Sunday, August 20, 2017

Mission Impossible

     I spend a lot of time driving around Connecticut. It's one of my favorite parts of the job. I'm a sucker for a good drive, mostly because I'm a sucker for rural landscapes and old houses. I couldn't care less for cities. In my book "urban" and "hell" are filed cheek by jowl, but oh a quiet New England town, laying gently in some comely valley, or perched primly on a hillside with a sweeping vista. Sometimes I see views so wonderful I get choked up, because I'm nuts, and definitely not the bastion of sanity you deserve in a furniture blogger.
     I solemnly swear I did not weep as I drove through Higganum, Connecticut last Thursday, but I was oh so close. In all my driving, through high and low country, the New York-y corners and those  southeastern bits that snug up against Rhode Island and reach out towards the Atlantic, and I'd never before seen this jewel of a town that all but sits in my lap. As the crow flies, Higganum is just a hair south of East Hampton across the Connecticut river, over the bridge by the Opera House and off a road (rt. 154) I've turned left on nearly one thousand times, and had not once turned right. On Thursday I turned right and goodness gracious what I've been missing! Higganum is SO. DAMN. CUTE.
     It was the lure of a free sideboard that finally drew me out that way. With a loosely Jacobean form popular in the first quarter of the 20th century, these sideboards are generally excellent candidates for upcycling. They were part of the first major wave of mass produced furniture for the American middle class, generally made of walnut or mahogany veneers over poplar or chestnut secondary wood. They're nicely built, super funky and fun, and in no way rare, valuable, or important (so no one needs to shout at me for painting one). There is a caveat though. These pieces have a huge HUGE achilles heel, and that is moisture. When they get wet, or damp, or someone walks near them while sipping a glass of water, the veneer explodes off, pealing in every direction with extreme and focused intent...*when unrefinished. Once painted or refinished they're just as hardy as any other antique piece.
      The wonderful folks who gave this unfortunate sideboard to me cannot be blamed for its woeful condition. It came with the SO. DAMN. CUTE. house they just bought in so damn cute Higganum. The sideboard had been kept in the basement of their 1950s cape for goodness knows how long, possibly eons, judging by the damp it had survived. They'd sent me a picture, but when I saw the piece in person my heart sank a bit. It had once been glorious, easily the best form I've yet seen on one of these c.1915 pieces, but oh she was rough stuff. I make a rule of never leaving a piece behind. If I've inconvenienced folks by coming out to their house, the least I can do is take the piece off their hands. That doesn't mean sometimes I don't get home and cannibalize it for parts (more on that later), but I swear, like the true yankee I am, I will scrounge and salvage every last bit that can be saved.
      So I loaded up this faded beauty, already picturing the massive funeral pyre I would build her, and feeling my heart ache for the shame of it. I was sure she was too far gone, absolutely beyond reasonable hope. But.
Reason be damned.

      And here's what it took: First I scrubbed this sucker from stem to stern cause she was naaaaarsty. I battled three spiders, killed two, and one scuttled off to likely call in reinforcements (I will almost certainly die by spider). I removed all the damaged applied plaster molding. These appliqu├ęs are always the weakest link against moisture, rare is the surviving whole example. The feet were the greatest challenge. The way they're always built, blocked and glued to achieve that round form, the hide glue alway gives near the damp cement floor, and the blocks start to fall off. This is easily repaired if you have the pieces, if not, you have to get creative. Referencing other William and Mary forms, I removed the damaged and remaining pieces and sanded the feet down to smaller elongated oval foot that one also sees in the period. That was the easy part. The hard part was hacksawing off the crumbling casters so rusted they couldn't be yanked out.
      I patched the few spots of veneer loss, not many actually, as the case, and the top were in surprisingly good condition. The damage seemed to have only snaked its way up to the apron but no farther. The drawers already worked well, just some light sanding of the tops to eliminate sticking. The lock had been wrenched out of one door, and both needed filling and repairs. I painted the case in a soft distressed black, and, in keeping with the theme of salvage, replaced the mismatched and broken wood knobs with a set of antique glass pulls from the same period. I'd pulled the paint caked knobs off a rotten vintage dresser, the only part of it worth saving, and had actually had to hacksaw several of their rusted posts to remove them. At the time it had seemed a fool's errand, but then when facing this sideboard I'd needed ten glass knobs, and lo and behold, there they were. I scrubbed them in hot water, replaced all the posts, and whiz bang-the knobs were aaaaaabsolutely flawless, and so is the sideboard.
      This is a long post so, something something, don't give up on stuff.
But really the moral is, for the love of god, stop storing your antique furniture in the damp basement.

