Course Review: The American School of French Marquetry

working on a chevalet

This article originally appeared in the newsletter for the Washington Woodworker’s GuildThe Wooden Word.

The American School of French Marquetry is located in San Diego, California and offers classes focusing in the traditional French 18th century marquetry technique as well as in the newest methods for contemporary designs. All students at the American School of French Marquetry are taught on the “chevalet de marqueterie” (Marquetry Easel for Painting in Wood), or cutting horse. It was the tool used by the Parisian “ébéniste” and “marqueteur” and was unique to the French trade, which was very secretive. The chevalet allows the worker to cut out very delicate patterns in exotic woods and other materials with a high degree of accuracy.

The Instructors
chevalet-0747 - Copy

The school is run by Patrick Edwards and Patrice Lejeune, who are both outstanding masters in marquetry. Patrick left his career in High Energy Physics in 1973 to repair and restore furniture in
his native San Diego. With his avowedly pre-industrial perspective he became involved in museum quality restorations early on working with J. Paul Getty Museum and others. There he met a French conservator who gave him hints of the depth of knowledge still available in France. Patrick became aware of the chevalet, a tool developed in Paris before 1780 that allows very controlled cutting of veneer. After years of learning from books, a contact at the Getty arranged for him to meet Dr. Pierre Ramond who, in addition to writing the seminal text “Marquetry”, Pierre was the chief marquetry instructor at the Ecole Boulle, the Harvard of French technical colleges. He invited Patrick to attend the school in 1992, which he did for a three month term. He was then invited back for the three subsequent years. In 2000, with Pierre’s blessing, he founded the American School of French Marquetry. The school teaches technique using Etudes (studies), the same approach as the Ecole Boulle.

Patrick’s partner in the business is Patrice Lejeune. Patrice has two degrees from the Ecole Boulle. His technical training is broad and very deep. Both of these men are extremely talented craftsmen, passionate about their work, and first rate teachers. They constantly disagree about details while being completely aligned on big picture views.

Etude 3 after cutting-1211 - Copy
Etude 2-0736 - Copy

Stage One: Boulle Work

This is also known as packet cutting, and is the basic way of making a marquetry picture. A stack of veneers is trapped between two thin backer boards. The pattern is glued to the front board. A hole is drilled in the packet, and the fretsaw blade inserted. The packet is cut into the constituent pieces, which are carefully organized. Some combination of pieces is inserted into each background piece, and multiple copies of the picture are produced.

Any marquetry teacher would teach you those things. What is unique about ASFM is that both of the instructors have made 6000 piece panels this way. There are tools, approaches and organizing techniques to make this happen.

About the Chevalet

The heart of the system is the Chevalet. It is a sophisticated hand-powered scroll saw. The jaw system allows you to hold the packet so that very small and complex pieces can be cut accurately without the veneer shattering. The precision possible is far beyond any scroll saw I have experienced. I now have about 40 hours of experience using the chevalet at the school, but have spent $700 on parts and plans to make my own. This tool is unique and I believe worth the floor space, time, and money to construct. At its heart this is a hand tool and requires dexterity and practice to master. Decent vision is also handy, though an Optivisor helps a lot.

Week one consists of three studies. The objectives are to practice using the chevalet and learn to deal with different tricky issues. Some drawing skills are also taught by Kristen, Patrick’s wife and a former art teacher. Keeping parts organized, fixing mistakes, assembly boards, mastic, glueups, hide glue technology, and pad polishing are also covered.

Etude 1 -1201 - Copy

Skill Level Required

This course is an amazing introduction to marquetry. If you were to take it without any background, you would know how to do basic marquetry (using a chevalet) at the end of the week. However, it is a much better class if you already know basic techniques. If you were to attend a Cordon Bleu cooking school with no background, you would learn to make an omelet. If you were already a reasonably accomplished cook, you could learn to make fabulous food. Patrick and Patrice can do either, so it’s up to you which you’d like to learn from them.

