Elsie de Wolfe loved antiques—French ones in particular—but the doyenne of American interior design believed that anything worth having was worth copying. "I am not one of those decorators who insist on originals," she wrote. "I believe good reproductions are more valuable than feeble originals, unless you are buying your furniture on speculation." A favorite example was the Louis XV sofa from the Petit Trianon in Versailles that she duplicated for several of her upper-crust clients. After all, declared De Wolfe, "The effect is the thing you are after, isn't it?"
The vast majority of designers would answer yes to that, adding that the devil is in the details. There have always been slapdash reproductions; the good news is that today's eclectic design marketplace also offers a growing abundance of fine ones made in the spirit of the originals, with great attention to form, materials, and finishes. Makers of fine reproduction furniture can be compared to classical musicians performing the great compositions of the past, with a similar leeway granted for artistic license. From note-for-note renditions to more imaginative interpretations, the best of their efforts can blend easily with antiques or stand alone on their own merits.
A major reason for the growth in demand for high-quality reproductions is the rise in cost and scarcity of first-rate antiques. Factor in the time and travel that finding the right pieces can demand, and it's little wonder that many people are opting for compatible reproductions. "It takes longer now to find unique, high-quality antiques, and the costs are often prohibitive," notes Washington, D.C., designer Thomas Pheasant. "I mix antiques with my own designs as well as reproductions—not assembly-line reproductions but furniture that has the fine execution of the old pieces. It's really about the quality of the craftsmen. And it's wonderful that if I can't find exactly what I'm looking for, I can have it made."
One of the most widely admired sources of reproduction furniture is L.A.'s Rose Tarlow, whose Melrose House line of more than 300 pieces is found in a dozen showrooms across the country. "When I opened my shop in 1976 it was easy to buy antiques, so people weren't buying new traditional-style furniture," she says. "I started making reproductions in the eighties because it was getting difficult to find enough top-quality antiques and I didn't want to compromise that standard." Tarlow doesn't like the term "reproduction," partly because she likes to put her own spin on old designs, mostly favorite antiques. "She does an outstanding job," says New York designer David Easton. "Her pieces can serve as an accent or an exclamation point in a room." They encompass many styles and a daunting choice of woods and finishes (Tarlow is especially proud of the crackled lacquer) but share a characteristic flair. The legs frequently have a lilting curve: As one designer observes, "Tarlow's things almost look like they dance around the showroom when the doors are locked."
Tarlow's line demonstrates the shape-shifting advantages of reproduction furniture. Her English-style writing table, for instance, is a sprightly drop-leaf design based on a 17th-century original, which she can also translate into a coffee or dining table, a nightstand, even a chest of drawers. Coffee tables, like TV cabinets and computer desks, are a 20th-century form; even diehard antiquarians see the merit in having old-fashioned new pieces play these roles, instead of adapting an antique and diminishing its value. Then there's the matter of scale. People were not as tall (or wide) in the past, and that's reflected in the height and width of many antique chairs, tables, and beds (in the age of kings, king-size beds were as rare as unicorns); producers of traditional-style furniture today routinely scale up these things to suit modern notions of comfort and function.
The immediate vicinity of Tarlow's L.A. showroom, near the intersection of La Cienega Boulevard and Melrose Place, is a trove of other top-drawer sources, including Therien & Co., Quatrain, Gregorius/Pineo, and James Jennings. Some, such as Quatrain and Therien, sell antiques as well as new furniture, but all draw on extensive knowledge of antiques to create convincing reproductions. Most have established lines, sold in selected showrooms around the United States, but unlike larger-volume manufacturers, most of their furniture is made to order, allowing for clients to specify a wide range of materials and finishes, size, and configuration of drawers or shelves (typically, over half their business involves customization of some sort, with delivery in 12 to 20 weeks). Most function as custom ateliers and have their pieces made by outside shops. Interior designers depend on these producers to execute ideas that may start out half- baked. Inspired by striking antique originals, their reproductions are stylish and expensive: two reasons they're knocked off by other design firms. Another mark of distinction is that any of these houses can reproduce an existing piece for a client—provided it's not a competitor's design.
