Category Archives: English furniture

David Berman of Trustworth Studios, Part Two

Wallpaper: both literally and figuratively in the background…the setting against which the real action takes place. Yawn.

Not.

I’ve been a fan of wallpaper ever since the early 1980s, when my friend Bronwen and I drooled over each new edition of the Laura Ashley catalogue. (I know, you’re thinking “Laura Ashley? How twee. And aren’t their paint colors now sold through Lowe’s?” But those 1980s catalogues were gorgeous productions, not to mention surprisingly forward-looking in their use of dramatic settings to showcase everyday products.) From Laura I graduated to Bradbury & Bradbury, whose swatches I could count on to lift my spirits on even the gloomiest day. Starting in the mid-1990s I became aware of more period wallpaper makers, among them John Burrows, Carol Mead, and the masterly Adelphi Paper Hangings. But for years I’ve had a special fondness for Trustworth Studios.

Among Trustworth’s offerings you’ll find E.W. Godwin’s fabulous Aesthetic creation Bamboo, as well as the luscious Hydrangea, based on an 1896 pattern by Lindsay P. Butterfield. But the main reason why Trustworth has become my go-to source for late-19th century style is Voysey–or more precisely, David Berman’s interpretation of the architect C.F.A. Voysey’s designs. They’re not just gorgeous to behold, but often also funny: Always clever, sometimes dark, they were created by an artist of small stature and large intelligence whose grandfather, an architect, knew Ruskin, and whose father, a reverend, was expelled from the Church of England for denying the doctrine of eternal damnation; he later founded the Theistic Church with help from prominent individuals such as Charles Darwin. More (much more) on that in my book on English Arts & Crafts furniture, which will be published in 2018 by Popular Woodworking.

For now, take a little romp through a fraction of the work by means of which Trustworth Studios patterns come to life. This is no case of crude cutting and pasting.

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The process begins with David tracing an original design, using a stylus. Here the pattern is Trustworth’s “Falcon and Lily.”

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Next begins David’s work with color. Look closely at the outlines of the lily petals and you’ll see that they are made up of two lines, one a medium terracotta, the other darker. The same will eventually apply to the stem; here, David is building up its texture.

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The pattern becomes richer. David is working on the colors and introducing texture to emulate that of the original design, in the following image.

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Here the pattern contains far more detail, but there is still more to go.

Lebus sideboard with Trustworth paper at Popular Woodworking shoot

Here’s “Falcon and Lily” as the background for the book cover shoot at the studio of Popular Woodworking in Cincinnati. That’s Megan in the mirror. As this picture shows, the effect of the paper is quite different when the pattern’s spread across a large area. Instead of reading as a distinct pattern, it imparts to the room a certain feel.

David Berman of Trustworth Studios, Part I

David Berman of Trustworth Studios is a man of uncommonly varied accomplishments. Born in Brooklyn, he was raised to follow his father into the family business, D. Berman and Son, which sold high-power electrical equipment. But after a stint as a purchasing agent at his father’s plant he rejected this white-collar fate.

“Boredom with the corporate world forced me into my true nature,” he says, recalling the satisfaction of changing his old car’s exhaust system on his off hours and the joy of restoring antique musical boxes to working order.

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David Berman at his restored 1901 Aeolian Pianola 65-note push-up player with Merryweather standing by

Berman moved to Massachusetts in his mid-20s, as did many of his college friends. It was the 1970s; as so many of us do today, you earned a bachelor’s degree (Berman’s was in English) and promptly found work in painting or construction. In partnership with a friend, he formed a company that specialized in rehabilitating old houses. Learning on the job, he found he had a knack for shingling. One day, while working on the roof of an oceanfront house, he happened to glance toward the water and saw the Mayflower sailing by. “I’m having a hallucination from heat stroke,” he thought. But it really was the Mayflower.

As his skills increased and his appreciation of historic buildings grew more refined, Berman took on more challenging projects. In 1979 he moved a barn to Nantucket and converted it to a house. He then constructed a frame house entirely from scratch: the fictitious house to which the barn might originally have belonged. The new “old house” would be used to accommodate guests.

The business partnership dissolved in 1982, and Berman moved to Trustworth in Scituate, Massachusetts, the iconic Arts and Crafts home of Henry Turner Bailey. “H.T.B.,” as Berman calls him, famously championed public education in the arts and authored the 1914 book Art Education. “It was like moving into Sleeping Beauty’s castle for Arts and Crafts,” he muses. He spent years restoring the house, hoping to purchase it from Bailey’s heirs.

