Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Maple Stepback Cupboard in Black

Vintage furniture can be updated. Vintage furniture (and antique!) can feel very very modern. I'd argue that a well placed vintage piece is the perfect counterpoint to an sleek and modern design. No home should be cold and harsh in the name of modernity, and nothing adds soul to a space like a piece that's been loved and used for decades or centuries.
     This vintage rock maple stepback cupboard in a stellar example. The form is dated, to be sure, but the bones are good and strong, and the piece has sentimental value, originally belonging to the current owner's great grandmother. When I started working on it, I actually found a little treasure trapped beneath the faded floral drawer liners:
I texted a picture to the owner and they confirmed the handwriting belonged to their great grandmother. I'm a sucker for this stuff, and it gave me goosebumps. The little slip of paper will be going home with the hutch this weekend, a family piece, with a new lease on life.

The clients opted for a modern black, with a honey tone for the maple shelves, and a cream for the interior. Salvaged brass knobs from the ReStore add a hint of sparkle. To compliment the brass, I staged the piece with a motley assemblage of antique brass, and modern drinkware, because young and old live in perfect harmony when it comes to modern design. 

River Gorge and Federal

Quickie post- a sweet little combo of an unassuming one drawer stand and a maple tall chest. Both are 20th century, but the stand is the more accurate reproduction of Federal form. The tall chest is an amalgamation of about ninety different design periods, but with its new vintage Federal oval brass pulls and the lightly distressed River Gorge Gray (Benjamin Moore) paint, it's quite pleasing. Both are going together, with an as of yet not finished bed, into the guest room of some new clients of mine. They've got a great eye for color and design, opting for clean timeless aesthetics in both form and color.
     I realized as I was photo-editing that I failed to push the second drawer in all the way. By the time I caught this, I'd stored everything twelve deep in my workshop (thunderstorms tonight). I'm not re-shooting it, so we all have to put on our big girl pants and deal with it. If you want perfection, there's five million home decor blogs that offer nothing but. Here at Heir and Space we're all about stark reality (apparently?), and tequila (at the moment).

A China Cabinet in White

Custom for a client, and fresh as a rain-washed spring breeze, this c.1920 china cabinet is all set to go back to its gorgeous home in Marlborough, CT. The clients use it as linen storage in their master bath, and I can say with absolute certainty that it is THE BEST smelling piece of furniture I've ever had the pleasure to work on. Now, I'm not saying most of the furniture I work on smells bad. For the most part it doesn't really have any odor at all. On the rare occasion I get a stinky piece, I give it the ole' white vinegar and sunshine treatment (is this yet a hollywood cleanse fad?), and when all else fails, a raging fire does wonders for eliminating the stink in a piece.

Ahhh that heady bonfire smell, so very much better than the stench of mildew. I call this one French Provincial Flambe'!

      This china cabinet smells marvelously of something I can't quite put my finger on, but I suspect it's fresh soap. When I was a little girl my mom had this decorative bowl of fancy schmancy soaps in the master bathroom. I think they were from Historic Williamsburg, all irregular spheres in pretty muted shades of robin's egg and mauve. I used to sneak into their room sometimes just so I could sniff the soaps. I was about seven, so I demand a pass on this weird behavior. But oh they smelled lovely fresh, and this china cabinet made me think of it, something I'd forgotten from 25 years ago.
     The clients wanted a true, real, in no way anything but white, white. So we went with Benjamin Moore's Decorator's White, which is the best true white on the market. And since the china cabinet is white inside and out, I staged it with richly saturated antiques for a playful contrast- a few selections from my antique box collection (I counted today and I now have twelve!), and a few selections from my antique bottle collection. Finally for a pop of color, a few sprigs off the crepe myrtles our dear friend Tom planted by the back back patio this summer. They're growing like son of a guns already, and do I ever love a late summer bloomer!

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.