can give the new owners the pedestal and they can put it back to table height. You haven’t changed anything.’ Then, they are educated to keep the parts. The pedestal stays with the table so that a century from now when it goes back to the market, the parts are put together and it’s still an antique. That’s about as far as I go to bend the rules.
“I’m not a car salesman. I don’t get a new model every year.” He smiled. “This is the opposite of that. You want something that’s going to be around, that has been around, that’s gonna stick around. I get people that come in and say, ‘I want the new shabby chic style.’ Everybody wants shabby chic: ‘Can you do a shabby chic finish?’
“I say, ‘No, I don’t, I don’t do that, that’s not what I do. Other people will do that.’ It’s a mode. It’s a fashion. I’m in it for the long-term thing. I’m thinking in terms of centuries.
“Again, the object is the client. I instruct the owner what the object wants and we decide to do that or I don’t work for them. Because that’s really the important thing. What that thing needs — is it broken structurally? Is it cosmetically disfigured? Has it been altered by previous repair? Those things all have to be undone. The goal of these is to restore it to its original condition or maintain it in its original condition. That’s the better goal if it exists: conservation first and then restoration after.” (Where was he when my grandmother used marine paint on her antiques to give them a “fresh” look?)
“What I’ve been doing for the past ten years is avoiding the adjective ‘antique.’ I don’t like it. It’s horribly misused. It’s become a decorator term in the worst sense of the word — antique Mickey Mouse watches, antique this, and antique that. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. So when people ask me what I do, I describe it as ‘preindustrial work on preindustrial objects.’ I’m still making preindustrial objects, if you want to describe them as such, because there’s no power involved in making it. All the wood was brought to this form by human sweat. It’s expensive for that reason; it takes more time.
“In America, we abandoned the whole woodworking trade after the First World War. We gave up cabinetmaking. It wasn’t taught in our schools. My grandfather was building houses, he wasn’t making furniture. We’re great carpenters. We know how to do that stuff, but hand working furniture?” He shrugged. “There’s a new society that’s just meeting for the first time in Williamsburg in January called the 18th-Century Furniture Maker’s Society. They have 60 members. I’m one of them. That’s the size of this remnant. And I guarantee you out of those 60 guys, 50 percent of them use power tools.”
I asked him to give me a tour of the chairs in the showroom.
“This is a neat chair.” He pointed out a tall wing-back upholstered in blue-and-yellow striped floral fabric. The mahogany legs tapered slightly. “It’s an American Hepplewhite and a beautiful frame. When I was teaching back in the ’70s, one of my students had it and I was very avidly trying to get it from her. She wouldn’t sell it and then she had it upholstered in this horrible fabric.” He looked soulful recounting the journey that brought the piece into his shop.
“When she died, her husband called me up and said, ‘You can have that damn chair. I don’t want any part of it.’ So I went and bought it. I thought, someday I’ll cover it, but you can’t anticipate what a customer is going to want. It’s better to try and sell it, then ask what kind of fabric they want to recover it. Every time you upholster something, you tear all of the nails out and then put them all back. It tears apart the frame. The wood reaches a point where you can’t do that anymore. So I’ve kept it for 25 years in this fabric, which I live with and I detest. Someday I’ll find the right buyer and I’ll be able to put the right fabric on it.”
It was $3500 as is, horrible fabric and all. I tried it out to better understand its merits. Instantly, I was reminded of the life-saving comfort Aunt Beast provided Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Overstuffed down wrapped around me without being clingy, nice but not needy.
“This Colonial Revival chair was produced after the centennial.” He pointed to a side chair with a warm, rich mahogany frame and upholstered seat. The grain looked like the last bit of sunset in a heavily clouded day. It swirled in light and dark shades from a soft light red to a red so dark it looked black. “The neat thing about it, it has its original fabric.” A beautiful, vivid blue-and-peach silk upholstered the chair bottom. “As a textile, that’s quite an important document. As a chair, it has a nice kind of klismos.” He sounded unimpressed.
“But this is a true klismos,” he said, turning 90 degrees and facing a small chair that I’d seen pictured on the sides of Greek urns. A true klismos has four slightly splayed saber legs. They support a plaited seat. Above the seat frame, at the back, curving stiles continue the lines of the rear legs. A concave central horizontal splat curves at shoulder height. This ancient Greek form of furniture was light, comfortable, and portable. In paintings, there’s always someone lounging on them.
“This is actually what they were trying to produce in the 1815 period. That’s a Grecian chair made in America. Klismos is the Greek name for this chair. This style of chair goes back to the 3rd or 4th Century b.c., I think. A klismos chair was found in carved marble dioramas that depicted people on them. They have backward raking legs and a backward splat. It made the person sit in a very reclining fashion, very stylish. During the early 19th Century there was a great deal of Greek Revival architecture and Grecian revival lifestyle, Empire dress, the whole thing came back into fashion. As a new country, we were trying to associate with those ancient Greek and Roman republics and democracies.”
Patrick showed me a corner, or roundabout, chair almost exactly like the one I’ve seen in pictures of Patrick Henry’s bedroom. It was a chair askew, as if you took the seat and twisted it, keeping the legs at the outermost corners. Then instead of having one seat surface join the back, it has two, forming a 45-degree angle. The front now comes to a point and the back fits nicely in a corner where the chair can be least intrusive. But that means you have to sit astride the angle in the front. It’s also called a gentleman’s chair — no lady ever sat with her legs that far apart, at least not at that time. This chair had a wide skirt, wide enough to disguise its original purpose.
“Originally, this would have been a toilet. The one I copied it from had a chamber pot under the seat. See, this upholstered seat would lift up and under there you would have a chamber pot like this.” He illustrated. “This piece would sit in the bedroom next to the bed, and during the day it was a chair, but at night if you needed to tinkle you could just use the chamber pot. The wood is curly maple.” I was forced to admit, if only to myself, that it was a beautiful combination of light reddish brown to blond swirls, like ostrich-skin leather or naturally sun-streaked blond hair.
The wood was smooth and cool to the touch, but the colors were faded and muted in places. “The finish is artificially aged, a very complicated finish. I wanted it to look like the sun had bleached it. Actually, it’s only two years old and it already looks like it’s an antique. Putting potassium dichromate on the wood and putting it out in the sunlight, it’s like photo paper, it burns the wood unevenly. Because you leave it 15 minutes like this, then 10 minutes like this with the sunlight on it, then maybe 30 minutes like this, and you burn it unevenly so that it looks like it’s been sitting in a window and lost its color. A very interesting effect I was trying to produce to make it look sun-bleached without actually bleaching it harshly with chemicals and stuff.”