This class is taught in a very specific way for very specific reasons. The key impediment to this method is actually the chevalet itself. It is large and expensive. A scroll saw or a deep-throated fret saw is sufficient for simple marquetry of up to 200 pieces. A chevalet is more precise and opens up other possibilities, which you can best appreciate when you’ve done marquetry some other way. For real precision hand work, the chevalet is quite the tool. (Yes, a laser could do even better, but I don’t consider that relevant. I make things with a chevalet, I’m just feeding a machine with a laser.)

Etude 3 assembled-0777 - Copy

Final thoughts:

ASFM teaches classes four times a year in two week chunks. Patrick also teaches for two weeks each year at Marc Adams’ school in Indianapolis. That is much closer to the East Coast, but San Diego in February is pretty nice. If the topic appeals to you this is the best training available in the US.

I would suggest that you read up and practice ahead of time so that you can learn at a higher level. To be honest, these guys are wasted teaching at this level, but there aren’t many other teachers prepping for them. They also exhibit no frustration at teaching basic material – their enthusiasm for their subject is genuine and deep. They do offer higher level classes to graduates of the initial two classes- there was one student there working at a much higher level than the rest of us.

We’ll be back next week with more on Dave’s 57 Chevalet and what he’s done with the instruction since leaving the school. – Jenn

ASFM Followup and Progress | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture - […] the line and manage the very small pieces that are one of the benefits of using this approach. As mentioned in the prior review of the school, the chevalet automatically cuts identical pieces by insuring the saw is […]

Meet the Maker: Cville Arts Co-Op! | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture - […] Enter the Charlottesville Arts Cooperative Gallery – this is a store full of art and artisanal goods created by artisans who share a storefront space and operating costs and labour. Heller and Heller joined and set up our space there at the beginning of March. (Readers of the blog will remember that Dave was in San Diego the second half of February at the Amer… […]

Share on Facebook|Tweet this Post|Pin Images to Pinterest|Back to Top

Finding Inspiration in Masterworks: Part IV, the Ruhlmann Cabinet D’Etat

For the last segment of our Masterworks series (for now – Dave and Elizabeth are heading back to Europe this summer!) we’re back to talk about Dave’s new ambitious personal project(s): the Oeben Secretaire a Cylindre and a Ruhlmann Cabinet D’Etat. In our previous installment at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs Dave had just decided that instead of taking away 1 project from these masterpieces, he would take on two.

If you missed any of the previous posts, you can catch them here: Part I, Part II, Part III. – Jenn

Ruhlmann

Decisions, decisions – Ruhlmann’s Cabinet D’Etat on the left, vs. Oeben’s Secretaire a Cylindre on the right.

I’m not 100% sure which I will start first. At this point I intend to collect information on both pieces, and start making test or sample parts when I know enough to feel it would be useful.  I also need time from the items I need to run my daily business, so that I can work on these longer term visionary items.
The issues with the Ruhlmann pieces are similar to the Oeben piece. The structure isn’t clear, and the marquetry is of an extraordinary quality and size. From my inspection at the time I concluded that the flowers are made in smaller clusters then inlaid into the background. There has been remarkably little published about Ruhlmann’s cabinet construction.  He didn’t make any furniture himself, he designed the object then skilled employees translated the concept into furniture.  Ruhlmann selected the materials, but it isn’t clear to me yet whether he was involved in reviewing the construction details.  I need to spend some time reviewing the materials in the decorative arts museum library to understand this better.

A side-by-side look at the marquetry styles

A side-by-side look at the marquetry styles

This blog will be helpful by making me think things through.  So far it has made me realize that I need to contact the curators at both museums to see if additional information is available, and possibly to have a private viewing of these pieces when we go back to Paris for our 35th wedding anniversary. Also, that there is an online catalog for these museums that will be much more useful now that I am interested in particular pieces rather than everything in general.

