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.
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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.