Across the aisle, Patrick pointed out on another chair how the design elements were mixed. The turned crest rail had a spiral twist, and the carved mahogany back looked like fabric draped around a medallion. The chair came to him badly broken up, and to make it worse, some bad repairs had already been made. He decided to leave in the brackets from someone else’s attempts to fix it; it was safer.
He walked me through three chairs sitting on a riser. The first was a medium-colored wood with a rush-bottom seat that was largely gone. It had fattish legs and odd, thick ankles, as if the chair were retaining water.
“This is an extremely desirable museum piece that is no longer going to serve as a chair. This rush seat is actually an original 18th-century seat. That’s one of the most difficult things to find because it’s a plant fiber that rots. It breaks down and you often see it like that being replaced. I’ve made an effort here just to hold the pieces together. It shows off the workmanship of the early 18th Century. This chair is an example of a New York chair from about 1720 to 1730.
“In order to create the high-style cabriole leg with the arched knee — because being just simple turners and joiners, they didn’t have that ability — they used the new technique of off-center turning to turn a taper, and then offset it, and then turn the feet and produce a leg that had the mass of a cabriole leg. The large turnings are all worn down by years of people putting their feet on it, and it’s all held together with pegs. It’s maple, birch, and ash, different woods that would be native to upstate New York. It’s really a museum artifact, something that you appreciate visually.
“This one over here is more a high style, and it’s done in cherry wood with a beautiful birch turning. It’s probably from Connecticut. It has trifid feet, which is a Flemish influence, showing the transmission of design from Flanders. As immigrants came, they brought with them sketches of what they had left behind, and this is a very interesting country example of a three-toed, or trifid, foot.
“Very country, very provincial, but all the turnings are fancy [waisted], so whoever had it had enough money to purchase extra work rather than have them just do straight turnings. You can tell on the turnings that it was done on a foot-powered lathe — you can actually see the movement of the chisel as it went across the wood. You can see the gouge — the traces left by the gouge — as he turned it at a very slow speed, as a foot-driven lathe would.
“This rush has been replaced, but it’s a very old seat, and when I bought this chair, it had a four-inch-high green Naugahyde foam seat upholstered onto it. It was the color of an all-night diner stool. I very carefully took that off and discovered underneath the remnants of this seat, which at one point was repaired, and that tells a story of how they went to the trouble of prolonging the life of this seat. I thought, that’s enough for me — I’ll just leave it the way it was. The tacks tell the story. It’s a beautiful chair, beautifully pierced splat, nice little carving on the ears. And this would have a country Chippendale influence, but down here you have leftover 17th-century feet.
“In all of this work, I’ve been preaching ‘the form follows the process.’ We’re not used to this. Since 1904, we’re used to the Shaker expression ‘Form follows function.’ I bet you anybody on the street would tell you that. But it doesn’t. It follows process. The process that you use to get there is what creates the form. That’s important. That’s what I do. That’s why that chair looks antique [his reproduction of a corner chair]. That’s why the restoration I do looks appropriate.
“I re-create the process that produced the form. That’s a very important concept because if you live in this process, it becomes a lifestyle. It becomes a way of coming to work, of picking up your tools, sharpening your planes, working all day with your hands, as a process. I could die tomorrow and be happy because this life process that I’ve been doing is very satisfying, and whether I finish the form or not is really not the important thing. When I’m done with an object, I don’t care much about it. But I’m actively, passionately involved in the process of making that form, and that’s why I’m happy doing what I’m doing.
“People today have had that satisfaction taken away from them. The computer has no satisfying process, and you never really get to the product. We’ve lost both the product and the process. It’s just repetition, and that’s not very satisfying in a day-to-day life, so people pick up guns and they go crazy and shoot people at work because nobody comes up to them and says, ‘What a great job you did, what a wonderful thing, you’re so skillful.’ You know, all of those strokes that you need that are part of your day-to-day accomplishment when you go home. You hang your hat up, you feel like you did something.
“That’s why every day that I go home, I just fall down exhausted in bed and I’m happy because I know that the next day I’m going to take the clamps off and I’m that much further along in the process. Process is something that’s real important.
“This last chair,” he said, coming back to the artifact facing us, “is a juxtaposition of the two. You can see that it’s actually not in the same league, but this is a very, very early ladder-back chair which has been painted in an early 1920s idea of what a ladder-back chair was supposed to be painted like.” He chuckled. The chair had suffered laughable indignities at the hands of artists, amateurs, and decorators. It had a sad look, like a helpless animal dressed up by small children. “This is all 1920s finish on a 1750 chair made into a rocker, probably about the same time. So the artifact has gone through a story that tells how it got here, but it’s lost its character in the meantime.
“Rather than change it back to what it should have been, I think it’s interesting now to just look at it and laugh and say, ‘You know, this is what happens.’ ” I think I read a variation of that on a bumper sticker.
“The rocking chair was an American creation. Europeans looked down on it because of that. They thought you required a prescription to use one for aiding in the digestion process. It wasn’t until an Austrian, Michael Thonet, invented a bentwood rocker that they gained any acceptance at all.”
Thonet invented and patented a process in the mid-18th Century that used steam to bend hardwood to make furniture.
“He made the first popular rocker in Europe, where a guy could legitimately sit and rock and not have his masculinity questioned.
“Here’s a German leather chair with a medallion back, beautiful hand-carved cabriole legs, and nailhead trim. These were being produced right up until the 1970s, but no longer because modern industry doesn’t support it. The recognition isn’t there between machine-turned rather than hand-turned, and hand-tanned leather that is actually hand-tanned so the color is deeper and slightly irregular.
“As we go into the modern age, people give up the idea of hand-tanning leather because you can make more money running a computer than tanning. Buyers don’t say, ‘Oh, what a difference.’ They just say, ‘Give me some leather.’ You have to look at this: It’s the way the color is worked into it. The subtle irregularities.” He sighed with resignation.
Each culture stamps its own reflection on articles it uses daily. For instance, the French create a chair leg with stylized animal embellishments. This new style influences the English, the English put their mark on it, and it crosses to the Americas. Americans change it to reflect what we consider valuable and beautiful, and the cycle may begin again in reverse. An American Chippendale chair exhibits more strength and vibrance than its anemic but more graceful English cousin. But that varied with area and maker because an artist is never satisfied to simply copy the original. A Philadelphia Chippendale is more Rococo and florid than a New York Chippendale.
