Wednesday, July 26, 2017

An Oak Dining Set in White

I am not a patient woman. I think, when you boil the kettle right down to the base, where it scorches and mineral stains the inside and it's a devil to scrub clean, right there- that's my real problem. You've patiently listened to me bemoan  my workload this summer, and who's fault was that? (Kate tentatively raises her hand). Mhmm. And it's not because I really love making my saintlike clients wait for their furniture, it's because I am just so freaking excited for each new project, and I want it now Now NOW!! Remember Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory? She's my spirit animal.

          Also currently on my "why is this taking so damn long?!" list, I'm on a diet. For years and years I tiptoed around 105lbs. Then three years ago I hit 30 and whiz-bang! I gained 20lbs. I've had quite enough with nothing fitting, so I'm trying to edge my way back, and by "edge", I mean charge headlong into fainting from hunger, which is obviously a sick Victorian fantasy of mine.

          Supposedly you shouldn't have less than 1200 calories a day, but pffffffff, I've read enough books about starvation situations (See: Miracle in the Andes, and The Indifferent Stars Above- both excellent reads, though Andes can get a bit self indulgent), to know that's silly. I've got this handy little calorie counter on my phone, I'm staying well below that 1200 mark, but good gravy I'm hungry. Also, the wine is on steroids when you're so hungry you'd chew a shoe. Yes I hear you shouting "But, Kate if you just drank less, you could EAT so much more each day". You can pry my wine glass from my cold dead, tipsy hands. Anyway, I've been dieting and exercising for three weeks, and I've only lost six pounds. Why is this taking SO damn long.
        
         While dieting I've also been working on this wonderful oak dining set. The client actually brought me a different table that originally went with the set, but it had a laminate top, such a shame considering the set is otherwise so very nicely built. Cochrane, the maker, is generally a scrupulous brand who rarely cut corners, but a laminate top is a big, glaring, un-refinishable corner to cut. Being that we couldn't have a wood table top, I began searching for a new (vintage) dining table that might as well suit the chair set. After several false alarms, I finally found this wonderful c.1970 oak dining table. It's killer. The legs of the base gentle reach away from center, as gracefully as a stretching ballerina, and the wrought iron brace that arches up from the legs is a lyrical counterpoint to the otherwise stout frame. I refinished the seats of the two captain's chairs to match the table top, and painted the remainder in Benjamin Moore's Linen White, my very favorite and perennial 'go-to'. The pair of vintage vases are from my dear friends, Ben and Emily, who are antiques dealers in Ohio, and always find the coolest stuff!










         

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Vintage Mahogany Breakfront in Gray

I love a rainy day like this. After almost a week straight of nauseously humid days, with the temperatures squatting in the low 90s, today is a blessed respite. Often this time of year in Connecticut, the air will cling to that humidity for weeks on end, like a toddler with a security blanket, it gets to the point you forget entirely what it's like to breath air that's not the texture of velvet, or walk up the stairs without breaking into a sticky sweat. Then one day, like divine magic, the humidity will be gone in an instant, and there's something of Autumn around the crisp cool edges of dusk and dawn. These are the perfect days to hole up on a faded vintage settee, on an enclosed porch, at some lonely lake house, or moldering summer estate in Sag Harbor, listen to the whispering drizzle, and read a good ghost story or ten.
        Who has time to sit around reading all day, though? Not me, I'll be painting dining chairs in the basement as soon as I finish this blog post. But maybe you've got the time, if so, here's a ghost story for your rainy Monday morning (settee and Sag Harbor estate not required but highly recommended).
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         Before I worked at Liverant Antiques, I spent three years and some change as the Visitor Services Manager at the Harriet Beecher Store Center in Hartford, Connecticut. It's a classic historic house museum; Stowe's Victorian Gothic cottage was built in 1871, the carriage house cum Visitor Center, my domain, was built in 1873, and on the corner of the property stands the massive Katherine Seymour Day house, built in the mid 1880s.