Oeben was also famous for his mechanical components.  Moving parts and hidden drawers were standard.  I am not yet aware of any in this piece, but it seems unlikely that something with such a complex design would not have any special features.  It will be fun to find them.

 

In preparation for my time at the American School of French Marquetry, I began a sample Ruhlmann panel motif first.

In preparation for my time at the American School of French Marquetry, I began a sample Ruhlmann panel motif first.

For more behind the scenes, be sure to follow Dave on Instagram! We’ll be back next Tuesday with a review of Dave’s time at the American School of French Marquetry in sunny San Diego!

 

Project Update: Oeben Desk | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture - […] I had expected this piece to be a Ruhlmann piece. His work is exquisite, very fine and very complex. There is a wonderful collection of his pieces at the Musee des Arts Decoratif, and I spent several hours with them, and have several hundred closeup photos from every angle, so that I could in theory make any of them. In the end, that wasn’t what really grabbed me though. […]

Share on Facebook|Tweet this Post|Pin Images to Pinterest|Back to Top

Finding Inspiration in Masterpieces: Part III, Musée des Arts Decoratifs

Part III of our series is here, and our next stop is the Musée des Arts Decoratifs! Next week we’ll be back to talk about Dave’s next steps for his ambitious personal project(s). – Jenn

By D4m1en (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By D4m1en (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Half hour outside and I was ready for the next stop: the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, down the street from the entrance to the Louvre (and literally within another wing of the same palace. )

The layout in this museum is not as attractive as the earlier two – pieces are pretty much just lined up by period. In most cities the collection of 15th to 18th century furniture would be amazing, but not after seeing the other two museums in the same day.

musee_arts_decoratifs-1
musee_arts_decoratifs-7
musee_arts_decoratifs-8

This collection uniquely continued on to current works. French 19th c furniture was less derivative than British or American. The Art Nouveau collection was very good – Galle, Majorelle, and others. There was early art deco from 1910 that I had not been aware of. The reason that I was visiting my third furniture museum in one day though was to see the Art Deco pieces. I was hoping to see some Ruhlmann as well as some of the other designers that had exhibited at the 1925 World’s Fair in Paris.

musee_arts_decoratifs-9
musee_arts_decoratifs-10
musee_arts_decoratifs-12

The Art Deco exhibit was at the furthest end of the building, in several large rooms. Ruhlmann had pride of place, as he should. There were four beautiful pieces lined up along a partition.  The first was a roll top desk, a direct descendant of the Oeben desk.  It unfortunately was damaged – the joint holding the front to the side was open. Scandal!  The joint had failed because it was a single dowel! That makes some of the very thin connections more clear – he was willing to sacrifice function for form. The piece was extremely elegant, but the finish was also marred. The tambours in the roll top must have flexed and the ebony slats were rubbing against the housing. With very fine tolerances, wood is not necessarily a great material, only the most beautiful.

musee_arts_decoratifs-14
musee_arts_decoratifs-18
musee_arts_decoratifs-19

There were several pieces along the wall. I went around to the other side and there were five more Ruhlmann pieces. The first was the very famous cabinet état, a triangular cabinet almost four feet tall, three feet wide, with the most amazing marquetry on the door. Unlike some museums, this piece was so accessible I could have touched it. I didn’t.  The marquetry looked fragile, and deserved to be left alone. I was able to photograph the entire piece exterior at very close distance, close enough to see the saw cuts in the marquetry.

musee_arts_decoratifs-16

I had gone to Paris to find an art deco piece to replicate, and had found the Oeben desk instead. In for a penny, in for a pound.  I would make this piece also!