“This is an English chair in the French taste made in the George III period. At that time they were in transition between the French Rococo — which was very curvilinear, with cabriole legs and arms that were very free-flowing in space — and the Neoclassic, the new style in France with Louis XVI, which was more linear, rational, and used ellipses and ovals and straight lines.
“One of the ironies of history is that the French and the English have always sort of been at each other’s throats, but the English have very closely followed the French fashion. They just take all the joy out of it.
“Always in furniture the newest fashion appears on the top of the piece, where people look, and the older fashion that’s left over sticks around on the bottom because people don’t care much about that. So here we have the new fashion on top with these ellipses as a statement and everything below that, completely Rococo. It’s very easy to date because it’s right at that point in England when the French fashion was changing from Louis XV to Louis XVI. That’s what makes that kind of an exciting chair.”
“What’s the most breathtaking piece you’ve ever seen?” I asked at one point.
“In the 1790s, in New Hampshire, there was a very famous cabinetmaking firm owned by John Dunlap. There was an estate here in San Diego that I handled and there was a John Dunlap chest-on-chest. During the life of this family, one of the pieces on the top had been taken off and feet had been made for it to sit down on the ground as a chest of drawers.
“The bottom part, which now had no top, was fitted with a top and a mirror to be a dressing table. It was done so long ago that the people in the estate assumed they were two pieces of furniture — one was in the upstairs and one was in the downstairs; there was no relationship between them at all. When I was brought in to the estate, the upper chest was priced at 1100 bucks and the bottom one was priced at $850 or something.
“They had hired me to go through the estate and appraise the objects. So I said, ‘Hold it — because John Dunlap, through his records, is known to have made 32 of these chest-on-chests. Each one is recorded. The family’s records and J. Dunlap’s records are in a New Hampshire historical society. Each is very significant. The last one was number 29 and it was discovered in 1954 in Texas. I think what we have in this house is number 30. A basket-weave top — the whole thing.’
“We went back and we found in the records that John Dunlap had worked for the ancestor of this estate. We found the paper that proved that the link was there. I took the chest. I took the feet off, I took it over, set it on the top of the other one; it fit perfectly. I said, ‘Now we’ve got something.’ We sold it at Christie’s for $66,000. I made my fee, which was very nominal, I should say, because instead of purchasing the two objects for $2000, disappearing, and becoming rich, I did my job. I was hired to tell them what they had and I did. That’s the difference right there between why I’m still in business and why other people aren’t, because I serve the object. That’s a perfect example of it.”
“How did you know just looking at it?”
“Your heart stops. You spend your life waiting for something like that, and I knew the second I saw it. I saw the bottom and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the bottom of a Dunlap piece. Let’s look for the top.’ We started looking, and we found it upstairs. I knew that it was there, if it was still in the family. Things like that are very exciting.”
Does he have a photographic memory?
“Yeah, for furniture. I can’t remember faces very well, but I can remember furniture. People often say, ‘You did work for me.’ ‘Oh yeah? What did I do?’ They describe it and I go, ‘Oh, I know you. I know you because I remember the piece of furniture.’
“I have a degree in physics. I was active in the ’60s in the nuclear physics industry, and I was very much upset with the industry at not solving or even addressing the issue of nuclear waste. I was always in the front of the class asking, ‘What are we going to do with the waste? How are we going to save people from dying of radiation poisoning as a result of our search for the perfect energy source?’ And the teachers were always saying, and they still say today, ‘Well, don’t worry, because we’re smart and we’ll figure it out in 20 years and we’ll deal with it then. Meanwhile, we’ll just sort of put it in this trash can and set it next to the building.’
“I got very upset with that attitude. I was at a high level in physics, working back on the East Coast at Brookhaven with some very important people. They had no better answers. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s it then, if these guys are the gods and they’re not dealing with it, I don’t want to be part of this.’
“I reacted against that so strongly, I said to myself, ‘What can I do to save something rather than destroy something?’ That’s when I centered on saving some of the cultural objects.
“I appointed myself a cultural anthropologist. I would take trips back to the East Coast, go to a dealer in Kentucky, and I would say, ‘Tell me what you have in here that you know was produced in this city, in Kentucky, and why.’ And he would show me these pieces, show me the woods and the character of what made it Kentucky, so then I would go to Richmond, Virginia, and do the same thing.
“Then I would look at the way the rivers and the early trains and the overland routes and the boat routes connected Richmond and Kentucky and see what kind of immigration factors would affect whether the Germans were moving this way or the French were moving that way.
“Trying to connect those regional characteristics by the artifacts, because something made in Cincinnati might be more directly related to New Orleans than Pittsburgh, just because of the transportation routes. Even though they are geographically very close today, they were quite different in the 1800s.”
Patrick and his employees restored the furniture in a separate but adjoining workroom. In the vestibule, a four-foot-long tree branch suspended from the ceiling held red, blue, white, and purple ribbons, tangible proof of Patrick’s history.
Photos, framed and unframed, showed Patrick winning awards when he was in physics. He built an atom smasher for his high school science fair project, for which he won Senior Division, First Award in 1967. Patrick told me he got his teaching credentials in mathematics and physics, philosophy and antiques.
“I’ve only taught the antiques.”
Patrick was in charge of the woodworking exhibit at the Del Mar Fair for a decade. It’s the largest public, juried woodworking show in the country. “That’s where all these ribbons come from, the various competitions. We have a very large woodworking organization — the San Diego Fine Woodworking Association — here in San Diego, the biggest in the country in fact, with 1500 members. Now they are up to their 19th annual show.”
For ten years, Patrick was the conservator of furniture at the Banning Museum in Los Angeles. “It’s an important museum created by one of that city’s founding fathers — Phineas Banning, who arrived in 1852.
“I studied at the University of Massachusetts, Ecole Boulle in Paris, the Winterthur, and ucsd.” He quickly lists some of his accomplishments: “I also had a very nice television program for ten half-hour shows called Welcome to the Past.” He has done museum-exhibit installations, has lectured, and has been published many times on the subject of antiques.
There were also framed certificates, one for completing an 80-hour course on French polishing.
“I’m accredited by Ecole Boulle in Paris to teach their process of marquetry. I’m really proud of that. That’s the most recent thing — for the past five years I’ve been doing that. I may be the only ebeniste on the West Coast, but in Paris there may be four or five hundred.”