          It was a chilly, damp weekday in mid March, the kind that makes your knuckles and knees ache. All told, I think we'd sent a whopping total of one tour with one visitor through Harriet's house.  It was before the clocks 'spring forward' for the season so it was nearing dark before closing and the deep cloud cover and persistent drizzle didn't improve the ambient lighting. Seated at the front desk in the gift shop, surrounded by stacks and shelves of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe magnets, and commemorative spoons, I made the best use of the remaining few minutes of the work day by staring off into the middle distance, eyes glazed, and dreaming of summer, or the weekend, or Robert Pattinson (this was ten years ago, my tastes have since improved). I'd sent my two remaining tour guides in to close Harriet's house for the night, which involved switching off lights, switching others on, shutting some doors, and opening yet others, apparently all to ensure the house burned in a particular manner were that a blaze took it in the night... or to set up some specifically encouraged path for robbers who managed to ninja sneak past the security system to steal tired velvet upholstered settees and ugly foxed lithographs.

         With the tour guides in the house, I was now alone in the 1872 carriage house. Directly above me was a lofty attic space used as merchandise and junk storage of the type only museums seem to accumulate, because everyone should save the posters from the 1994 mother daughter tea fundraiser...just in case. Above me and to the right was the guide break room complete with crappy folding table and chairs, microwave and multiple boxes and crates of books, educational material, and related. Downstairs, in the giftshop, on my desk was an old handset landline phone that could dial out but could also, with the press of an aptly labeled 'guide room' button reach the room above on speakerphone, so that I might call up and announce a pending tour, or yell at them, or sing, though I don't think I ever did sing to the guides up there.

     My steely concentration on absolutely nothing was suddenly broken by the most disconcerting racket coming from the guide break room. It sounded very much like a person of considerable girth lifting heavy objects carrying them to the other side of the room, and then unceremoniously dumping them out, stomping the entire time. This continued for perhaps thirty seconds and I recall the thought that drifted up through my confusion and irritation was "that sounds URGENT" as if the person was doing whatever it was they were doing as fast as possible. Anyway I was pissed, and no one should have been up there.

        I called up, on speaker phone, and said something like "What the hell are you doing?!" and no one answered so I went with the classic fall back of "Hello? HelllOOO?! Helloooo.....?.....hello?" And then my voice died in my throat as I listened. I could hear him/her/it moving clearly through the speaker phone, picking things up, shoving things, dropping things, then I heard it come up to the desk where the phone sat. I could hear it breathing, breathing hard and moving things on the desk, papers, maybe even the phone base. It was at that moment that I realized that not only had I seen both my tour guides leave to close the adjacent house, confirming that I was indeed alone in the building, but that I could see all unlocked doors from my seat, and no one had come in since their departure.

         I immediately radioed our aged but well meaning security guard Rod, who happened to be standing just outside the front door of the carriage house in the misty yuckness of the evening (God knows why he wasn't inside where it was much warmer). He went straight up the stairs upon my call. I watched him march up the first set of stairs and then listened as he turned at the landing and tentatively crept up the remaining half dozen. I held my breath, waiting for him to open the door at the top, and then heard no more sounds. "Rod? whats up there? Rod WHO's up there????"

        But there was no one. He came back down the stairs looking at me a bit owlishly as I had insisted there was SOMEONE up there. The room had been empty and nothing had been touched, save a pile of freshly crumpled paper in the center of the table. At this point my guides, having heard the ruckus on the radio, returned from closing the house. They swore up and down that when they'd left nothing had been amiss, that they had not crumpled the paper. There had been a stack of neat new paper on the center of the table when they'd gone to close up.  I won't lie. I was shaken by it. I grew up in old houses and have worked in the historical field my entire adult life, so I've encountered a few odd and inexplicable things over the years... but this was much scarier.

