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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 […]

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Wood Grain Direction | the Custom Furniture Design Process

Hello furniture fans, Jenn here! Dave is working on a piece for a client right now and wanted to share a little bit about the depth of the custom design process.  Most of us understand that custom furniture will involve the client being able to choose the wood type, the finish type, and the shape and function of a custom piece.  But it doesn’t stop there – something as simple as the grain direction for a feature panel can change the look and feel of a piece.  Take it away Dave!


These are the panels before finish is applied.

I am making a simple frame and panel door setup for a jewelry cabinet. The style is Shaker or maybe minimalist Arts and Crafts. The design is very clean, and the star of the show is the wood for the panel doors. I had a really sweet piece of curly cherry, so bookmatching the panel seemed a simple but attractive design.


bookmatching: when panels are oriented with the grain as a mirror image of each other.  Imagine the opening and closing of a book – when the panels are one board they face each other, and when they are split into two up to the grain is mirrored around the “spine”**


The wood has been resawn and planed to thickness, then left to mellow. Since the door frames are very thin, the panels need to want to be flat. If they curl the doors will twist. The panels behaved themselves, so today they went into the cherry frames. Picture one shows them in their frames, bookmatched, before the application of any finish. Pretty nice.

When possible, it’s good to finish panels before putting them in their frames – that way if (or when) they shrink, the newly exposed wood is sure to be finished. The finish for this cabinet is polymerized tung oil which really brings out the depth in cherry.

The bookmatched panels with one coat of sealer are shown in picture two. Sorry for the glare. Looks great, yes?

cabinet door panels-3

Ah, but we have options. The downside of bookmatching is that the reflectance of the wood on the two panels is reversed, so the color of the two rarely looks the same. The Japanese solve this by slip-matching rather than book-matching. The two sequential pieces have pretty much the same pattern, and have the same reflectance. That is picture 3, and is generally not my favorite. It looks better here than most times.

cabinet door panels-4

The last alternative is to slip-match but then rotate one panel 180 deg, which results in a pinwheel approach. I really like that here, but it creates a movement to the piece that may not be to everyone’s individual taste.

cabinet door panels-5

This looks to me like a customer decision point – part of the fun of ordering custom furniture.

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Marquetry Demonstration this weekend – Artisans Studio Tour

lily of the valley cabinet diagonal view showing joinery

Have you ever wondered how Dave makes all the veneered designs in his shop? Marquetry is a traditional technique dating back to the early 16th century of using cut wood veneer to create a design, and it can be as simple as a bookmatched burl veneer applied to a panel, or as complex as thousands of individually sand-shaded pieces carefully assembled to form a work of art.

organizing then sand shading a marquetry picture-1

Dave will be giving a demonstration of how he would assemble a floral marquetry design as part of the Artisan’s Studio Tour – plan to stop by around 10:30am or 4:pm on either day if you’re interested in watching!

organizing then sand shading a marquetry picture-7


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Artisans Studio Tour – November 7 and 8



Hello! Jenn here, with a quick update to let you know that we are excited to participate an event this weekend – the Artisans Studio Tour! This is our second year being a part of the tour, and we’re really looking forward to showing you around the shop. Thanks in large part to your feedback at the show last year, Dave has been hard at work preparing some beautiful marquetry pieces for sale in addition to his end-grain cutting boards, and as a bonus he’ll even be demonstrating assembling a marquetry design.

heller and heller custom furniture shop

Meet the Makers

The studio tour is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about local craftspeople, and to get a real look into their studio spaces!  Don’t worry though, we did clean up a bit. If you’re interested in learning more about custom furniture or how Dave can create exactly the piece you’ve been thinking about then he’d be more than happy to talk your ear off. At 10:30 and 4:00, unless the studio is absolutely packed, he’ll also be doing a demonstration of how he creates his marquetry pieces.

Joining us in the studio this year is quilt artist Jane Hicks – you can read more about her free-flowing batik designs on the tour webpage, or visit her site for more information.

carved raised trivets
end grain cutting boards

Shop the Studio

The shop is FULL of finished chopping boards, serving trays, marquetry panels and boxes, and traditional shaker boxes!  There are plenty of new designs and sizes this year as well as old favorites, and we think there’s a little something for everyone.

The studio is open for the tour on both Saturday and Sunday, November 7th and 8th, from 10 to 5. You can catch Dave over on Instagram with sneak peeks of everything he’s been working on, and getting ready for the show.

arts and crafts marquetry
marquetry morning glory boxes
nouveau iris marquetry

We hope to see you there!

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Almost ready to show it off

shop reflected in buffed out cabinet top
cabinet top

This cabinet is almost ready for show time! It has just been buffed out, and is looking pretty fine. Tomorrow the other parts will get the same treatment. The drawer fronts can then be attached to the drawers, then the drawer interiors get fitted out. Then it’s ready for a real photo shoot. This one is going to be a real looker.

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