"We don't copy anything from living designers," states James Jennings. "We steal from the dead every day." The genial Englishman learned fine cabinetmaking in London before coming to this country 13 years ago. "I found an enormous gap in the marketplace," he says. "People wanted an antique dining table but didn't want to wait years to find the right one. With a fine reproduction, they can be sitting at the table they've been searching for in a matter of weeks after they order it." Like his neighbors, Jennings likes to reinterpret designs he admires, as with a Ruhlmann daybed that he reproduced on a larger scale after restoring the original, or an Empire-style sleigh bed with a lowered foot to permit television viewing. "I take the past and try to improve on it—but sometimes it cannot be improved," he says, indicating what he calls "a screaming knockoff of a table by Mr. Chippendale." For both his many one-off custom fabrications and his own line of traditional and contemporary pieces, represented in 13 showrooms nationwide, Jennings offers a choice of numerous finishes and 42 species of wood, all from renewable sources and made in his L.A. factory.
California's reputation as a hotbed of opulent, traditional-style furniture is far from recent. "California has led the way in fine reproduction since the forties," says Paul Weaver, president of San Francisco-based Michael Taylor Designs. "The look here has always been less staid and more eclectic." His firm does custom work, as well as reproducing furnishings from the collection of its late great founder, for clients such as Elton John, Dan Marino, and Halle Berry; among the line's bestsellers are hand-finished copies of a carved-walnut 17th-century Italian bed and a Greek-influenced English Regency chair. "There's a freer attitude here toward mixing old and new," muses Philip Stites of Therien & Co. "The homes are larger, and it's difficult to fill them entirely with suitably scaled antiques."
William Randolph Hearst notwithstanding, California has never had the supply of antiques and the tradition of collecting them found back East. And Los Angeles in particular boasts an unrivaled variety of domestic architectural styles—reproduction architecture, in effect—which invites an equal variety of furniture styles. (Observers say the Mediterranean climate fosters an affinity for furnishings with a Spanish or Italian influence, like Therien's striking Volute console, with its massive solid-walnut arabesques that are copied from a Venetian Baroque original.) Given the strong influence of Hollywood, with its history of period re-creations and cosmetic surgery, it could be argued that Angelenos are predisposed to favor visual impact over authenticity—treating their furniture as set-dressing for cinematic lives.
But California's repro masters—like movie production designers—strive for an authentic feeling. To that end, they are willing to conceive furniture that never was but could (or should) have been. Quatrain, for example, recently displayed in its antiques section a 19th-century German rococo bombé chest in oak with a travertine top (price: $33,500); they have reproduced it in a version that suggests the original was scanned into a computer and reworked using Photoshop: same shape and hardware, but with exuberant gilt chinoiserie scenes on a red background, gilt trim, and a black marble top (price: $21,000).
Mark Sommerfield, of Derapage, a San Francisco-based firm, specializes in what he calls combinations of period elements that are strictly researched and correctly detailed. Examples include a sensuous rococo-style faux-tortoiseshell commode and Napoleon III-style circular dining table with a walnut-burl-veneer top and a sinewy, sculpted, solid-walnut base. Although he also does restoration and reproductions of clients' antiques, Sommerfield states, "It's more exciting to do something different. I like to work with clients on a design, getting input on things like materials and finishes, so it ends up being unique, and it's their baby too. I tell them the sky's the limit."