Loads of late summer flowers from my garden!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

This Funny Cupboard

         I'll indulge myself just a hair and say, at least with American furniture, there's not much that absolutely mystifies me these days. Between working extensively with 18th and early 19th century at Liverant Antiques, and now having a bit over a decade refinishing 20th century pieces under my belt, I've seen it all. But "I've seen it all" is always a statement that requires an asterisk. So here's our requisite addendum-

         I've seen it all*, but I swear on the graves of my ancestors, I've never seen anything even remotely similar to this funky chunky cupboard cum secretary. It is wholly and entirely an outlier... and I love it so hard for that, though I'd love it even more if I could have just teased even an ounce of further understanding from it's knotty pine boards. 
       Last night I went to bed a bit early as I was, well, under the weather due to finishing a bottle of bourbon with a dear friend of ours the night before. It was a terrible idea, but very very fun. There's always that last drink of the evening that you know you should skip, the one you'll regret. My Monday night ended with about three of those in quick succession. Yuck. So any way, I worked all day Tuesday like the goddamn trooper my mom raised me to be, but by 8pm I was done for. I gave up the ghost, crawled thankfully into bed, and watched THE BEST documentary ever on Netflix. It was about an archaeologist who's currently hunting down early Norse (viking) settlements on the North American coast. Our intrepid archaeologist heroine and her team spend two weeks digging on a cliff in, I think, Newfoundland. The potential site sits a stone's throw from sheer cliffs that frame arguably the most stunning vistas on earth. In the two weeks they dig, they find: some dirt that could be ash, three stones that *miiiiiight* be slag, three black seeds, and some discoloration in more dirt, that *miiiiiight* indicate a turf walled structure had once stood on the site.
         The big hurrah moment for the show comes when they get the results back on the carbon dating of the seeds, it's so uncomfortably fake that I squirmed for the two otherwise clearly credible and professional scientists (I HATE that reality TV bullshit, and sometime soon I'll tell you all about my horrendous experience on Flea Market Flip). But otherwise the show holds up pretty well. Without spoiling it for you, actually just kidding *spoiler alert* it is a Norse settlement, and they determine that based on one freaking rock the size of the tip of my thumb, which turns out to indeed be a by product of iron mongering, something only the Norse did that early on in North American.
        Anywho, my point is these guys identified a vitally important new settlement, that was a thousand years old, from a single rock that was two feet underground in a slurry of turf and muck. I have an entire piece of furniture in front of me, the whole shebang, and I could not will its secret-y secrets out. This is why I never made it as an archaeologist (my deepest desire when I was about 15).

       Here's what I do know about the cupboard. The base is 19th century. It's stylistically loosely related to "cottage" style pine chests made in New England between 1850 and 1900. Were it just the lower portion, a little pine dresser, it would be cute, but unremarkable in the extreme, but that top! At first blush I thought the top must surely be some nut-so 1940s addition, except that the pine boards on the back are entirely identical top and bottom, thick, solid, applied with old square head nails and chamfered to fit neatly into the single boards that make up the sides. Further supporting the "made all at once" hypothesis; The finely cut dovetails of the lower three drawers match that of the single top drawer in the fitted interior. I suspect originally there was a second drawer, but it, like this piece's history, has been lost to the ages.
matching backboard top and bottom
       The drawers have yet another captivating but baffling detail- the drawer bottoms have all been removed (glue blocks and all) and flipped upside down-the chamfers and glue blocks are now on the interior, and that top facing side is the coarser sawed and planed side, certainly original meant to be bottom-down. Sometimes a cabinetmaker will do this on an older piece once the thin slivers of wood start to bow downwards from their decades of labor supporting drawer content, BUT these drawer bottoms are of sounder construction, almost half an inch thick, and show no signs of such wear.
nice dovetails.