“What is an ebeniste?” I asked.
“It means French cabinetmaker. A cabinetmaker is a general term for a joiner or a case furniture maker. Joiners make things fit together by means of specially shaped interlocking parts, like dovetails, secured by adhesives. That’s the difference between a cabinetmaker and a carpenter. A carpenter makes things held together with nails and screws. In Europe, where I received a great deal of my training, the different guilds defined ranks of achievement rising to ebeniste — that’s the highest rank. It goes back to the 17th Century, the ability to work ebony, a very hard wood. The reason I say ebeniste is because I don’t want to say cabinetmaker. When I say cabinetmaker, you want to get a kitchen made and you expect a table saw.
“That table is the most recent work I’ve done.” He pointed to a magnificent entryway table against one wall. It had a white marble top, ormolu fittings, and high-gloss French polish.
I am a great believer in God. When I see breathtaking natural scenes of great beauty, like a pristine snow-covered mountainside or radiance of sunlight on a stream in a hurry to reach its downhill goal, I just smile at the rightness. I don’t question it because I believe I know who created it. Looking at human creations rarely has the same seamless cause-and-effect. Staring at Patrick’s table, I had to remind myself it was made by a human. The quality was as good as or better than you would find in the best shops in Paris.
“The table is Brazilian rosewood, now on the endangered list. That wood was harvested in 1952, and records were kept until I purchased it, so you could prove that when it was brought into this country, it was legally harvested — before the 1986 convention that restricted that particular species of wood.
“There are a lot of materials that I work with that are, in fact, running out. They are restricted — ivory, tortoiseshell. As a restorer and conservator, I have to be very aware that I have an inventory that’s precious. I must make a judgment call whether to use it or not, to restore an object or wait for something in the future that might be more deserving of that material.”
“Like organ transplants?”
“Yeah, it’s very much like that. I can’t get any more of it. I have connections in France where people have been keeping the material, but they are making the same decisions — should they sell it to me or save it for their work?” Cuban mahogany was the first of those woods. It was made economically extinct by 1860.
“So this chair you see here — this American Empire furniture that has a relatively low value — has a surface of Cuban mahogany, which has an extremely high value. In a horrible sense, it would be worth it to pay to take the material off, skin it, and repair something that’s worth ten times as much money because of the material.
“Cuban mahogany has a distinctive grain. It’s very dense, very heavy and dark. The object it appears on was made before 1860. After that they used Honduran mahogany, which is a lighter-colored mahogany and has a more open grain. It’s also lighter in weight. When you find chunks of it, like this chunk here” — he holds up a block of dark wood about eight by four inches — “that chunk might be worth $500.”
He’d found the chunk at another restorer’s shop. “The thing about being in the restoring business, you look for other restorers that are in their 80s. You make friends with them, and as they get feeble, you pick from them.” I was laughing in horror. “You earn that right by being honest and sincere.
“Honestly, I’ll be doing the same thing when I’m in my 80s, because you want that material that you’ve kept precious for 30 or 40 years to be used. I have a great fear of falling over dead and having people come in and throw wood like that out in the trash. It’s one of those things you guard — the hardware, the wood, the materials.
“You see, in another sense, if I were to start a restoring shop today, I might have a great deal of skill and talent, but if I don’t have that piece of veneer that you need to fix your piece of furniture, you’re not going to come to me. Even though I’m talented and skillful and I know exactly what I’m doing, I have to have that piece of wood to make that repair work. You can’t just go to the hardware store and buy it.”
To your left as you entered the shop, unfinished plywood shelves created a U-shaped workspace. Each unit had five eight-foot-long shelves. Hundreds of hand tools sat side-by-side the full length of each unit. Every handle had its own particular curve, line, and color. The tools looked like musical notes of a complex passage. Each was fitted for a particular task in the right skilled hands, a cacophony in the wrong hands.
A huge, solid workbench made of a light-colored wood occupied the center area. It looked like it weighed as much as a Hummer.
“To describe what I do, the world I live in, most of the guys are calling it studio furniture because most of them use power tools. The table saw is the center of their universe, but I associate with those guys in the preindustrial society who called their work ‘at the bench.’ ‘At the bench’ is the name and this is the bench,” he slapped his hand down on the massive bench. “Work at the bench means, the bench is the first tool; without it none of the other hand tools work. You have to have something to hold the work to be able to use the hand tools.
“It’s a different process than using a power tool. A power tool stays there and you push the material across the top. Here, the wood stays put,” he held a piece of wood and demonstrated, “and you push the tool across the wood.
“In the old days, the client would judge the workman first by his bench, then by his toolbox and his tools, and much later by the finished product. Because, again, they are looking at the process. If a new client walked in and said, ‘I need a cabinetmaker and I can see you’ve got the right tools and you’ve got a good bench — you’re the guy for me,’ I’m judged by my bench.”
Where did he get it? He made it, of course.
“I went back to Pennsylvania. I found a hippie living in western Pennsylvania and I told him I was on a mission and I needed a beech tree, because beech doesn’t grow in Southern California. I knew from asking around that he had 60 acres of beech wood growing; maybe he could spare me a tree. He said, ‘Sure, go cut one.’ ” Patrick met him by driving around on his cultural anthropological journey in the ’60s.
“I was going from place to place to place. I would drive three minutes, get out of the car and talk for two hours, get back in the car, drive for three minutes more and talk for another two hours. Just telling people I was looking for a beech tree, I got to this guy. I cut down the tree and let it air-dry for 12 years. That’s what it takes.”
He showed me a tool called a scribe and demonstrated how much more precise it was than a pencil for making a line to follow.
“That’s one way to tell a fake, people use pencils to make marks and they don’t erase the excess. You can see the lines.”
Patrick did a lot of condition reports for appraisers, because they need to know if a leg has been changed or a repair made.
“When it comes to fakes or reproductions, I win every time. I use a black light and a lot of analysis.
“Recently, a guy like me made a chair, aged it, and put it in an estate auction in New Hampshire. It sold for something like $9000 and went into the Dearborn museum. They thought it was real, but after they acquired it, he announced that it wasn’t. They said he couldn’t be right. He said if they X-rayed it, they would notice inside the socket one of these holes made by this tool, which is inconsistent with the age the chair was supposed to be. ‘And I know, because I made the chair.’ When they X-rayed it, they found it was true. They didn’t announce that they had made a mistake, but they did put it in their study collection, which is the right thing to do because it’s there for the academics.”