        After we'd finished closing up the Visitor Center for the day, I knew I would be returning to an empty house and that thought was too much to bear. I instead sat in the parking lot of the local Stop n Shop until my husband Brian finished work. I have no idea what I heard up in that room, who walked up to the phone and was so frantically moving unseen objects, but I know with absolute certainty that it was not good and that is was angry. The oral history that had passed down from guide to guide for generations of museum employees spoke of a young man, a stable hand, who had hanged himself in the building at the end of 19th century... but most museums have a story like that, and it's likely not true. Whatever it was, I sincerely hope I don't meet it again.
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And on to the furniture- I scored this amazing, if a bit tattered, vintage mahogany breakfront from the Newington Goodwill about a month ago.  I adore the arched top, and the hidden fitted desk in the top drawer. It had been used and abused, but still had some mileage left in her yet, and at $15, how could I say no!
      I refinished the piece custom for a client, and she opted for Benjamin Moore's Silver Mink for the exterior and Linen White for the interior. We, of course, kept the original hardware, which is beyond perfect for the piece, and left it in its current state, gently patinated after seventy or so years.









Wednesday, July 19, 2017

An Ethan Allen Cherry Dresser in Green

Little moments of bliss.
Life is a shit-show of absurdity dusted faintly with blessed weensy moments of wonder, so needed and so beautiful you want to scream at the sky, or just take a deep breath, reset, and step forward into yet another scene in La Vie Bizarre (off broadway!). I think- and don't quote me on this because A. I've had a martini, and B. I'm a cynical New Englander far enough into her thirties to have given up on most whimsical notions not related to vodka- that happiness is about recognizing those moments, pausing for them... and taking seven pics you can carefully edit later and post to instagram. Hilarity aside, are we allowing ourselves enough time to be happy?
       I had an oddly happy moment today because of this Ethan Allen dresser. I spend so much of my life about six inches from furniture, either painting, sanding, waxing, or trying as hard as humanly possible to move it by myself, that the inner workings of these hulks all start to look a bit the same. As I hunched on the lava-hot paint splotched pavement of my driveway today I gazed on the interior of this dresser and had an oddly placed but none the less much needed moment of nirvana. This dresser was so beautifully put together. Solid cherry. As in, even the secondary wood, the drawer bottoms, the drawer blades, all of it, cherry. It's a silly esoteric thing, but it was lovely to see. I've heard that Ethan Allen no longer makes furniture of this caliber, which is a shame, but I can understand it. You can't make massive pieces like this of solid cherry and remain price competitive to the likes of Raymour and Flanigan. This piece will have the staying power that modern furniture, mostly made of MDF or worse, will not.
           The color is a custom mixed shade of sage green. The original hardware had oxidized to an intoxicating shade of moss green, so I of course kept it. I refinished the top but stained it darker than the original honey tone to give it a bit more heft. Cherry on the bliss moment sundae, I'm very happy with how the photos of this gal turned out!










Tuesday, July 18, 2017

An Antique Dresser in White

I spend a lot of time mulling over wear patterns. Probably I'm not a normal person, and I should be spending more time worrying about...the bachelor? Or adult issues like, we need a new roof pronto.
Who wants to fret over such weighty matters, though! Wear patterns are fascinating. In a way, each piece of furniture carries its history on its surface, whispering subtle tales of daily life, of unfortunate accidents, or thoughtless owners. And then I undo it all. Nothing thrills me more than uncovering the secrets that furniture has to tell; but sometimes, those secrets aren't so sexy, and are better off erased. Aaaaaand I've buried myself in this metaphor.

        More to the point, I'm of the opinion that there are two overarching categories of wear: Chaotic/Neglect, and Thoughtful Use.

Thoughtful use is beautiful, in many ways lovelier than brand spankin' new could ever be. Maybe I'm the only weirdo who does this, but when I see a surface worn soft not just with time, but hundreds of touches, a hand that opened that same drawer fifteen thousand times over the course of a lifetime, I impulsively touch it too, and it feels a bit electric. You're laughing, but I have "antiques" tattooed on my back. I'm pretty bought into this jazz.