Flipped drawer bottom

        Also weird, the bulky bars of pine that stripe the face of the exterior of the lid on top, and the vertical edges on the sides are new, or at least affixed with screws I'd date to no earlier than 1995. Finally, the entire piece, top to bottom, inside and out, front and back had been painted with a thick, obstinate coat of hideous brown paint. WHO PAINTS THE INTERIOR OF A BACKBOARD?! That's the work of a mad man for sure, clearly a plot, planned decades in advance, to absolutely puzzle me. With all that paint I can't read the secondary wood the way I'd like.
         Final conclusion is a tentative guess- that still has problems, which I'll share as well. I think this was a homemade effort from the last quarter of the 19th century, maybe around 1875-1885. I think our brown paint wielding madman made all his changes to hide a murder scene, that's probably related to a madcap art heist, that somehow I'm supposed to solve with the reluctant help of a ruggedly handsome and charmingly cynical cop played by Chris Pine. And that the murder hiding madman probably altered the piece some time in the last 50 years- flipping the drawer bottoms, adding a piece of plexi to the interior of the lid (which I removed and chucked, thereby destroying vital forensic evidence), adding the wood "trim" strips to the top, and finishing the whole thing off with literally the ugliest paint color ever.
Nicely executed shaping around the feet

         My Chris Pine cynical cop companion would want me to point out a couple problems with that hypothesis: One, the form of the top is completely aberrant to any I've ever seen in the 19th century. Two, the pine used throughout is coarser and rougher than what I'd expect from a 19th century piece of furniture, especially something as formal as a secretary. And three the construction (aside from the bizarre choice of primary wood) is much finer than I generally see in naive home-grown furniture efforts of any era (20th century alterations withstanding).
      Moral of the story: this absurdly cute secretary is clearly the key to solving the Isabella Stewart Gardener heist.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Pair of Chippendale Dressers in Gray

Well these two dressers are wonderful. I don't think there's much to argue about there. They're custom for clients, part of a group brought to me to refinish for their new home, and really, they're just drop dead gorgeous, made by Willett Furniture Company of Louisville, KY. The company was founded in 1934 by a pair of brothers, Consider (um, best name ever?!) and W.R. (who was named for his father, William, and clearly lost the name lottery). The Willett boys had made their money in lumber, and decided to diversify into fine furniture, an apparently common move in the early 20th century (Thomasville's founders were also lumber guys originally).

 Willett Furniture quickly became synonymous with elegant design, and construction of impeccable quality. I've worked on three or four pieces of Willett over the years, and I can tell you it's the real deal; absolutely exceptional quality. They became heavy hitters in the mass produced furniture world, raking in big big bucks in the post WWII housing boom, with clients often waiting up to a year for their furniture. The company continued to thrive throughout the fifties, but unfortunately their unwillingness to compromise on quality led to their eventual downfall as other crappier manufacturers lured clients away with basement pricing (ahem, looking at you Thomasville).

By 1962 the company was bankrupt, which is both sad, and a bit fascinating as it gives us a hard and fast back date for this stuuuuunning pair of solid cherry dressers (and twin beds not pictured). I will venture that these lovelies were made in the heart of the Willett heyday c.1948-1954. The fully formed twist turned columns are magnificent, and interestingly, a detail we see in eastern Connecticut furniture manufacture c.1770-1810 as well. And here it is 250 years later, and the form still feels modern, and yummy. Just goes to show you that good design never goes bad.

A cherry highboy made by imminent Southeastern Connecticut furniture maker John Wheeler Geer c.1780-1795. Recently handled by Nathan Liverant and Son Antiques. Source  

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

New Hampshire Antiques Week

The very very very best week of the year is just around the corner. Antiques week in New Hampshire!!!! I mean, it's an entire week devoted to the very best in the worlds of folk art, fine art, and antiques, AND it's in gorgeous southern New Hampshire. How could you go wrong? By missing out, that's how.

My dear friends Jeff and Holly Noordsy's booth from last year's NHADA show. Um, I'll take one of everything please!! Several of my most treasured pieces of antique glass and stoneware have come from the Noordsy's booth over the years.

