Comings and Goings

It’s been a bit of a break for me as far as blogging goes. Nothing planned, just that’s how things unfold sometimes.

I took a business/pleasure trip to NYC last week and had a great time. my wife and I drive down to New Haven, Connecticut, and get on the Metro North train, which, in a couple of hours, takes us right into Grand Central Station in Manhattan. From there, it is mostly easy to get about using the subway. I wouldn’t want to drive in and out of New York City if I could help it.

Some good news/bad news. The good news: I have gotten involved in a fantastic new project with a famous artist in New York and look to having several months of work ahead – most of the year in fact! I’ve been hired for my knowledge of Japanese and Chinese joinery. The bad news: I have had to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement, and that includes blogging about the project. So I certainly can’t tell you who or what, and can’t even show you how or why. Sorry about that, wish I could tell you more, but I can’t.

While down in the city I had some another adventure relating to a book I acquired by James Monckton, the author of such seminal 19th century technical carpentry works as the National Carpenter and Joiner and National Stairbuilder. Last year, I managed to obtain a copy of his 1893 work Monckton’s Practical Geometry, after trying in vain to obtain it through the national library system. It’s quite a rare book and I could locate only a few copies in all the US library database-  mostly at universities where I imagine it is almost never referenced. Then I found a copy for sale for the ridiculous price of $30, so I snapped it up. When I received the copy, I noted on the title page a note saying that Monckton was Instructor for many years of the Mechanical Class in the “General society of Mechanic’s and Tradesman’s Free Drawing School” of the city of New York. I had never heard of such a school and was astonished to find after an online search that it in fact still exists. Founded in 1785, the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesman of the City of New York is located on W. 44th street and boasts an Apprentice’s library of more than 100,000 volumes! This was right on top of my list of places to visit in NYC, so I found my way there last week as soon as I could.

The Society is hosing in a 4 story structure now in the National Historic Register – here’s an old photo:

Visiting the Apprentice’s Library was a mixed bag, even bittersweet. It wasn’t exactly what one would call bustling. During the two hours I was there, besides the sole librarian there were only two other browsers and a couple of old men sitting at a table having a chat. I looked through their entire collection of 19th century carpentry and building texts, hoping to come upon a hidden gem or two. I didn’t find anything I hadn’t already come across before however. And I could see plainly that there were many many books which hadn’t been checked out of the library since the 1920 or earlier. I asked the librarian if she got many actual tradesman or craftspeople in the library looking up old texts on their trades, and she said it was pretty unusual. I found that kind of sad actually. Also, quite of a few of the books were getting so old that the act of opening them and trying to move through the pages would break the paper. The books were crumbling away. It was like participating in the end of an era, voices becoming silent, craft secrets being lost, and no one much knowing or even caring. In the end did come across a few volumes I want to look into further, so it was a productive visit.

I also had a small slice of time in which to pop into another library, and one considerably better known: The New York Public Library. Here’s a picture of the structure after completion in 1908:

This library, like many of the public libraries in the city, were brought about not through taxpayer expense but by grants and endowments from robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie. This is an astonishing place – one of the most beautiful libraries I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. From the outside, not much clue is provided of the sumptuous interior spaces. The entire structure is in the Beaux-Arts style. Ceilings in the main reading rooms vault up something like 50 feet:

Another room has some incredible Italian marble work around the doorways. The woodwork in the large reading rooms is, I’ll say to my surprise, very well done. I have become so used to seeing poor workmanship, or poorly-maintained work, that I was somewhat taken aback to see something beautiful in form and clean in execution – and I guess fairly recent too as the library underwent a $50 million renovation in 2007. Seeing beautifully-executed woodwork in the built environment is for me an uncommon experience, unfortunately.

I was able to ascertain during my brief visit that there were several books of interest in the collection, however virtually all of them were warehoused off site and would need to be requested days in advance. I’ll save that for next time I guess.

Another place I had been long wanting to visit was the Ming Furniture Gallery on East 64th street in Manhattan. The managing director, Damon Spilios was there and I sat down and chatted with him for about an hour and learned much about the art market and auction scene for Ming furniture pieces over the past 25 years. The gallery is small and very nondescript – I thought I had missed it when walking there at first. They have some great pieces on display and unlike in a museum, I was able to touch he pieces and crawl underneath and inspect them quite closely. That was an invaluable and unforgettable experience.