While living at Trustworth he began making furniture in the style of New England antiques. “No one wanted to buy it,” he comments, so he turned his focus to furniture in the English Arts and Crafts style. An English course in high school had introduced him to late-Victorian literature; in an effort to bring the period to life, the teacher had shared a photo of the parlor at Wightwick Manor. Berman was entranced by the vision of wood-panelled walls, stained-glass windows, and Morris wallpapers, which he says “percolated in the back of my head.” The archives at Trustworth offered a treasure trove of research material. Berman immersed himself. Especially fascinated by the work of C.F.A. Voysey, Berman built a clock, numerous light fixtures in wood, glass, and copper, and a variety of furniture in his favorite designer’s style.

David Berman light fixture

One of Berman’s Voysey-inspired light fixtures made in wood, glass, and meticulously hand-cut metal

 

In 1994 Berman’s dream of buying Trustworth fell through and he moved to Plymouth, where he purchased a 1910 shingle style cottage. “Not really habitable,” he describes its state at the time, what with broken windows, a leaking roof, and no working plumbing or electricity. He threw himself into restoration, then ran the place as a bed and breakfast for a few years. In the meantime he returned to building furniture and lighting, the income from which proved barely enough to scrape by on.

It was at this point that Berman realized he could parlay his knowledge of historic architecture and interiors into period design consulting. Which brings us to the subject of wallpaper. The digital technology for printing papers was “just good enough” at the time. He taught himself to use a computer, and as the printing technology improved, his skills grew with it. Basing his patterns on meticulously researched original Arts and Crafts designs, Berman produces a growing line of wallpapers and fabrics for residential and institutional interiors, in addition to commissioned papers for historic houses. You’ll find them at the Peabody Essex Museum, the High Line Hotel, and other institutional and commercial locations, as well as in homes on several continents.

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An original Voysey chair with “Isis,” one of Berman’s Voysey wallpaper patterns

 

“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had,” he says of his work translating original drawings and paintings by Voysey, Godwin, Mackintosh, and others into wallpapers and fabrics. “When I am drawing and have music playing, I am happy. It’s a bit like puzzle solving: You have to break [a basic design] down into color, and you have to figure out the pattern breaks. There’s also the bliss of color—things that shouldn’t go together, but when you put them together, they just go.”

Coming next: The nuanced art of period wallpaper design

Beauty Overload

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Chipping Campden, viewed from up the road following a shower

I spent last week in England doing research for a Popular Woodworking book on English Arts and Crafts furniture. Monday took me with my good friend Bronwen to the impossibly picturesque Gloucestershire village of Chipping Campden, where C. R. Ashbee moved his Guild of Handicraft in 1902.

Although the original Guild was dissolved in 1908 due to financial troubles–the move from London to Chipping Campden made it harder to reach the necessary clientele, an unfortunate (though predictable) problem that was compounded by a widespread economic slowdown–it was reorganized as a trust and operated until 1914. Some of the craftsmen continued their work independently thereafter.

One vestige of Ashbee’s Guild still operates today: Hart Silversmiths, located in a small workshop on the second floor of the old silk mill building on Sheep Street.

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Historical marker on the building’s facade

Here’s a brief virtual tour.

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Derek Elliott has worked at Hart’s for 35 years, since he finished high school.

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On the day of our visit Derek was working on this silver bowl, which started out as a circle cut from this sheet. The decanter is one of many variations on a signature Ashbee design.

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The view from Derek’s bench

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A wood stove stands at the middle of the workshop.

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A no-frills filing system takes care of invoices paid, which must by law be kept for several years (those are pinned to the rafters) and those still due (the white ones clipped in a sheaf).

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Amidst all the history, you will still find a few plastic-handled tools, modern light bulbs, and even a telly.

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The guest book includes evidence of a visit by a certain American architect in 1910.

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No doubt some wit will point out the oddness of the bolts on the outside of the door. Rest assured, there was a variety of locks on the inside as well.

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Visiting Chipping Campden was like bringing the pages of a Penelope Hobhouse gardening book to life.

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Lots of thatched roofs

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My dear friend Bronwen (left) drove us to Chipping Campden. We went for tea after visiting Hart’s.