The rest of Patrick’s workshop was open, divided into four or five areas by shelves of tools and projects. Two areas were workstations, each with a man focused on a process. Another contained a large cabinet Patrick was building.
Looking across the room, I saw a landlord’s nightmare. It was a hot plate. On it was what looked like an old teapot without a lid. Something was slowly and sloppily cooking, something that bubbled thickly like Malt-O-Meal and smelled like burning hair. The hot plate was set on a thick piece of wood, like a separate hot pad, and that wooden hot pad was set atop a short piece of I beam mounted on a workbench.
“That’s a very important thing. It’s animal glue. This is always cooking.”
Animal glue? Any particular animal?
“Beef-cattle bones and skin. It’s a mixture, pure animal-protein glue. Epitomizes the trade that I aspire to. This is the secret. This is the reason I’m different from everybody else, because this is the same glue that was used in that object when it was made. This is reversible, which is very important if you’re going to repair something, and today, I’m sorry to say, most of the studio furniture that is produced by these great designers in America will not last a generation because once it breaks, it’s done with — it’s done. They’re made with irreversible glue, and how are you going to fix something that’s irreversible? You have to chisel it apart. That’s not very conducive to repair. So animal-protein glue is always cooking.
“This has been cooking for 30 years. I’ve got another one cooking over here.”
“For 30 years?” I was incredulous.
“Well, not the same glue, but for the shop I’ve had a glue pot cooking for 30 years. Always, every day — it has to be a certain temperature. Should be 160. It doesn’t cook all night, but it has to be hot to be used. In antiques, that’s really the only glue that should ever be used. You should never use modern synthetic glue. It destroys the value.
“It’s sold, actually, as a food-grade product. It’s sterile and inspected by fda people all the way down the line as it’s produced.” He held a spoonful of the granules in his palm for me to see. “The two colors are the bone and the hide mixed together. You have two-thirds of one and one-third of the other to make this particular glue.” I commented that it looked like raw sugar.
“Except if you chewed on it, it would get very sticky. I buy it through a chemical-supply place in 50-gallon bags. That’s the whole secret. If people call me and ask, ‘How do I find a repairman in my area that I can trust with my 18th-century furniture?’, I say, ‘Call everybody in town and ask, “What kind of glue do you use?” ’ The most important thing in this business is to use the right glue. All the trouble that I have — and I charge a premium for correcting it — is fixing pieces that have been glued with a modern glue: epoxies, white glues, yellow glues, aliphatic resin glues, you name it.
“All of those things cause me a real problem because you have to remove some of the wood with the glue and that means the joint won’t fit right. With this glue, hot water removes it. So you have a broken joint, you mop the edges with the rag and hot water, and it cleans the glue off, and, furthermore, the molecule of this glue will bond to the molecule of the old animal glue, molecule-to-molecule with 10,000 pounds per square inch of tensile strength — that’s better than epoxy. So it’s not only the right glue to use, it’s a better glue.
“The only finishes that I use are those known to have existed before 1900. Shellac, an early finish made from bugs, resin varnishes, oils, and waxes. Those things that were in common use which are now getting hard to find because people since the 1920s have pretty much gone to modern nitrocellulose lacquers and, recently, to the water-based, low-pollution finishes mandated by law.
“The guys in Sacramento don’t know much about restoration of furniture. They’re making my job kind of difficult. It’s economy. It’s whether enough people like me are consuming enough product for the factories to still produce it. When I’m the only guy left who needs a piece of shellac or a piece of varnish, who’s going to make it? When the entire industry is mandated by law to consume a certain industrial product, that’s all you can buy. Shellac is a better finish, but that’s not what’s commonly available.”
Patrick told me he had three boys, the oldest 32. “My youngest, Matthew, is working with me. He’s 29 in June.”
Matthew was one of the men working in the shop. He had a sandy blond mustache that moved when he grinned at me over the chest he was working on. I asked him if he liked restoring furniture. “I love it. It’s pretty much been my life. I tried to get away from it for about eight years, but it’s what I do.” He sounded like his father.
Patrick explained how he had found the right tools to set up his shop while studying at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. The museum sets the standard for judging the importance of American furniture. “When I was doing my research at Winterthur, they have an archive of manuscripts and estate inventories of preindustrial cabinetmakers. I looked at what a cabinetmaker would have in his estate at the time of his death between 1820 and 1840. It listed these tools, and I compared all the different inventories until I had a generic search list of what kind of tools would be necessary to have a preindustrial workshop. How many dadoes, fillisters, things like that.
“Then I had to find these tools, but I didn’t know what they were. So I started searching all over New England in antique shops. I’d find people that specialize in tools and I’d go into their shop like a moron and say, ‘I need a half dado,’ and he’d look at me and say, ‘Well, there’s one right there!’
“Once I got all the tools, I met Charles Montgomery at Yale; he was a very important influence in my life. He had written a book, The Regional Characteristics of American Federal Furniture. I aspire to write The Regional Characteristics of American Empire Furniture, the sequel to his book. He said, ‘Well, you have everything all lined up except you don’t know about the price books that exist.’ And I didn’t know about the price books,” Patrick’s voice dropped slightly, remembering the humbling.
“The price books were put out in America in the 1820s and ’30s to set a standard work time and price for a journeyman, so that a guy going from Pittsburgh to Albany or Albany to New Haven could walk into a shop and say, ‘Make me a drawer,’ and here it says in the price book how much time you’re allowed to make that drawer. Or, ‘Make me a bureau,’ ‘make me a desk,’ ‘make me a chair,’ and it says right in the guide you get that much time to do that job. That’s like the current automobile industry in terms of mechanics.
“Once I knew how much time it was supposed to take to make an object, I had the tools and I knew from my experience in restoration what the object was supposed to look like when it was finished. That gave me the link I needed to be able to train myself to use the tool in a timely fashion to produce the object to compete with the preindustrial workman that I aspired to become.
“I set up my shop this way. I started working and trained myself to do it. I discovered that in a preindustrial workshop with dedicated tools — that do one job, each tool — that for fewer than 12 operations, I’m faster than a modern industrial business, because with a machine you have to do setup and maintenance. That downtime means you’ve got to make 100 objects to get back into an advantage.
“So for 12 objects, I can go over here, grab this tool, and use it 12 times, put it back on the shelf and go on to stage two, grab the next tool in the process, do 12 passes, and so on.
