André-Jacob Roubo, Don Williams, Michelle Pietryka-Pagán, and Phillipe Lafargue. To Make as Perfectly as Possible: Roubo on Marquetry. Fort Mitchell, Ken.: Lost Arts Press, 2013. xvi + 247 pp.; illus., appendix, index. $43.00.
Forty years ago, I began a career in woodworking. Many of my generation were attracted to a lifestyle that involved using one’s hands. There was excitement about pottery, weaving, and metalsmithing, as well as woodworking. Here in America much of the learning was self-taught. We got our training through books and magazines. We shared ideas and skills in producing work that was occasionally exciting, if not always sophisticated. Eventually people pushed boundaries. Techniques from other cultures were explored and brought into a new American idiom.
I was attracted to French art nouveau furniture with its tactile, carved surfaces. The interest in art nouveau led me to the marquetry designs used by Émile Gallé and Louis Majorelle to enhance their furniture. I attempted cutting a picture or two. Marquetry was one of those techniques that seemed formidable, involving skills that were not part of the basics that most novice woodworkers wanted to learn. There is some marquetry on American furniture, but certainly not to the extent found on European examples. And I knew no one who could show me how to proceed.
Eventually I found a British book, The Art and Practice of Marquetry (1971), by William A. Lincoln. It is a fine “how-to” manual, and I pored over it attempting to cut floral designs in the style of Gallé. At the same time, I was searching books for other styles of marquetry, like Italian Renaissance trompe l’oeil panels, hoping that someday I might be able to incorporate that look in my furniture.
Most of the pieces in the art history books seemed too complicated and out of reach, such as the great furniture of eighteenth-century France. My gateway to this work was the book La marquetérie (1977) by Pierre Ramond. Ramond was the professor of marquetry at the École Boulle, the great school where traditional furniture craft is taught. The book is filled with technical knowledge that went way beyond the singular way of cutting the veneers that I was using. There were sections on cutting brass, tortoiseshell, and horn, as well as descriptions of eighteenth-century tools.
In 1989 I received a fellowship and wrote Ramond asking if I might go to Paris for a few months and study in the school’s workshop. He agreed, and when I arrived, we set about creating an abbreviated curriculum for the limited time I had. I expressed an interest in at least touching on the basic classical techniques and tools.
The oldest book explaining marquetry is André-Jacob Roubo’s L’art de l’ébénisterie, written in 1772 (and under consideration here). Ramond would occasionally make reference to this book and its engravings in teaching me the history of the craft. It helped open my eyes to the treasures I was seeing in the museums of Paris.
Furniture in museum collections is there (in many cases) because of its great design. At the same time, many of us are awed by the craftsmanship involved in building these masterpieces. We realize that woodcraft can involve superb skills, but we often do not have any idea of the “how” of the craft. Our appreciation of the object can be enhanced through a knowledge of what went into its making.
In America, we think of “classic” furniture as coming from the English tradition. Much of our great traditional furniture is in the style of Thomas Chippendale and his heirs. Less well appreciated is the furniture coming from the Continent. France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a magnet for skilled artisans. The names of master French cabinetmakers such as André-Charles Boulle and Jean-Henri Riesener might not be well known in the United States, but they (and many others) produced great pieces that should delight an American audience.
The marquetry technique was fundamentally developed in Italy during the Renaissance but blossomed in Germany, the Low Countries, and France in the seventeenth century. In part, this interest was spurred by the infusion of interesting timbers from tropical lands that had bold color or grain pattern. At the same time, a wealthy clientele could afford these luxurious objects.
Guilds of the seventeenth century jealously guarded their trade secrets. These restrictions loosened slightly in France, where the Enlightenment led to a desire to spread knowledge and understanding more widely. The first volume of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie was published in 1756, for example, helping to disseminate a vast body of information pertaining to many disciplines.
Of greater interest to furniture historians and enthusiasts is the publication of Roubo’s L’art du menuisier (The Art of the Joiner), and the companion L’art de l’ébénisterie, the volume translated and annotated in the book under review here. Ébénisterie is distinguished from menuisierie in that it focuses on furniture made using veneers. Ébène (ebony) gave the name to the craft, but any veneering with a pattern, using any species, fell under the umbrella of ébénisterie. The most complex part of this trade was the making of marquetry panels and pictures.
The Roubo book on marquetry has not been available to an English-speaking public until now. Lost Art Press, Michelle Pietryka-Pagán, and the other collaborators have undertaken the challenge of translating the original old French into a readable English. They have also included reproductions of the original engravings. The translation alone would have been a terrific addition to the woodworking and antique lover’s library, but this volume goes an important step further.
Donald C. Williams provided the numerous annotations and glosses that help the modern reader understand Roubo’s text. Williams has worked in the furniture restoration and reproduction world for four decades. For this volume, he has re-created many of the procedures described in the book as they would have been done in the eighteenth century. This required making, as authentically as he could, many of the tools that Roubo describes. The use of the tools is photographically documented, and Williams often comments about the challenges and pleasures of this work.
For instance, Williams built a saw that would have been used for cutting sheets of veneer from a log (pp. 37–38). Sawing veneer requires a great deal of exactitude. The cuts need to be straight and not veer from the line or the sheet will vary in thickness and will be ruined. Timber (particularly something coming from the tropics) was a very valuable commodity in the eighteenth century, and any waste was intolerable. All the sheets needed to be close to the same thickness as well, or extra effort would be required to plane them to uniformity.
Let me quote from Williams’s text on sawing veneer. “The saw is so precise that it has no forgiveness in its heart, and so it amplifies any errors on the part of the sawyer. Keep to the line and everything is glorious! Wander a little and the workpiece is wasted....To use this simple and powerful tool effectively requires a level of hand skill that comes only with diligent practice” (p. 38). Looking at the great furniture from the classic era of Europe one ought to contemplate all the preparation that went into procuring the materials, from the felling of trees in the tropics to the metallurgy needed to make sharp tools. Add to this, the skill of the cabinetmaker required to manipulate the wood, and we are left with a greater appreciation and understanding of the final product.
The original Roubo book has a fine description of cutting stringing and geometric parquetry. To Make as Perfectly as Possible has a section by Williams that includes photographs of the processes. This required the making of the cutters and jigs as necessary. Seeing these specialized tools leads to an extra appreciation of the craftsmanship of the eighteenth century. Ébénistes worked as precisely as they did because of the care that went into the making of these tools. Williams makes it clear that the tools also yielded greater efficiency in the production of panels.
Our twenty-first-century craftsmanship has abandoned many of the older methods. We now commonly use petrochemically based adhesives. We use synthetic lacquers. Williams has included an excellent essay on hide glues and how they work, as well as photographs showing a traditional veneer “hammer” being used. There is a similar section on the tools and techniques used to finish and polish marquetry.
Finding a fault with To Make as Perfectly as Possible is a challenge. The one thing that struck me is that the photographs of Williams at work could have been a little larger and therefore easier to understand. But this is nitpicking. Let’s just be thankful that this book has been made accessible to a modern audience. Get a copy, give it a read, and then head to the museum with new eyes.
Lost Art Press has also issued a full-size facsimile version of this publication in a limited edition of six hundred copies priced at $400.