 

In Praise of Promiscuity

No, not that kind. Get your head out of the gutter.

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This kind. See that worker on the left? I’m talking cross-pollination.

When Megan Fitzpatrick invited me to propose an Arts & Crafts style bookcase as a project feature for Popular Woodworking Magazine, I designed a piece in a turn-of-the-century vocabulary I’ve learned to love, that of Harris Lebus. I figured I’d sub out the glass and asked my favorite leaded glass artist, Anne Ryan Miller, whether she’d consider doing a pair of plain panels. She was too busy. In any case, Megan thought the feature would be improved if I did the glass myself. Just one problem: I knew nothing about working with leaded glass.

So I turned to another trusty resource, Fine Woodworking, and found an article by Mike Pekovich on leaded glass basics. It was helpful. A few weeks later, former FWW editor Steve Scott got in touch to request a submission to his “40 Years of Inspiration: How Fine Woodworking influenced generations of woodworkers” for the 40th-anniversary issue. I cited Pekovich on leaded glass as one article that has been especially useful to me. Credit where credit’s due.

You can subscribe to Popular Woodworking here. The bookcase feature is in the December 2015 issue. Keep pollinating.

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Interview with Johnny Grey

Issue number 231 of Fine Homebuilding magazine includes my interview with British kitchen designer Johnny Grey, creator of the Unfitted Kitchen.* Due to space constraints, the published version contains only a fraction of the material I took down during a telephone conversation that was over an hour long. Here’s a version with some fascinating bits that had to be excised from the Tailgate interview. Square brackets indicate words inserted for clarity or relocated from other parts of the interview for narrative flow.

1.

What were some of your early influences?

My father was a general practitioner in London. He loved making things. We had no money–you can imagine the scene in postwar Britain–but he said, “I’ll always buy you tools and materials if I can.”

My mother was a bit of a romantic. She had this great passion for the Sussex Downs, [where] she bought a sweet little abandoned cottage. She had a strong vision [for its restoration]; it wasn’t going to be added onto or poshed up. She [also] bought a gypsy caravan and kept it parked in a field at the cottage, visiting on weekends. I was conceived in it. [Eventually there were five kids—four boys and a girl] in a house with just two bedrooms. The caravan became our third bedroom. [But it also played another important role in my life.] Being made of painted softwood with a canvas roof, the caravan was always leaking. It became a rite of passage for each of us to fix this wretched roof. [That was how we] learned woodworking.

2.

What was your training in design?

I studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London [during the ‘70s] It was a place of intellectual ferment, a design hothouse. I was exposed to incredible ideas. Ivan Illich dropped by and gave a talk. Buckminster Fuller gave a talk. Lyall Watson launched his book Supernature [there].

3.

How did you get into kitchens?

It was all a big accident. I disliked the corporate world and loathed the business of my hours being “owned” by other people. Because of my rather bohemian background in Sussex, I felt I couldn’t handle a job where I wouldn’t be making anything. The thing about kitchens is, you can do a bit of everything—design, making, meeting the clients.

Today, the kitchen has become a real place. It used to be a second-rate room for women and servants. In the ‘70s, people began to realize that there was a real role for a kitchen company: to plan the big picture–layout, flooring, lighting, etc.–in addition to cabinetry.

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Why “unfitted” kitchens?

I have a strong emotional bond with furniture. [My great-grandmother became an antique dealer after her husband died. My mother, too, loved antiques.] While studying architecture I ran an antique business. I had to develop my own sense of style very quickly, since in that line of work, your living depends on being known for a particular style.

5.

Do you remember any particular kitchen from your early days with special fondness?

[My first job], the Gothic kitchen, was tremendous fun. Every piece in the room was from a different period of gothic, but it had a sort of happenstance unity. My client, Sam, invited the features editor of Harpers to dinner. Before you knew it, Harpers had commissioned a story—Sam would write the recipes, and I would write about the design of the kitchen. A Helmut Newton[-like character] photographed the client sitting with his bottom in one half of the sink, his legs hanging over into the other, and a stuffed parrot on the stove. It was really about being rather lunatic and enjoying ourselves. Don’t forget, at the time, all people were buying were those Poggenpohl[i] kitchens. This was a protest against that.

I was also being egged on by my aunt, Elizabeth David, who wondered, “Why do people want those plastic kitchens that are so hygienic?”