The finest producers utilize more than traditional craftsmanship to conjure the illusion of age: They will scrape and distress wood surfaces, adding faux wormholes and dents, even add the odd drink ring; they'll stain and mottle wood surfaces to suggest generations of wear, lightening areas like chair arms and rungs; they will use leather that's been artificially aged, and tarnish gilt and silver-leaf trim. All emphasize hand-carving and hand-finishing to achieve the subtle irregularities and the patina of genuine antiques. (They're quick to distinguish between such facsimiles and fakes, meant to deceive.) And for those who want pristine pieces, they will give them a new, fresh-off-the-workbench look—especially suitable for sleek Art Deco-style furniture. "There's definitely part of the market that does not understand old," observes Therien's Stites. "Clients sometimes object to antiques as being wobbly and decrepit," agrees Dallas interior designer Richard Trimble.
Trimble mixes reproductions with antiques to furnish the mega-manors that his clients are purchasing. "If you are looking for a pair of consoles to fit a two-story-high entry, it can be difficult to find them at the right scale," he says. "And the hardest thing to find now are large sets of antique dining chairs. Most have been broken up by heirs and dealers, so you find mostly sixes and eights. For a recent job we found twelve chairs and are having two copied."
Like David Easton and other high-end designers, he often commissions traditional-style pieces directly from tried-and-true workshops. Philadelphia interior designer Bennett Weinstock has a hometown favorite, Rossi Brothers Cabinetmakers. "They work in the old-world mode and are very conscientious," he says. The best traditional cabinetmakers can work in virtually any style; Rossi Brothers has fabricated everything from copies of Louis XIV chairs to a television cabinet based on a Ruhlmann armoire to English Regency-style cabinets that are based on the classic period drawings of cabinetmaker Thomas Hope.
"We can reproduce anything," says Victor Rossi. "We're strictly a custom shop—everything is done on commission, using the old methods."
The same is true of the seven-man New York workshop of Jozsef Tomahatsch. The Hungarian-born craftsman, who studied furniture making in Vienna, has created superb traditional-style furniture for clients such as the Italian decorator Enzo Mongiardino and the design firm Gracie. "We work for individuals as well as for top designers and architects," he says. "We do everything from scratch: woodcarving, inlay, gilding, and French polish. A hand-carved Italian Renaissance-style piece might take three to four months to make."
Frank Pollaro wasn't even born when Tomahatsch opened his shop in the mid-sixties, but over the last dozen years he has gained a reputation for impeccable reproductions in various styles, especially French Art Deco, as epitomized in the designs of Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann. Ruhlmann originals currently fetch six and seven figures at auction; Pollaro's painstaking copies go for five figures, starting at $20,000 (not counting the "art-case" pianos he has built for Steinway). "This business is anti-productive by its nature," he says. "You're building things that you've never built and often will never build again. And I'm not prepared to put my name on anything until it's absolutely perfect." At Pollaro's red-brick East Orange, New Jersey, facility—a former bandage factory—he stocks more than 60 species of wood to supply the vivid veneers he prizes. "Since labor is ninety percent of the price, it is worth using the finest materials to make the piece outstanding," he explains, citing crocodile and stingray skins, lapis lazuli, 23-karat gold leaf, and other examples.
Founded in 1907, Smith & Watson is well known among admirers of mahogany English-style furniture that echoes examples from the 18th and early 19th centuries. "We work exclusively with the trade, and most of what we turn out is customized for designers," explains owner and president Bob Ryan. "Most designs are based on antiques we have bought over the years." Smith & Watson's motto could be "from the boardroom to the bedroom"—more than a few captains of industry have commissioned gleaming conference tables and credenzas for their offices, then ordered furniture for their homes. One of Ryan's favorite designs is their Radial Table—a round table with a 19th-century pinwheel mechanism and dart-shaped leaves, available in various styles, that expands to seat as many as 16.