        I've been attending the New Hampshire Antiques Dealer show at the Manchester NH Radisson for, I think, seven years in a row. It's better than a free trip to Disney world combined with when a bartender likes you and gives you and extra big pour!
         Row after row after row of beautiful objects so wondrous it'll make your head spin, even better (or worse?) many of the objects are priced quite reasonably, enough to be heart achingly tempting, enough that I rarely come home empty handed! I've been setting a little bit aside all summer so I can come home with a goodie or two this year! It's their 60th annual show, so really, if ever there were a year to give yourself a treat and spend a pleasant day perusing all the antique-y eye candy, surely it's this one! To learn more about the show be sure to check out their website here- Look close and you might see a little Heir and Space press on one of their sidebars!

         NHADA, though truly it's the crowning jewel of antiques week in New Hampshire, isn't the only draw to lure you in. There's also 'Antiques in Manchester' which is right down the road from the NHADA show in the Sullivan Arena at St. Anselm College. Last year was the first time I'd attended, and I was absolutely blown away by the quality and variety of antiques for sale by so many top notch dealers. It seemed almost beyond reason that so many fantastic and lust worthy antiques could all be available for viewing, enjoying, and possibly buying, all in one great city during one great week. Have I mentioned yet that you'd be a fool to skip these shows? Manchester itself is a darling city with loads of awesome restaurants, so you can absolutely make a day or weekend of it!

      Before I worked in the antiques field, I had never actually been to a real deal antiques show. I loooooved antiques, but I was weirdly intimidated by the shows. Take my word for it, there is absolutely nothing intimidating about the shows, or the dealers. They are on the whole, some of the nicest, chattiest people you will ever meet. Even if you're not in the market to buy something, I encourage you to go anyway. It's like a museum where you can touch the stuff, and dealers are the best curators, they know their history inside and out and are always happy to answer questions and tell hilarious stories! For dates and details on all the events happening during antiques week, you can check out the website here!

          I've asked some of my dealer friends who will be set up at the shows to give us some sneak peeks at the treasure they'll be bringing, to further whet our appetites, and I'll be taking pictures and live tweeting throughout my time at the shows, for those of you who can't logistically make the trek in person!

John Chaski- from whom I've purchased an impressionist pastel landscape, a dutch brass tobacco box, several silhouettes (for my mom who collects them), and my favorite sign in my entire collection, an oversized pocket watch trade sign from 1910- will be set up at the NHADA show and is bringing this absolutely knock your socks off spectacular trade sign. Holy smokes, that's a looker!! For many more treasures from John, or J-Chaz, as I've just decided he surely should be called, check out his website here. John also has a blog that covers his travels through the antiques world, it's equal parts educational and delightful.
Dating from the third quarter of the 19th century, this vibrant sign is in a remarkable state of preservation. It's cheeky as hell, and would make a great statement piece in any home! Also, can we talk about how high men's heels were at this point?! Amazing.

My friends Tom Jewett and Butch Berdan will be also be at the NHADA show, their booth always makes my head spin, it's so stunning and packed with incredible and playful antiques to bring color and humor to your home. This year they're being coy and only giving us the sneakiest peek (so like them to tease!) but oh what a tease it is!! You can see soooo much more from Tom and Butch on their website here! (or at the show, which I swear to god you really should attend)
I'm literally dying to know to what exceptional object this vividly handsome fella belongs!!

Steve Powers, arguably the snappiest dresser I know, always has a booth full of thought provoking, dare I say challenging objects, the stuff that sticks with you for years. Just last week I was talking to a friend about a bowl of hundreds of antique dice he had at a show a couple years back. It's funny but I still think about those beautiful dice pretty often, they were just so tactile and appealing. I can't wait to see what incredible pieces he'll have in his booth at the Antiques in Manchester show, but I know this c.1892-1913 folk house portrait is going to drive my mom go crazy. She LOVES folk art house portraits, and this, one of a set of five, is the creme de la creme.
     Steve's got a fabulous e-catalog of his most current offerings available on his website right now, and it's well worth the click-through!