6.

Where are your kitchens built?

[We work with several workshops.] [Some are] bespoke quality, the best furniture money can buy. Some are [outfits] that have moved from joinery into cabinetmaking; they’ve got their costs under control [and have] some very good craftsmen. [We also work with] very small furniture mak[ing shops], using them in groups. We don’t want [the furniture] to match anyway, so it’s perfect.

7.

Where are you now in thinking about kitchen design?

When I first started out, nobody thought the kitchen would be anything of consequence. I want[ed] to steer it into its own territory, where [kitchen design would] stand on its own as a profession. Many people think the kitchen is a place where you fling cabinets around the wall, but I respect the kitchen. I think it’s our best chance of creativity in the home, because it plugs into so many different aspects of home life.

Bringing neuroscience in has been another piece of the puzzle. [The kitchen] is the most emotionally high range room. [Sharing home-cooked food] around a table in your kitchen is the high point of the day, the essence of family life. You have a chance to look outward and inward at the same time, and connect with your family. The hormones that make you human are more likely to be in operation when you’re around the table than at any other time. You have to feel safe. It’s got to be the right time of day to fit into [your] rhythm. [The kitchen] has to make you feel good. It’s got to have enough room to move around and to invite guests. It really has become this absolute room for sociability. You can’t have democracy without a place where you can enjoy the reason for living.

When I published The Art of Kitchen Design, it was the first time anyone had written about the sociable role of the kitchen. Neuroscience validates that social role.

I think I arrived at the right moment, really. What happened to the kitchen would have happened anyway, I think, but I’m glad I was there to be part of it.

*Warmest thanks to Johnny Grey for consenting to this interview and to Chris Hoelck at Fine Homebuilding for his help in getting the piece to the published page.

What’s it worth?

A Harris Lebus sideboard from DK Antiques, UK


A reader submitted a comment on American Bungalow Magazine’s blog in response to my story about defunct English furniture manufacturer Harris Lebus. She had seen a sideboard similar to one of those pictured in the article and wondered whether it was worth the price being asked.

I am not an appraiser, I responded, and I am always struck by the notion that one can actually say what a piece of antique furniture is worth, considering the basic fact that value is a social construction. Unless you are buying furniture primarily as a financial investment (and let’s be honest–few of us are), antiques are worth whatever you are willing to pay; the art of valuing such objects comes largely through the stories we tell about them (Who made this chair? Where was the maker trained? Was the artist’s grandfather a famous explorer? Perhaps the piece once belonged to a famous family?), and those stories are subject to change, depending on memory, documentary evidence, etc.

The sideboard that inspired my American Bungalow article is a good case in point. When the owner bought it, he was led to believe–by an honest and well intentioned dealer who did not at the time know anything about Harris Lebus–that it might have been made for Liberty. The Liberty connection made the piece seem eminently worth the price he paid, although the same price struck him as excessive once he learned about the piece’s actual provenance.

But here’s the thing. As a professional furniture maker, I ask myself whether anything about the piece changed because of its lack of connection to Liberty, and of course I answer “no.” It’s still a knockout in terms of design. It’s still well made (though not all Lebus pieces were so well constructed). It’s still a truly functional piece. And I think to myself (and am suggesting that you, if you have read this far, also think to yourself), Perhaps we should reassess our notions of value with respect to Lebus artifacts. This goes not only for pieces made by Lebus, but by other makers, too.

When it comes to putting a price on objects of beauty and utility, have confidence in your taste. Professional appraisers in all fields have their place, but their methods tend to be inherently conservative–that is, based on documentable examples of past sales. Every so often someone comes along–it has to be someone wealthy enough to bust the valuation ceiling–and pays far more for a piece than anyone ever thought reasonable. Suddenly we permit ourselves to view that piece, and potentially others by the same maker, as more worthy of our attention and esteem than anyone would have imagined possible. But isn’t there something a little embarrassing in the notion that we need an expert (or a celebrity) to validate our own sense of value? Isn’t this a bit like the emperor who had no clothes?