Inspiration from Masterworks: the Art Deco Marquetry of Ruhlmann | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture - […] you missed any of the previous posts, you can catch them here: Part I, Part II, Part III. – […]

Museum Review: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture - […] want to see it, but it’s not good if you really want to appreciate the details. By comparison, in the Musee des Arts Decoratif in Paris you could get close enough lick the pieces, though I don’t recommend it. Lesser museums […]

Project Update: Oeben Desk | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture - […] had expected this piece to be a Ruhlmann piece. His work is exquisite, very fine and very complex. There is a wonderful collection of his pieces at the Musee des Arts Decoratif, and I spent several hours with them, and have several hundred closeup photos from every angle, so […]

Share on Facebook|Tweet this Post|Pin Images to Pinterest|Back to Top

Finding Inspiration in Masterpieces: Part II, the Louvre

And we’re back!

You may wonder why we took a blogging hiatus when I promised you a 4 part series, and the honest answer is that my son, prize grandchild Owen, learned to crawl. Now I have to chase him around the house instead of polishing up blog posts for publication.  We’ve hopefully resolved this issue with better structure for my schedule and the blog’s schedule (and a playpen): from today on we are intending to post something new on Tuesdays every week!

We’re picking up where we left off with Dave’s visit to 3 great museums of Paris, and I’m sure the Louvre needs no introduction. Dave doesn’t have all that much to say about it either because honestly it’s fairly overwhelming, so we’ll leave you with some pictures and be back next week with Part III, Musee des Arts Decoratifs! — Jenn

musee_du_louvre-16

musee_du_louvre-1
From the Musée Nissim de Camondo I went to the Louvre. Unlike the Musée Camondo which is very focused on a specific time period,  their furniture collection is much larger, covers a much broader period of time, and is in a series of small rooms that can be viewed from both ends.

musee_du_louvre-2
musee_du_louvre-3
musee_du_louvre-6
musee_du_louvre-9

Again, these were glorious pieces, and many were companion pieces to those in Musée Camondo.  Viewing positions were limited for many pieces because of the inevitable crowds. They were really fine furniture, but somehow weren’t as inspiring as the more intimate setting of the smaller museum.

Editor’s note: As an architect, I have some thoughts on this: most furniture is not designed for the scale of the Louvre.  Further, most historic furniture is intended as part of a tableau, to set a specific scene – it’s not meant to be seen against blank walls with no accompanying pieces.  While many other works of art look better the closer you can examine them, objects that are both beautiful and meant for use, like furniture and buildings, lose their impact when removed from their real surroundings. The pieces in this post shown in decorated rooms to me immediately seem more impactful.

musee_du_louvre-10
musee_du_louvre-12
musee_du_louvre-14

By the time I saw all of the Louvre’s furniture, I needed a break.

We’ll be back next Tuesday with more masterpiece inspiration!

Finding Inspiration In Masterworks: Part IV, The Ruhlmann Cabinet D’Etat | Heller And Heller Custom Furniture - […] you missed any of the previous posts, you can catch them here: Part I, Part II, Part III. – […]

Share on Facebook|Tweet this Post|Pin Images to Pinterest|Back to Top

Finding Inspiration in Masterpieces – Musée Nissim de Camondo

Happy New Year from Heller and Heller Furniture!

This is Part 1 of a 4 part series highlighting Dave’s recent study of some incredible works. Dave and Elizabeth traveled to Normandy in April, and while they were there Dave visited 3 museums in Paris looking for inspiration from masterworks. He was not disappointed! This series will detail Dave’s visits to the Musée Nissim de Camondo, the Musée du Louvre, and the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, and what he intends to do with his newfound inspiration.

Want to see more posts from Dave in real time?  Don’t forget you can follow him on Instagram for some great behind-the-scenes looks!

musee_nissim_camondo-14

I’ve been in business 6 years now, and am getting the hang of it. My interests in more decorative items seem to be selling reasonably well. The least unprofitable items to make though are quick – the more hours in a piece, the lower the hourly rate. That may be true, but to push my craftsmanship further up the curve I need a really challenging piece. I had seen a Ruhlmann piece in Richmond at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that might qualify, but not well enough to get me excited (it’s far from the viewers and not well lit).