And finally here's the 2016 Antiques in Manchester booth from my friend Don Olson, who has been a tremendous support to me, and Heir and Space for years now. Don has to be one of the kindest and most genuine people I've ever met and he always has a swoon-worthy booth. At last year's Antiques in Manchester show he had some really REALLY fantastic early painted furniture and objects. I'm always shouting at you about the unmatched beauty of original antique painted surfaces, and his booth is a masterclass. And again, for you folks from afar or tied up next week, Don's website is sooooooo much fun.

So here's the takeaway- I'm 32. I've got about six pennies to my name, but HELL YES I buy antiques, and from dealers, and at good shows. Once in a while I splurge and spend $500 on something I cannot live without, but often I'll buy one thing and it's under $100. We're not talking huge numbers here to own an individual, unique, and important piece of history, something you can tell your friends about when you've had two martinis, and pass on to your kids...when you've had two martinis. These aren't the antiques of our parents and grandparents. They're weird and fun and funky. They don't need to be in palatial, painfully formal homes, you can live with them, and use them, and they'll never let you down like mass produced Homegoods crap will. I'll be shopping both shows next Thursday, if you spot me, you better say hi!!

Monday, July 31, 2017

High Country Style

Believe it or not, I don't love entire rooms filled with dark wood furniture (I know! The cat's finally out of the bag). That doesn't mean I don't like dark wood, I certainly do. I'm not much of a fan of rooms packed with painted pieces either. I firmly believe there should be a balance in every space, bit of wood, bit of color.
       Now I suspect this red might be a wee bit scary for some of you. Red is certainly a divisive color when it comes to design. Whatever your response to crimson shades, it's generally a strong one, as opposed to say, dove gray, which is lovely, but kind of meh. So safe, and where's the fun in safe design?! No, my dear friend, I have faith you can be an intrepid furniture-ista. You have vision, and you have confidence. Or maybe you don't, but that's ok because I am aaaaaalways happy to be your design Sherpa. Allow me to escort you up the 'red furniture is not as scary as you might think' Everest.

         This c.1950 solid cherry triple dresser was originally meant for a bedroom, but I envision it in a dining room. I've been dying to do a piece for a dining space in this shade- Benjamin Moore's Autumn Apples- for eons. Picture the dining room walls in a pale gray, so soft it's almost white, perhaps Benjamin Moore's Gray Owl (Benny Moore should really put me on the payroll at this point!).
          Gray Owl has this wonderful opalescent underbody that allows it to shift with the lighting, perfect for creating atmosphere in a dining space. I would stage the sideboard baaaaasically as it is, though I suppose an ever refreshing basket of limelight hydrangea might not be feasible come February. I love the antique brass candlesticks with it, and a big antique gilt gesso frame mirror would be ah-mazing above it, playfully reflecting the light from your pair of candles.


         The dining table should be chunky and raw. A time bleached pine harvest table would be absolutely ideal. I know stacking wood tones is another thing that can get scary, but trust me, everyone's doing it, you're totally good. That rule died along with the "no white after labor day" business, and rightly so.
       Here's about what I have in mind-

Next we'll need dining chairs. I think a vintage set of Queen Anne chairs, painted in taupe would be tremendous. Again we're dancing with that high meets low aesthetic, the essence of High Country design, and ideal for giving a space a natural, gathered feel.

So a chair like this:
                   But in a color like Benjamin Moore Flax
    To add a bit more vertical oomph to the space, we'll need a tall storage piece. I'd love to see something in a charcoal so deep it's almost black, but not quite.
Something like this- and now I really reallllllly want to do a piece in this color!
We'll need some lighting in the room. I've found this amazing website that sells refurbished antique fixtures, and after drooling over every single one, I think a pair of these c.1900 wacky chandeliers would be perfect for the space. But seriously, check out their website- holy cow all the lighting envy.

Drapes are essential, can't let the neighbors know all the fun that goes on, and also an excellent opportunity to layer in some texture and yet another shade of color in the palette we're stacking like Jenga. I like something about this shade, and hey! They're Bed Bath and Beyond, so no one's breaking the bank!
And finally we need a bit more art on the walls. Spaces aren't much fun if they're predictable, so if it were my room, I'd like a big antique sign like this:
Another piece of artwork to add more color and movement to the space. This piece, recently sold by Skinner's auction house, is particularly arresting.

Or at least, if I had a second house, and the ability to keep this darling cherry chest, that's what I would do.