Obviously if you’re spending someone else’s money, buying primarily for financial investment, or investing on an organization’s behalf, you should engage a professional appraiser. But in ordinary circumstances, the kind most of us face, if you love an object and can afford the price being asked, by all means buy it. Don’t be overly concerned about what it’s worth. Many–and quite possibly most–dealers, like the majority of contemporary artisans, are not attempting to fleece you, but simply to make a living and cover the costs of doing business. If people give you a hard time for supposedly having paid too much for a piece, don’t let them get under your skin. Just tell them that to you, the piece is worth what you paid. By doing so, you will join a movement to rethink the value of artifacts made by those (whether the Harris Lebus Manufacturing Company or your neighbor) who furnish the homes of ordinary people, rather than those of rare wealth.

Harris Lebus and a lovely coincidence

In 1995 I came across a gorgeous book by English author Lorrie Mack, The Art of Home Conversion: Transforming Uncommon Properties into Stylish Homes (Cassell, 1993). It’s a compilation of stories about homes created from structures as diverse as a flour mill, water tower, stables, various types of factories and shops, and several less uncommon yet equally breathtaking churches and barns. The buildings themselves were amazing, but most compelling to me was a piece of furniture—a hallstand shot through a doorway in the entrance to a former fruit and vegetable shop. A vision in aged oak and beaten copper, it married gothic and Golders Green. I hoped I’d have a chance to make one like it someday.

Photo courtesy of Art Furniture, London

In 2002, during a slow patch in the shop, I bought a curly white oak log from a local sawyer and built a version of the hallstand modified for contemporary use. A feature about the piece was published in Fine Woodworking[1]. Eventually I sold the hallstand to a pair of English professors who had the perfect space for it in the entryway of their Tudor Revival home.

A few years later, while visiting an acquaintance who had amassed an enviable collection of Arts and Crafts furnishings and decorative objects, I fell in love with a breathtaking sideboard. Would he mind if I made a reproduction? Business being slow (translation: being effectively broke), I made my version using plain sawn red oak—a lot more affordable than fancy quarter sawn white. (The original had not been made of quarter sawn either, though its old-growth brown oak was far more elegant than my fat-ringed red.) Instead of copper panels I used art glass with copper foil[2], and I had door and drawer pulls fabricated by a local sculptor[3].

The dealer who’d sold the sideboard was under the impression that it had been made for Liberty. The piece itself had no identifiable maker’s mark. But the owner’s curiosity was piqued by my interest, and he made some inquiries that revealed the sideboard had been produced by a company called Harris Lebus.

You can read all about this in the Summer 2010 issue of American Bungalow magazine. But what you won’t find there is the tale of coincidence that follows.

I had never tried to identify the original hallstand’s maker. There wasn’t so much as a hint in Lorrie Mack’s book. After my article appeared in Fine Woodworking, a reader had contacted me to say she owned one of the original hallstands, but she said nothing about who had made it. Now that I thought about it, there were some strong similarities between the hallstand’s architecture and that of the sideboard. I wished I could contact that reader, but her message and email address had been lost in a laptop fatality.

American Bungalow agreed to publish a story about Harris Lebus. My former employer, Roy (“It’s all problems”), a longtime friend, generously offered to pay my airfare and put me up in his home near London so I could do some further research. In the limited time available I visited the Bruce Castle Museum, whose staff were extremely helpful in providing photocopied documents, including an informal history of the Lebus company written by a family member; walked with Lebus researcher Paul Collier around the Ferry Lane Estate, site of Lebus’s Tottenham works; found some excellent leads at the Geffrye Museum in Hackney; and pored through many packets of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century catalogs and other documents at the Westminster Archive. I would later follow up these leads with further research into genealogy and the turn-of-the-century context in which Lebus operated.

Though identifying the hallstand’s maker was not an official goal of the research trip, I was  hoping to satisfy my curiosity. Surely in all these documents I would come across a picture of the hallstand. But I didn’t.

One day, while using a public computer at a visitors’ center in Kingston, I typed in yet another search for “arts and crafts hallstand,” just for the hell of it. This time, unaccountably, I found what I was looking for. The hallstand had indeed been a Lebus product.

It was a thrilling discovery. At that point I had made only five major spec pieces in a cabinetmaking career spanning 28 years. What were the odds that two of those five should turn out to have been based on original pieces made by the same British manufacturer—one whose name I hadn’t even heard of before finding its wares so lovely that I wanted to make my own versions?


[1] http://www.nrhillerdesign.com/press/pdfs/011165072.pdf

[2] www.anneryanmillerglassstudio.com

[3] http://cyclops-studios.com/