A Marquetry Odyssey: Historical Objects and Personal Work

A Marquetry Odyssey: Historical Objects and Personal Work

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Silas Kopf
Music Cabinet, 1990, English brown oak and marquetry, {h. 71 in, w. 46 in, 23.5 in}. Photo/Dean Powell

By Silas Kopf
Hudson Hills Press
Manchester, Vermont
$65

In the more than 30 years that the Massachusetts woodworker Silas Kopf has been making furniture including Music Cabinet, 1990, he has established himself as a recognized master of marquetry, the art of taking diverse species of wood and piecing them together to form patterns and images. Distinguishing the technique from inlay, which it often resembles in the result, Kopf explains, "In marquetry a veneered sheet is pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, including the background of the picture or design. The whole is then overlaid onto a thicker backing."

In this thoroughly engaging book, Kopf traces his evolution as a craftsman within a broad survey of his discipline from ancient Egypt to the present. He discusses and includes illustrations of Italian Renaissance intarsia work, French examples, among them the 17th-century work of André-Charles Boulle and Art Nouveau gems by Emile Gallé and Louis Majorelle, and noteworthy pieces from Germany, England, Holland, Austria and the United States.

As a college student in the 1970s majoring in architecture, Kopf was drawn to woodworking, and an important early influence from the growing field of American studio furniture was Wendell Castle (see page 58), with whom he apprenticed for two years. Once marquetry had captured Kopf's interest, a vital step in his growth was a stint at the Boulle school in Paris, where he mastered the techniques that form the basis of his modus operandi to this day. It was also in Europe that he encountered in museums the masterpieces of marquetry that proved to be inspirational for his own work. He was particularly attracted to trompe l'oeil and portraiture-both of which he has used (sometimes to comic effect), depictions of nature, such as Hadley Chest with Tulips, 1988, and abstract patterns. Challenged by the "artistic limitations" of marquetry-specifically, wood's limited color range-Kopf approaches his designs as a painter would a canvas, always eager to display the uniqueness of wood.

Though there is a risk for a contemporary maker in presenting one's works alongside past masterpieces, Kopf's hold their own, perhaps because of their intellectual aspect. "The fact that Kopf has written a history of his discipline is a sign of the fundamentally self-reflective nature of Kopf's practice," the decorative arts scholar Glenn Adamson writes in the introduction. "It is an attitude that is consistent with his pieces of furniture, which are meditations on the relation between maker, object, and image." This book is of great value not least for its rare glimpse inside a furniture maker's head as Kopf narrates his odyssey piece by piece. And, as with "any piece of marquetry," Adamson writes, "the whole is more than the sum of its parts."