          When I worked at Liverant Antiques (the single best education of my entire life), I remember my boss Arthur reaching up to the top drawer of an 18th century highboy. He's barely and inch taller than me, so I think he might have been on tippy toes. He slid the drawer out, and handed it to me, upside down. "What do you see?" he asked.
            I'd only been there for a few weeks, and was desperate to prove myself, I stared daggers at the chamfered plank of chestnut (or was it butternut?), willing it to speak to me, to tell me anything more erudite than "that wood is smudged and dirty". Time hardened, and clearly far more willful than me, the drawer bottom remained silent, and I went with "Well, it's much darker in the center than at the sides, is it some sort of oxidation???". (within a well built case piece, the secondary wood is exposed to very little environmental contamination or oxygen, and therefore oxidizes very little. In fact, a highly and irregularly oxidized drawer bottom in an otherwise intact case is a red flag that someone's been up to something). Which is to say, dumb guess Kate, F-.
          Arthur went on to explain that, like he and I, most of the owners of the last two centuries had found those top two drawers a bit of a reach. They wouldn't be able to just pull the drawer out halfway and remove whatever contents they sought, but rather would have to take the drawer out entirely, placing their hand in the center of the bottom board as they did so. Two hundred years of thoughtful use looks like a faded greasy smudge, and it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
           I don't paint antique pieces with thoughtful use if I can help it. They're generally better off just as they are. I do paint vintage pieces with thoughtful use from time to time, because, well, a gal's gotta make a living.

Chaotic/ Neglect is an entirely separate bag of spiders. Chaotic/neglect wear patterns are not glowy sheens, or paint worn thin in delightful patterns, they are battle scars, ugly and disruptive to the appearance of the piece. They're big chunks of missing veneer, and naughty words carved on the top center drawer by a mad nine year old. They're drawer pulls that have lost one post, and hung sideways for so many years that they've scraped a giant compass-esque gouge in the drawer font. Neglect is rotting feet, mildew, drawers repaired with duct tape, and feet held together with rusting wire. It's not pretty or charming. Sometimes it's down right scary (ask me some time to tell you my cockroach story, or the bullet story).
            This c.1880 dresser is a victim of Chaotic/Neglect wear. It's surface was Jackson Pollocked with bizarrely nonsensical scrapes. All I can think is that the poor thing got in a switch blade fight with a drunk badger wearing a blindfold...and lost. Though this was the original surface, darkened to a delightful onyx over time, it was not at all worth saving, but the dresser itself was. Despite it's late night badger fighting habits (tsk tsk), it was structurally sound, and certainly lovely, somewhere under all that mess.
          And luckily a client shared my vision. She opted for a soft antique white, and a dark top. She left the hardware up to me, so I swapped the wood knobs out for a set of antique bail brass pulls. Slightly more sophisticated, and just the weensiest hint of sparkle to dress the piece up. It took me almost three hours to sand the top. The old surface turned to an impassable quagmire of sludge as soon as my sanding pad hit it, but I refused to give up, under all that gunk was mahogany.








A Federal Sideboard in Navy

I'm booked up to my eyeballs in custom work (yay!), which leaves me an infinitesimal time allotment for what I casually call "spec" pieces (stuff I refinish to my own taste or vision, and then sell). Obviously having loads of custom work is the most fiscally savvy business model. I can almost sleep at night, knowing there'll be a regular money flow for weeks out... but it's not as much fun. Though I certainly enjoy working with clients, and helping them to recreate their (or my) furniture to suit, I do get a frequent itch to just follow my heart with a piece.
           Last week I felt the itch in a substantial way. Backlogged to death with the custom orders, and on the hunt for a dining table for a client, I made the long haul down to the Waterford ReStore. Not only did I find the perfect table for my client, but I spotted this beauty, lurking in a far back corner. It was love at first sight. I have massive weakness for Federal sideboards, and this one, in a form I'd not seen before, was in relatively reasonable condition. I had to have it. Impossibly, the sideboard and the massive dining table fit in the back of my little yellow pickup, and the weather held until I got home and unloaded.
             I intended to leave the sideboard be, a carrot on a stick, to help propel me through the last of the custom work logjam, buuuuut self control has never been my forte. I held strong for all of three days, and then couldn't resist her allures further. So here it is, just as I wanted it, in a rich custom shade of navy blue, with a paler blue interior. I refinished the top, stained with minwax mahogany, and sealed. The gently patinated bail brass pulls are original.
            I think my next facebook live video will be on the various stylistic artifacts that characterize individual eras of furniture design. I'm telling you this piece is Federal, but it might be a good exercise to illustrate exactly why it falls so firmly in that period.