The maxim at Arthur Brett & Sons is that no one can make English furniture like the English. The Bretts have been in the furniture trade for five generations. Their Norwich, England, antiques showroom has long supplied models for their line of sumptuous reproduction furniture, which is marketed in the United States and other countries. Their custom commissions include auctioneer's rostrums for Christie's and a conference table to match the magnificence of the Bank of England's boardroom. But Brett's stock in trade is their carefully crafted domestic furniture, which runs the stylistic gamut from early-18th-century Queen Anne to early-19th-century Regency. The factory hasn't resisted certain modern methods and materials. "I am sure that Chippendale would've given his eyeteeth for our power tools, and that he would have used them as we do, for primary cutting," company chairman Edward Brett has said. "But just as was the case in the eighteenth century, our furniture is bench-made, with one craftsman working by hand on a single piece all the way through its construction." Brett notes that their Queen Anne- style walnut bureau cabinet requires some 600 man-hours to complete, including 80 to 90 hours of polishing.
Fans of French furniture have discovered Côté France, which opened a showroom in New York last year. Their alluring period pieces are made with aged wood and authentic finishes by a family firm that has been in business since 1885. "They do everything as it would have been done two hundred years ago, down to the beautiful hand-tooled bronze work," says Hal Ainsworth of the Atlanta showroom Ainsworth-Noah, which plans to carry the line.
This side of the Atlantic, American period furniture continues to generate great passion and lofty prices, both of which are fueling a resurgence in faithfully, even fanatically, crafted reproductions. "America's first masterworks were not great paintings but pieces made by our eminent early cabinetmakers," says Jeffrey Greene of Newport, Rhode Island. He makes "replicas" of work by the great Newport cabinetmakers Goddard and Townsend. ("I don't use the term reproduction; these pieces were never in production to begin with," Greene explains.) His "replica" of the splendid 18th-century Newport six-shell secretary that fetched $12.1 million at auction costs about $50,000; a copy of a museum-quality kneehole bureau goes for $12,000. From unseen joinery to a subdued but lustrous finish that catches candlelight beautifully, his pieces are unerringly accurate.
Greene is one of a select group of solo craftsmen who make early-American reproductions to the highest historical standards. They have studied and restored the originals and have access to public and private collections. And they're in demand—backlogs of a year or more are typical.
"Many of my clients are collectors," explains Maine cabinetmaker Allan Breed. "I make something they can't find, or copy something that they own so they can sell it and not have to worry about insuring it. Christie's and Sotheby's will call me to make a replacement copy for clients who are consigning the original with them. If people say they don't want to pay for exact details on the inside of the piece, I can simplify it, but most want exact copies."
Indiana craftsman Randall O'Donnell makes seven or eight pieces a year. "I specialize in American Baroque and rococo furniture," he says. "I try to convince my patrons to commission me to build what I want to build next. The pieces are comparable to antiques that have been kept in amazing condition. I'll use power tools for the rough work—but correct joinery, details, and finishing must be done by hand."
"The hand produces a feeling, a spirit, that you just can't get any other way," says Eugene Landon of Pennsylvania. A master craftsman who is known for exquisite reproductions of Philadelphia Queen Anne and Chippendale originals, he works entirely on commission, utilizing his vast collection of antique tools.
Another old master, octogenarian Harold Ionson, reproduces what he likes, for the most part pieces by the celebrated Boston cabinetmakers John and Thomas Seymour. He recently copied an 18th-century Seymour demilune commode, accurate from its sunburst satinwood-and-mahogany top to its hand-cast, lion's-claw feet. (The commode sells for around $85,000).
Landon belongs to the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, whose Web site (www.sapfm.org) includes a directory of members. Another good source of fine furniture craftsmen is Boston's North Bennet Street School, which has been training furniture makers since 1885 and can supply referrals to alumni across the country. "There's a romance to having a craftsman make a piece," states alumnus John LaGattuta, adding, "The last quarter of the twentieth century has brought a renaissance in the craftsmanship of furniture making. In the future, it will be known as a major period of revival." The Wilton, Connecticut, showroom of the New England Historical Connection displays fine pre-19th-century-style work from some 20 regional craftsmen, and it will arrange for custom commissions from any of them.
