Box curly sycamore, quilted maple, pink ivory 14"x7"x2-3/4" sold

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A long time ago, I worked in a restoration shop that did all the work required by several well-known antique dealers in NYC, and sometimes carried out assignments for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As you might expect, many of the pieces were valuable. Chippendale tables, Heppelwhite bureaus, Adams settees. If it was British and from the 17th (I worked on an Early Jacobean chest that was nearly 400 years old) or 18th century we saw it go through the shop.

I really didn’t know much about restoration, probably had been hired by the owner of the shop, a curmudgeon named John T., because I was young, would work (real) cheap, could easily be bossed around, and was dying to learn about “traditional” woodworking. John was a hateful English tyrant of the first order, nicknaming me “a**hole”, who would sometimes just take everything on my bench and fling it all to the floor, because I was wrong or slow or something. Just a mean guy, drinking too much, with a little power.

But he knew a great deal about antique restoration, had worked at London's Victoria & Albert musuem (he said, I heard), was considered a master of the trade. I decided to spend a short time enduring his misanthropy in order to learn something about that trade. About the “traditional” ways of working wood.

It was a good experience. Restoration shops are quiet, contemplative places (when John  wasn’t drunk and bellowing) because you can’t really use machines too much - they’d leave marks indicating this century - not a good thing when you're working on a piece from the Elizabethan period. Work would be done by hand, the other guys were friendly and taught me things, and there was a certain charm to having lunch amidst furniture worth tens of thousands of dollars, upended, in various states of disrepair, awaiting their turn at the bench. Eating my tuna fish sandwich, feet up on a Chippendale table worth more than I was going to make that year, was weirdly glamourous.

And I learned a little about tradition, where it was real and where I had imagined it. I learned that Chippendale furniture was made in a factory of 400 workers, in what was almost an assembly line, cutters, joiners, carvers, finishers all taking the turns on the pieces that were being created for British aristocracy. I learned that furniture of this type, pieces now 200-300 years old, had been restored on average every 75 years, so inside every piece there was a narrative, hands across the years, fixing, readjusting, rebuilding, refinishing. Master, journeyman, apprentice, leaving their signatures, inventive joinery, thoughtful, skilled handcraft, and, more often than you might imagine, banged-in nails and careless, ill-advised alterations. You could see and feel the continuity of endeavor and I was there adding my little contribution (for better or worse) to the procession.

So what does this have to do with this box, with its quilted maple panel and pink ivory molding and handle?

Everything. Nothing.

 

 

 

 

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