Dave is back today with an update on a piece you may have seen floating around our Instagram – the Oeben Desk, or Secretaire a Cylindre in French. We’ll be using the hashtag #oebendesk to post photo updates of the piece on Instagram but today Dave has a process update.
Secretaire a Cylindre
In 2015 I went to Normandy with my lovely wife. She got to work, and I played tourist. With Paris only a two hour drive away, the furniture museums beckoned. I went to find a piece worthy of being my furniture life-goal. Something so amazing that when I made my copy of it I could say that I really am a furniture maker and that would have really stretched me to figure out how to make it.
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.
At the Musee Nissim de Camondo, which celebrates furniture of French royalty from 1740-1790, there is a desk by Jean-Francios Oeben. It is a petite roll-top desk in the Louis XV style, completed around 1760. It is sensuous and elegant, and covered in amazing floral marquetry. This is my objective. The case alone is extraordinary – there are no flat surfaces other than the desk writing surface and the top. Everything flows.
Even making a case this complex will be a huge endeavour. Only a furniture maker would even notice the structure though, because the marquetry and veneering for this piece is off the charts. And it is applied to curved surfaces, often compound curves! This was one of the main reasons I went to the American School of French Marquetry in 2016 – to understand how to cut marquetry for curved surfaces. One of the instructors there, Patrice, grimaced when asked: “It will be difficult.”
One of the real challenges for this desk will be developing a working drawing. I generally design my furniture on a napkin, but that won’t do here. I can get the case shape pretty close from photographs but I was very concerned about the marquetry – not every surface is equally visible, so photos of a couple of panels were pretty sparse.
Turns out, this is where my furniture library came in really handy: Volume 3 of the Masterpeices of Marquetry by Pierre Ramond contains photos and plans of some of the finest work by Oeben, Jean-Henri Riesener, and Abraham and David Roentgen, the stars of the 18th century European furniture firmament. And there, on pages 33-37, are detailed drawings and photos of every marquetry panel on my desk. Thank you, Pierre. I don’t have to draw them at all, just interpret them – no small task.
This is a multiyear project. My first bite was this spring. There are 12 marquetry panels on this desk. I made one of the medium sized ones, on the left side of the rolltop portion, as you look at it from the front. This is curved panel (later) with a complex flower spray surrounded by an elaborate border. The spray and the border are this year’s exercise.
The spray has been cut. I used Painting in Wood, a technique taught at ASFM. There are about 25 species of wood in my version. The original used tobacco dyed sycamore as the background – I used walnut burl. My color use was a little more generous than JFO’s, but he would have used more colors if he’d had them.
I’m pleased with it so far. The colors are vibrant but not crazy; the cutting was difficult but not impossible. The biggest challenge was managing the deep inclusions of background into the center of the picture. It took me about 25 hours to cut the pieces, and I had enough wood in the packet to land up with three copies – two that are essentially the same and one slightly less good but probably savable.
My chevalet only has an 18” throat so unless (until?) I make a bigger (and heavier, and more unwieldy) saw, so I am limited in the size of what I can cut. Since the pattern without the border was 17”, I made it without the border, and I plan on inlaying the panel into the border once I get some purpleheart, which should be soon. I may regret this approach, but that’s why you make test pieces. I hope to have the purpleheart within the next few weeks, and have time to work on the border in July?
Paying working supersedes this kind, but it’s been very satisfying to start working on something so grand.
Be sure to follow Dave on Instagram to see more of the piece as it comes together!