Then there's the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association, which promotes the state's best makers with an annual fall auction. Patrons commission pieces from members; a piece may be sold to someone else for a higher price at the auction, in which case the maker agrees to reproduce it for the patron at the commissioned price if he so desires. The system increases sales and recognition for the craftsmen and allows furniture lovers to play the role of latter-day Medicis. It also allows buyers to avoid the months-long delay for work by esteemed members such as David Lamb, a versatile master whose clients include Harrison Ford, Ivan Lendl, and architect Allan Greenberg, for whom he recently created a pair of curved Federal-style settees for a circular entrance hall.
Buying quality reproduction furniture perpetuates traditional craftsmanship in a country geared to mass production. Historically minded makers shudder at shortcuts taken by even the better manufacturers: glue-and-dowel joinery, machine-cut dovetails, run-of-the-mill wood, veneered fiberboard, inferior sprayed-on finishes.
"All our pieces are hand-planed, hand-scraped, with hand-joinery and carefully matched wood," explains Kendl Monn of Irion Company Furniture Makers, restorers and reproducers of 18th-century American furniture. "That costs more, but you are not paying for a manufacturer's overhead, showrooms, and advertising."
"There's great satisfaction in the work: shaping old-growth wood and carving intricate period details," says Doug Mooberry of Kinloch Woodworking, which turns out copies and interpretations of historic American designs. "We get bored easily—if we make the same thing more than a couple of times, it's just like working on a production line; where's the fun in that?"
Reproductions have their detractors. "I would rather have a client buy a modest antique or a good contemporary piece than an expensive reproduction," insists New York interior designer Howard Slatkin. "If you do buy a reproduction, don't assume it will appreciate in value. The antiques of tomorrow are the original designs of our time." It's true that most reproductions, like new cars, drop in value after purchase; late-19th-century reproductions have appreciated, but far less than the period originals that inspired them. Of course, the primary reason to buy any piece of furniture is because it pleases you.
But the craftsmanship and grace of the very best reproductions make them closer to Ferraris than Fords. "People will always appreciate lovely hand-wrought objects," Bennett Weinstock says. "It boils down to craftsmanship, handwork, and integrity of design." With richly grained old-growth timber growing ever scarcer, we may live to see Chippendale highboys made entirely of molded wood chips or carbon fiber. In the meantime, we have fine reproduction furniture in an unparalleled range of styles, carrying traditional craftsmanship into the 21st century.
First-Rate Repro Producers
Sources of fine traditional-style reproduction furniture tend to fall into the following two categories: larger makers that sell their lines in several showrooms but also do a significant amount of custom work, including reproducing clients' antiques (say, to complete a set of chairs); and skilled craftsmen whose work is almost entirely commissioned and shows high fidelity to tradition and minimal concession to modern cost-cutting methods. Generally, those high-volume producers and smaller workshops listed below can and do execute furniture in various traditional styles, but some have specialties, which are noted.
Arthur Brett & Sons (Usa) Ltd.
Reproductions of English furniture,
primarily from 1700 to 1840.
330 North Hamilton Street, High Point, NC 27260;
336-886-7102; fax 336-886-7078;
Reproductions of period French furniture.
200 Lexington Avenue, Suite 1201, New York, NY 10016;
212-684-0707; fax 212-684-8940;
227 Fell Street; San Francisco, CA 94102;
415-552-9037; fax 415-552-9036;
Shows in top outlets like Kneedler Fauchere,
in the Pacific Design Center.
308 West Mill, Plainville, KS 67663;
785-434-2777; fax 785-434-4688.
653 North La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069;
310-659-0588; fax 310-659-8910.
$ 18471 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood, CA 90069;
323-655-7823; fax 323-655-4388;
71 Williams Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94124;
8454 Melrose Place, Los Angeles, CA 90069;
323-651-2202; fax 323-658-6548;
Michael Taylor Designs
1500 Seventeenth Street, San Francisco, CA 94107;
415-558-9940; fax 415-558-9770.