“I can make 1 or 2 or 3 chairs, up to 12, faster than a guy with all the machinery. It seems to fall apart at about a dozen or something because it’s just slow. You start losing the advantage when somebody’s making 20 of something.
“All handwork has the element of risk, taking the material to its limits, taking the tool to its limits with the potential of failure. A machine doesn’t fail. A machine is dialed in, you put a piece of steel in there; it stamps it out every single time. It’s always perfect. You never have that element of risk, and in the old days, that’s what craftsmanship was, the ability to take and carve a leg down as thin as you could with the material that would still support the weight of the user and be graceful.”
Has he any competition in San Diego?
“Oh no, not really. I’m not being egotistical. It’s just that I’ve always set a standard that I have seen few people achieve.” He was very matter-of-fact. “Most of our competitors seem to last about six or seven years. For one reason or another, they go out of business. It’s hard work. You have to work with your hands and the rewards are slim. It’s not something you get rich at. So it’s one of those things where you have to have the satisfaction of doing a good deed, of saving something. We have a motto here in French. Ici nous sauvons le passé pour le futur. It means, ‘Here, we save the past for the future.’ I think that’s the motivation for what I’m doing more than making money. As a custodian, I want to see these things make it through to the right people to take care of them.”
As I was leaving, I noticed a large, old black-and-white photograph on the wall by the front door. It was the cliché gathering of old guys with facial hair and cowboy hats frozen to have their picture taken in front of a general store smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. This gathering of posed pioneers was generic western art. It was a photo as familiar and as easy to digest as American Gothic.
“This is my family from Whitehall, Montana.” Patrick had lived in San Diego since he was two. The general store behind the men was the only building for miles, unless there were structures behind the photographer. “You know, that town never did change. That was 1913. It could just as accurately been 1850.” Patrick pointed out a gentleman he identified as his great-grandfather. “He died in 1946 and I was born in ’48, so I guess I got his energy about working wood.”
Thinking about Patrick, I was impressed by the fact that I had just met an 18th-century craftsman in a city that didn’t even exist then, an artist in the league of any of the great cabinetmakers of Europe.
Martha Ehringer, public relations director at the Mingei International Museum, was a different type of custodian for the future. The Mingei preserves artifacts through public education and display. Martha assured me when I called that the museum exhibited chairs. She said she was happy to make time for me.
“The name Mingei was coined by the late Dr. Soetsu Yanagi, the premier industrial designer in Japan. It’s a commingling of the Japanese words min, meaning ‘all people,’ and gei, meaning ‘art.’ ” The first Mingei museum was founded in Tokyo. The San Diego Mingei is not affiliated with the Tokyo museum but was inspired by it.
The most immediately striking piece of design is suspended above our heads inside the Cornell Rotunda Gallery.
“She is one of Niki de Saint Phalle’s ‘Nana’ figures, Temperance.” “She” was a huge, winged, robust female figure frozen in flight. Red, white, and blue, she was a kind of titanic Lady Liberty that I hoped was well-tethered.
Later I saw more of Saint Phalle’s unmistakable work — a chair, or small bench, that looked like a man and a woman sitting beside each other, a chair morphed by time and fashion from slave to playmate. It had a joy and an innocence that were captivating. Like Goldilocks, I tried both him and her. She was a bit more comfortable.
“Is this fiberglass?” I asked.
“It’s very much like fiberglass. It’s a kind of polyester.”
On the second floor of the museum was a Hungarian dowry exhibition. Among the pieces of furniture were some obviously hand-painted chairs, dowry chairs.
“The tradition of painted furniture came into Hungary at the time when Maria Theresa was empress. Her country needed farmers so she went to the farmers of Germany and said, ‘I’ll give you land,’ and they brought the tradition with them.”
The chair seats were not contoured but flat and painted in bright colors that were also flat. They were sweet but felt childish, like grown men in lederhosen. I didn’t think they would be easy to live with, children that talk too loudly.
“A dowry might start when a young girl was given a bed when she reached the age of 12. At 13 she would get a wardrobe. Sometime later she would paint her name on the wardrobe and sometimes the name of her husband. People were more inclined to sleep on benches or sleep in the barn in the hay. This was the 19th Century. This kind of art they’ve used for 2000 years.”
In the same room as the Hungarian dowry furniture, and at least three worlds away, were a sophisticated table and chairs made of American black walnut and hickory. They were created by George Nakashima, who was born in Spokane, Washington, in 1905. An mit graduate with an M.A. in architecture, he left the field and turned to woodworking and furniture design. He was living in Seattle when he was forcibly moved to suffer the WWII internment camp. Released in 1943, he moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania, and began again. He died in 1990, but his work lives on through his daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnell, who still operates the shop.
In his book, The Soul of a Tree, Nakashima states that “wood is sublime” and not just another design medium. “We work this material to fulfill the yearning of nature to find destiny, to give this absolute inanimate object a second life, to release its richness, its beauty, to read its history and life.”
The boardroom-sized table and chairs were utility clothed in elegance. The lines were clean and precise; the proportion was art. The set was without any kind of carved flourish. No acanthus leaves, goat heads, or lion’s paws here. There was a slightly rakish backward angle to the legs of the chairs that gave you pause before you deposited your weight. The smooth tabletop was made with two long planks of warm, dark walnut joined by wooden pins of a shade lighter walnut that looked like bow ties.
“He referred to his style as Japanese Shaker,” Martha commented.
We went to the museum’s archives. Adrianne Bratis, the registrar, and Jeremiah Maloney, Early Smith, and Scott Mellon, exhibition preparators and lighting technicians, went to extremes to show me different examples of chairs — climbing tall metal shelves, pulling down chairs, sliding back dividers, setting chair after chair on the concrete floor.
Many were great cultural examples of someone using what was available to create functional art. The handmade African chief’s chair from the Ivory Coast looked like a modern beach chair with short stubby legs. Plain in the extreme, Shaker chairs hung from pegs on a wall, exactly how the Shakers stored them. A rush-cane chair from Southeast Asia looked like a satellite dish with legs.
Martha took me on a quick tour of the different styles of notable chairs behind the scenes. There were light bentwood Eames chairs upstairs and an award-winning design in molded plywood that started a revolution of clean lines and “cool” in the ’40s.
