Coming from a long line of artisans, I was weaned on the antiques business. When I was five, my parents opened their first antiques store, in the Var region of the South of France. At that time, it was still possible to buy and resell the contents of an entire castle. Growing up in the village of Fayence, my sisters and I performed puppet shows amid the giant carved armoires residing in the courtyard of our father’s atelier. His studio was in an 18th-century stone barn built to house sheep on their annual pilgrimage to higher feeding grounds, up in the Alps. Where livestock once snoozed, furniture pieces of every style and period were piled atop one another, arranged in pyramids of wood, dark and glowing like an amber fire. The interior was very dark, the windows small, but the space was also beautiful and magical, perfumed with beeswax and the musk of centuries of use.
I trained under my father from an early age, first fetching tools and stains for his artisans and finally learning to use these items to cut, join, sand, and so on. More than once I swore I’d never touch another piece of furniture! (Using slivers of glass to strip off old varnish will do that to a person.) But I eventually succumbed to my father’s love of wood. In a language passed down through the generations, my father taught me that oak was good for certain applications and elm for others, that Cuban mahogany was very rare and French walnut very versatile. I came to understand that wood is the craftsman’s medium, like canvas for an artist or paper for a writer, and that one piece can be coaxed into an endless variety of colors, textures and shapes. Eventually, I discovered how these finishes interacted with the lines of furniture to create beauty — and how this beauty informs the way we feel about a table, a room, or even a house.
These techniques that are my lifeblood are also a dying art these days, in the era of spray-on one-coat varnishes. What used to be common knowledge is now the purview of a few aging artisans, surrounded in their studios by bottles labeled with names as exotic as Persian perfumes.
Ironically, this body of knowledge is also being threatened by a misguided fetishization of the old at the expense of all else. Cultural phenomena like “Antiques Roadshow” may have opened viewers’ eyes to the potential value of quirky heirlooms, but they’ve also done a disservice by making people unjustifiably fearful of having pieces refinished and compromising their worth. But “original finish” is not always synonymous with charm, and what many people mistake for the original may actually be a more recent (and shoddy) redo. Do not be a slave to history: I promise you that Grandma’s blah, dark-stained oak credenza will look so much sexier with a high-contrast ceruse finish! As long as you embrace traditional, natural mediums and methods, you won’t damage the piece — and your work will be reversible.
Don’t let intimidation keep you from educating yourself. Take a cue from foodie culture. Not being a professional chef — or even adept in the kitchen — doesn’t stop most of us from buying shelves full of cookbooks for edification, guidance, or pure inspiration. More to the point: Today’s hottest chefs are renowned not for being tied to revered cooking techniques, but for modernizing them. I hope to make people as passionate about traditional wood finishing as they are about cooking, or drinking artisanal whiskey, or buying furniture.”
From the introduction to “The Furniture Bible: Everything you Need to Know to Identify, Restore & Care for Furniture” by Christophe Pourny with Jen Renzi, a foreword by Martha Stewart and photos by James Wade (Artisan).