$ 700 North La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069;
310-652-0243; fax 310-657-4440;
Smith & Watson
200 Lexington Avenue, Suite 801, New York, NY 10016;
212-686-6444; fax 212-686-6606.
Therien Studio Workshops
$ 716 North La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069;
310-657-4615; fax 310-657-2819;
Thomas W. Morgan, Inc.
461 North Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048; 461 North Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048;
310-281-6450; fax 310-281-6453.
Specializing in Empire & Biedermeier reproductions.
351 South La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036;
323-954-9595; fax 323-954-0448;
Wood & Hogan, Inc.
Showroom for upmarket, English-style reproductions by Brett & Sons and Restall Brown & Clennell Ltd.
200 Lexington Avenue, Suite 812, New York, NY 10016;
212-532-7440; fax 212-532-4640.
These craftsmen primarily reproduce classic American period furniture (ca.1640-1840), unless otherwise noted. (Some also do more contemporary interpretations of traditional styles.)
Allan Breed, Cabinetmaker
$ 13 Liberty Street, South Berwick, ME 03908;
The Ball & Claw(Jeffrey Greene)
55 America's Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840;
401-848-5600; fax 401-848-5650;
Frank's Cabinet Shop, Inc.(Frank Klausz)
$ 1992 Burnt Mills Road, Box 78, Pluckemin, NJ 07978;
908-658-4396; fax 908-658-9112.
1330 Dragon Street, Dallas, TX 75207;
214-742-7000; fax 214-742-2203;
Ian Ingersoll Cabinetmakers
Known particularly for Shaker-style furniture.
Main Street, West Cornwall, CT 06796;
860-672-6334; fax 860-672-0355;
931 High Street, Westwood, MA 02090;
$ Arts & Crafts reproductions.
768 North Fair Oaks Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91103;
Irion Company Furniture Makers
$ One South Bridge Street, Christiana, PA
17509; 610-593-2153; fax 610-593-2651;
Kinloch Woodworking Ltd. (Doug Mooberry)
$ 1721 West Doe Run Road, Box 461, Unionville, PA 19375;
610-347-2070; fax 610-347-0353;
$ 228 Shaker Road, Canterbury, NH 03224;
$ 144 Quaker State Road, Montoursville, PA 17754;
Mack & Rodel
$ 44 Leighton Road, Pownal, ME 04069;
207-688-4483; fax 207-688-4978;
New England Historical Connection
$ 300 Danbury Road, Wilton, CT 06897;
203-761-8646; fax 203-761-1371.
Northwest Corner Woodworks (John Lagattuta)
$ 67 Britton Avenue, Torrington, CT 06790;
860-489-9058; fax 860-496-1777.
$ R.R. #3, Box 186E, Bloomfield, IN 47424;
$ Best known for reproductions of French Art Deco.
356 Glenwood Avenue, East Orange, NJ 07017;
973-675-7557; fax 973-675-7778; www.pollaro.com.
Rossi Brothers Cabinetmakers
$ Colonial to Deco. 1805 North Howard Street, Philadelphia, PA 19122;
215-426-9960; fax 215-426-6070.
T&T Woodworking, Inc. (Jozsef Tomahatsch)
$ Colonial to Deco. 37 West 20th Street, Room 1204, New York, NY 10011;
212-255-6005; fax 212-255-6006.
Frederick P. Victoria & Son, Inc.
55 Berry Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211;
718-302-4255; fax 718-302-4269;
$ 7 Todd Hill Road, Rindge, NH 03461;
603-899-3249; fax 603-899-2356.
New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association
North Bennet Street School
39 North Bennet Street, Boston, MA 02113;
617-227-0155; fax 617-227-9292.
Society Of American Period Furniture Makers
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.
Establishment sells to the trade only. Available through your architect or designer.
Jeff Book wrote about furniture designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings in the March-April 2000 issue of Departures.