There was a handkerchief chair designed by Massimo Vignelli, world-renowned designer and architect. It was modern-looking but more graceful than the usual contemporary chair. Made of strong, single-color resin, the material draped with gentle rolls like softly billowing fabric frozen on a frame.
Stylish, comfortable leather library chairs circled the large table in the conference room. The gift shop sold Mexican chairs of pigskin leather and split cedar.
Outside on the front lawn, there were more examples of Saint Phalle’s fantastic work — a giant skull that you could sit inside and animals you could crawl on, but my favorite was a lady spider chair unlike anything I ever imagined sober.
She was round, squat, almost donut-shaped, with an interior seating cavity. The ledge-like seats were comfortable. At a glance, you might mistake her for one of Peter Max’s pool toys, but her beautiful face looked at you with soft, expressive eye-lashed eyes that spoke joy, depth, and character. Not the usual attributes of outdoor furniture.
“You would think something this obvious would get old, but they don’t.” Martha says she’ll miss them. In just one week’s time they are leaving for their new home in Jerusalem.
Standing in the late-afternoon shade, I realized I hadn’t had lunch and crossed the street to the cafe. Once I got my food, I sat in the fading afternoon sun, trying to get comfortable in a white plastic stacking chair. They’re good for 15 minutes tops. But they stack well and you can hose them down to clean them off.
About the only unexplored area of chairs left was what’s new. I called a design house that manufactures many of its own pieces on the premises, Aspire Furniture, owned by Cindy and Jeff McGee. When I explained what I was looking for, Cindy didn’t seem uncomfortable taking on a topic that, to some, might have seemed amorphous. She recommended I meet with Calvin, the asid interior designer who worked through Aspire.
I had light traffic all the way north on 805 to the Miramar exit. On Carroll Canyon Road, pockets of nondescript multi-tenant developments felt like glass outcroppings in the open fields of tall, straw-colored grass — November’s neutrals, soft shades in classic colors.
The mist had turned to a light rain. Pulling into the empty parking lot, I found Aspire’s suite at the far end. Inside, the colors mirrored the hues outside.
Polished gray, champagne, taupe, tans, and platinum were everywhere in elegant but overcrowded groups. Rich brocades, spun cottons, soft leathers, and satins invited human contact.
Sweeping the room, your eye fell on the black-and-white lightning design of an imitation zebra skin or the occasional splash of Italian colored glass. It was a furniture showroom to be sure, but each grouping was artfully arranged to give the impression, “This is what I would look like in your home.”
Immediately inside the front door, a grand dining room was set up to show you what was possible. It was the most spacious display in the showroom. Elsewhere, elegant easy chairs, armchairs, tables, and chaise lounges created narrow aisles. In the far corner, I saw a tall, attractive blond woman standing over a beautiful wood desk piled high with sample books, catalogs, order books, and colorful fabric swatches on rings.
Cindy McGee greeted me with a warm smile and introduced herself. When I asked about her background, she was direct and friendly. She made me think of all that is good about the casual Southern California manner.
“You either understand furniture or you don’t. As soon as we moved to California — my husband and I — we became involved in manufacturing through different means, and one thing leads to another. When you’re the manufacturer, you’re in control. I have been in the furniture industry for 20 years. I don’t have a degree in design — I was a French literature major in school — but I did a lot of traveling as a sales representative for some of the better furniture manufacturers and worked at a wholesale design center and picked it up through osmosis. So I essentially, all of my adult life, have been involved in the furniture business.
“We don’t manufacture chairs at Aspire, but we represent a number of companies that do. In a better line, the price-point average [cost] for a dining room chair is $800 to $1200 a chair. The top designers can easily spend $35,000 and up on a dining room. With dining chairs, comfort is key. When we go shopping for chairs at market, it’s very labor intensive because we’re sitting on so many chairs. We wear out our sitting muscles. But it’s essential that, by the end of dinner, you’re not feeling, like, ‘Please get me out of this chair.’ ”
The pitch, the degree to which a chair angles forward or back, creates the degree of comfort or discomfort. “You don’t want to sit on a chair and be pushed forward. You want to have just a little bit of recline, and obviously have support for your back. A comfortable dining chair creates a wonderful entertaining environment around the conversation area.”
Many fast-food restaurants, which depend on turnover, intentionally provide dining chairs with a slightly uncomfortable pitch so you don’t linger too long.
“We came up with the concept of opening a factory-direct showroom in San Diego because there’s a real lack of better furniture stores here.” The recession of the 1980s closed many of the better furniture showrooms’ doors, and they didn’t reopen when economic conditions improved.
At this point, Cindy’s husband made a brief appearance for introductions. After meeting Jeff, I wondered if they realized how inevitable their decision to move to Southern California was. They looked like models for boomers on the upper end of the scale. They were both tall, attractive, and had Southern California vitality about them that was ageless.
“On a slightly less expensive scale than the custom design is the Italian frame done by a production company. It’s still carved wood, but they don’t have as many finishes. It’s less expensive. The finishes aren’t top-notch, but it’s price point. You know, not everybody can afford a $1200 dining chair.”
“They’d rather eat or something.”
She laughed. “Yes, exactly. Food on the table is an important thing.
“On the other end of the scale, when you’ve got people in homes like I live in,” she laughs, “the tract homes, we only have a certain amount of a budget to do the whole thing.”
Cindy assured me that any kind of chair can be produced, even one I designed.
“This is a ‘bergère’ [pronounced bear gere].” Cindy laid her hand on the crest of a chair whose style seemed to dominate the showroom. “It’s a mix of an exposed wood frame finished in dark mahogany, walnut, a honey color, or antique white with gilding. The cushion may be covered with fabric or leather. Whichever you choose takes it up or down in the style scale — a platinum damask may take it to the high style of Louie XIV, or it can be given a more masculine treatment with leather and a nailhead trim, which is usually the favorite in any den.
“This hand-carved, hardwood frame is most likely from Spain or Italy. If you can’t see the grain of the wood because of the finish, it’s because they used a lesser wood. The frame is sent to the manufacturer for finishing — a stain or a wash — and then the chair is cushioned and covered with the chosen fabric. Many of these hand-carved chairs are quite intricate copies of early French designs updated to be fashionable today.
“A wood frame adds accent, stands out.” Looking closely at one, she added, “These are actually Indonesian imports. We buy them from a source in San Francisco. We shop San Francisco as a regional marketplace to try to find very one-of-a-kind, unusual pieces. We have that flexibility, whereas a retail store just buys production, production, and production.