On the 17th I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I wanted to look again at their Chinese courtyard exhibit and the collection of Ming Furniture on display. Getting there was a bit of an adventure as it was St. Patrick’s day and people dressed and decorated in green were mobbing the area as there were parades underway. So, getting into the museum to have a sit in the quiet and sublime enclave of the recreated Chinese courtyard was a welcome respite. Actually, it wasn’t the courtyard itself that drew me, it was the room with the furniture! Passing through the doors of the room, which are latticed with Ginkgo wood, I was able to sit down and just soak up the essence of the space. They have some great pieces, including one in particular which I am quite inspired by:

Looking at this piece I would first think 1920’s, not 1620’s. I like the re-entrant form of the legs and the sleek lines.

Another stunning piece – actually two pieces – are a large pair of wardrobes found in a connected gallery space:

The inlays of stone, wood, and glass on these cabinets are really amazing – even more so the closer you look!

After my time in the Chinese exhibits, I sat a while in a small study room furnished with Nakashima low chairs and a burl table, then went on to look at a special exhibit of the work of furniture maker Duncan Fyffe. Frankly, the Fyffe pieces, other than a small sewing box, were of no interest to me, either aesthetically or construction-wise. From the Museum’s description of the exhibit:

Phyfe’s greatest contribution to the industry was perhaps his role in introducing the city to a unique blend of the English Neoclassical and Regency styles—found in design books such as Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1793) and Thomas Hope’s Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807). His shop is thought to have greatly influenced the aesthetic interests of local patrons. Along these lines, the cabinetmaker introduced elements such as lyres, harps, and faces into his furniture that related contemporary decorative arts to the motifs of classical antiquities. Because Phyfe’s career lasted through the 1840s, his shop eventually transitioned to produce wares in the Late Grecian Greek Revival and Rococo and Gothic Revival styles, as well.

Sorry, but snooze. Here’s a fairly typical example of his shop’s work:

Most of the pieces I saw were veneered in Mahogany and as I expected, even with such a fine collection, many of the pieces had areas with bubbling and cracked veneer. It just doesn’t stand the test of time. The details with the animal feet common on many pieces and the inelegant attempt at tension between curved and angular parts just doesn’t work for me. Like a lot of work, instead of letting the wood speak for itself, one gets the sense that the wood is somehow not enough, that there is some striving to create effect and interest in the piece with other means. The chair has beading on the seat edges, plus cast metal animal feet, plus a lathe-turned spindle between curved leg assemblies, plus carving on the splat, and even some inlay on the crest rail. Too much going on at once imparts a certain sense of chaos, busy-ness. There’s no repose. Maybe I don’t explain that feeling adequately. I’m sure he has his fans though. Not me.

And of course with NYC there are innumerable restaurants to try and so much going on. When country mouse visits the big city there is a lot to take in, and a 3~4 day dose is perfect for me. I hope you enjoyed this field trip report. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

5 Replies to “Comings and Goings”

  1. I enjoyed reading about the country mouse's visit to the Big Apple. The Ming piece is very appealing to my eye as well. What was your feeling about the Nakashima pieces?


  2. Tico,

    good to hear from you and thanks for your question. I guess I remain a bit nonplussed by Nakashima pieces in general. The low chairs sit okay, and at least the seats didn't creak but I do have my reservations about the structural design of those 'Conoid' type chairs. The slab table with the butterfly keys was not of much interest. Some of his benches and tables are a bit angular in certain respects and really don't grab me. But I do like that he worked with solid wood!


  3. Nice piece, I had to travel to NYC on business for several years. I must say however that I much prefer sitting by the Quabbin just quietly listening.
    I find the Nakashima pieces to be inspiring and always feel that the wood is very alive and speaking to me.


  4. Chris,
    Damn shame that we cant' watch along with the project build – will the end result end up in a public gallery eventually maybe?

    On the upside, surely this will leave more blog space to explore Gazebos further? Is there another layer of the roof that needs to go on your pentagonal plan Gazebo? Restless with anticipation over here…



  5. Dick,

    thanks for weighing in.A lot of people enjoy Nakashima's work and philosophy.


    a pleasure to hear from you and yes there are more posts to come in the gazebo series – I'm glad that you're interested!


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