My lovely bride was asked to go back to Normandy for work in April, and I was able to tag along.  While there I spent three days in Paris for a furniture study visit. I hoped to see some items in Paris that would inspire and inform my work. There is a lot of really fine furniture in Paris, and I only had three days including travel time. So, the Louvre, the Museum of Decorative Arts, and the Musée Nissim de Camondo were “all” I could fit in. As it turns out, any of these would be worth the trip. With all three, it was overload, but in a good way.

First up: Musée Nissim de Camondo.

musee_nissim_camondo-21

The Musée was named after the son of a 19th century banker (Comte Moïse de Camondo) who collected household effects from the royal courts in the 1750 to 1790 period. He built a house appropriate for these items on Parc Monceau in the 8ieme Arrondisement, and raised his family in that extraordinary space. His son Nissim was a French pilot in WWI, and was killed in action. The house was donated to The Musée des Arts Decoratif upon the father’s death in honor of his son, and has been open to the public since 1935.

musee_nissim_camondo-4

The furniture at Musée N. de Camondo was extraordinary.  The other items – china, silverware, paintings – were probably very nice also, but I was focused.  This amazing furniture was all in excellent condition.  Most of the pieces were Louis XVI, so very boxy with ornate geometric veneer patterns and lots of brass ormolu.

musee_nissim_camondo-7

Since I really like geometric patterns, I had expected these would have been my favorites. However, I was particularly drawn to a Louis XV desk. It was made by Jean-Francois Oeben, cabinetmaker to the King, in 1760.

musee_nissim_camondo-18

This piece is very ornate, but stunning. The balance of the piece is remarkable. Every edge is curved and faceted, then veneered. It is completely over the top, as one would expect for French royalty.

musee_nissim_camondo-16

As I looked at it, I decided that I would make it. This will be a long-term project, since there are several techniques that I will need to learn. The marquetry is complex but manageable.  However, applying this to a surface curving in both dimensions is a new thing, especially if I use thick veneer, which is what the original has. The only flat surfaces on the desk are the writing surface and the top. The legs, front, sides and back are all curved. There are also facets on all of the sides of the frame, which is veneered in Tulip wood.  There are dyed burls and (English) sycamore to source or make as well. So far the complex but rigorous shape of the frame and the double-curved veneer are the main details that I need to resolve.

musee_nissim_camondo-13

I had expected that working out the veneer patterns on all of the surfaces would be very time consuming. I took many photographs, but it was going to be difficult.

In my library I have a three volume set on Marquetry by Phillipe Ramond, former head instructor at the Ecole Boulle. The third book of the set has detailed drawings of a small set of elite pieces made in the 18th century.  I looked, and there is my desk, on pages 36 to 41. Interestingly, the desk is also featured in the other French woodworking textbook that I own, the “Traite d’Ebenisterie”, (Textbook on Fine Furniture Making). I’m hoping that the leg profiles at least are drawn. Since the text is technical French, I’m not sure. The drawings may be for a similar but simpler table. I will make one and see.

This piece is so challenging that it immediately seemed worthy of being a long term goal.  I can make almost any furniture, but this will really be a test.  Since I like to make things that I can’t, it’s a good fit.
This blog will be a record of my struggles with this piece, both technically and otherwise.

 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Finding Inspiration in Masterpieces: Part II, the Louvre | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture - […] may wonder why we took a blogging hiatus when I promised you a 4 part series, and the honest answer is that my son, prize grandchild Owen, learned to crawl. Now I have to […]

Finding Inspiration In Masterworks: Part IV, The Ruhlmann Cabinet D’Etat | Heller And Heller Custom Furniture - […] you missed any of the previous posts, you can catch them here: Part I, Part II, Part III. – […]

Project Update: Oeben Desk | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture - […] the Musee Nissim de Camondo, which celebrates furniture of French royalty from 1740-1790, there is a desk by Jean-Francios […]

Share on Facebook|Tweet this Post|Pin Images to Pinterest|Back to Top