“Swivel chairs are very popular on the design scene. In a great room, or a media room, you may be dealing with a TV, someone in the kitchen, a fireplace, and a large window with a great view. With a swivel, you can sit and spin.
“Developers build homes but may not think about furniture placement. Here are all these beautiful rooms with minimal wall space, and most people tend to be afraid to float things because they aren’t creative enough to do so. ‘Float,’ in design terms, means bringing a chair or a sofa out into the room away from the walls to give you more freedom. You aren’t limited to using existing wall space; you can create conversation areas. It was a concept first tried in the early 18th Century. Bergères have a little bit more detail on the back. They float very well. Floating chairs need to be as nice on the back as they are on the front. As you come into a room and they flank a fireplace, you want them to look good on all sides.”
When I asked about the muted colors that seemed to predominate the showroom, she laughed.
“We find trendy is old-fashioned. People are much more classic oriented. In the frivolous ’80s, we all thought we would be millionaires forever. If we didn’t like something, we just tossed it away and started over. Well, that all crashed and burned and people became very practical with everything, much more safe in their choices. The practicality has actually been a very positive thing for the design industry, especially for manufacturers that build very quality-oriented furnishings because people don’t want to buy something that’s not going to last. They really want to put their money into quality, even if they have to wait a little longer to attain it.
“You want things that make you comfortable. People live in their homes. They use every inch of them. You don’t have rooms you can just forget are there. The taupe, chenille, soft earth tones have remained strong. Keeping it monochromatic makes a look live longer.” Cindy was enthusiastic. “With large neutral pieces, you can add bold color in art.” I could almost see her throw a Picasso above the fireplace.
She pointed out the different styles and treatments — French, Italian, Mediterranean, French country, wood frames, fully upholstered, nailhead trim, medallion backs, stuffed, overstuffed, and spare. There were leather recliners that didn’t look like recliners, fussy brocades, and even a few vivid prints.
We differed on the read of a chair — I saw classic lines, she saw contemporary treatments. “Contemporary includes exaggerated flair, clean lines, less fuss. Other types of bergères go very traditional with dark wood and fabric. Transitional goes with a light wood and transitional fabrics.
“One style very popular now is transitional. It’s not overtly contemporary and it’s not overtly traditional…it’s just a nice comfortable mix in-between that allows you to blend antiques and gives a more personal style.”
I asked what she found as a designer in San Diego. “It’s pretty frequent that you’d find all dark wood, which is very traditional.
“Because of the Southern California lifestyle, people tend to be a little bit more lifestyle oriented. Comfort, scale — because, again, the home may have higher ceilings. You need that mass and scale to kind of fill those areas. If you walk in and you’ve got these tiny little Ethan Allan chairs, they are going to look like Tonka toys in a comparison to the scale of the room. We have the smaller-scale chairs for the smaller rooms.”
Just out of curiosity, I asked about a single barstool sitting next to a contemporary grouping. “That’s a one-of-a-kind, hand-carved alder wood by jbm. It’s $975.”
Up a short, lazy slope of stairs there was another smaller showroom. “We just expanded to the upstairs, now we’re expanding downstairs. We’ll get the bigger furniture lines for a cozy intimate feel.”
I saw a chair upholstered in burlap. It was wonderful to look at but nothing you would spend a great deal of time in.
“This chair has a woven sea grass seat and natural muslin upholstery for a very California feel.”
She pointed out an “impact chair,” an exaggeration of a mini wing-back. “It’s out of Los Angeles, a company known for this type of look — you know, a little bit of a twist.” I’m confused. I mean, it was a good-looking chair, but many of the others had as much or more “impact.” Why was this one categorized as such? It took a few more references from Cindy to realize that “Impact Chairs” was the name of the company.
She called one large leather chair the “compromise chair.” It was a compromise between function and style. When she sat down, the leather made vulgar noises and we were both reduced to 12-year-olds giggling. “Obviously, the leather needs a bit more work till it’s broken in.”
Did Cindy have a favorite chair?
“I was raised in Connecticut, and the people across the street were having a garage sale. My mother knew they were from one of our area’s original settling families, the Pope family. She went over and previewed the sale. The woman giving it loved my mom and she said, ‘I want you to get as many of these antiques as you want.’ They were moving to Florida and they were just getting rid of all these family heirlooms; they were done with them.
“My mom went over there and saw this darling black antique chair that was actually a potty chair. It looked as if it was an old rocking chair. It had the thing you took off and the area in the back you pulled out when you needed to. I got the chair. My mom wanted me to have it. She put a little skirt on the back of it. It’s a beautiful black with the original paint and hand carving on the back. It was my favorite place to hide all of my little treasures. I’d just stick them in my little potty chair. The only thing that I brought from back East to California is the one chair that I had as a child in my room. I love it.”
Throughout the morning I was aware of a young man I surmised was Calvin, the asid interior designer who worked through Aspire. Every customer who came in seemed to come to talk to him. He looked for lamps for one couple and a table for a woman. I waited to talk to him. Cindy assured me that Calvin had a real flair for chairs.
“I just did a cluster of chairs, the Ritz-Carlton of chairs, all period pieces, one hell of a look for a millionaire that wanted something different. I spent $50,000 for the chairs and the draperies for the great room. He wanted a great look for a good price. I’m really good at that. It was a killer look.”
“How long have you been a designer?” I asked.
“Since I was 2,” he said, and Cindy laughed. “You mean making money at it? Since I was 16.”
He was thoughtful for a moment and lamented, “Money can’t buy taste, but you can rent it.”
At some point, when Vic Damone and Dianne Carroll were married, Calvin was hired to decorate around their $100,000 Napoleonic armchair they’d purchased at Christie’s. It sat in the entry with a beautiful contemporary table. It still had the original fabric, one of the reasons the chair was so expensive.
“Awesome Chippendales are the most expensive chair I know of. It’s $5000 just for a Jon Witticom knockoff of the traditional Chippendale chair.”
As I left Aspire, I realized Cindy had cleared up a minor mystery of my childhood. There were four children in my family, two boys and two girls. Whenever one of us started having too good a time at a meal, rocking back on two legs of the chair, my mother or my father was swift to thump the offender with a sharp, open-handed brush to the back of the head, Three Stooges style. “Put all four feet on the ground” was the command that followed. Finally, I learned why it was such a big deal. One of the most important things I learned that afternoon was never to tilt back in a chair — it voids the warranty.
— Patricia Boynton