Marquetry \Mar”quet*ry\, n. inlaid veneers fitted together to form a design or picture that is then used to ornament furniture.
That dictionary definition sounds simple enough, but in the hands of Silas Kopf, the simple quickly becomes sublime. Working with one employee in a Northampton, Massachusetts, atelier, Kopf produces exquisitely made furniture lavishly adorned with marquetry of such dazzling beauty that it takes your breath away. His pieces grace some of the finest personal and museum collections in the country, and for good reason. They are, quite simply, amazing.
Kopf started making furniture in 1973. After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in architecture, he apprenticed for two years to famed sculptor/furniture maker Wendell Castle. Subsequently, he studied marquetry at the prestigious école Boulle in Paris.
“Inlay has been part of our culture since Egyptian times,” says Kopf. “But as I looked around at people who appeared to be successful, like Wendell Castle, Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, and others, they all had a signature style, and marquetry seemed up for grabs.” He grabbed it with a vengeance, learning not only marquetry, but also parquetry, inlay, and trompe l’oeil.
Marquetry is essentially a jigsaw puzzle put together out of veneers, including the background, and glued onto a substrate. Parquetry is similar, but creates repeating geometric patterns rather than pictures. Herringbone, for example, is parquetry, and lends its name to “parquet flooring.” With inlay, the shape is routed into a solid background, and set in rather than overlaid. The two are visually indistinguishable if done correctly. Trompe l’oeil, from the French meaning “fool the eye,” is marquetry done so adroitly as to make the flat picture appear three-dimensional.
“I got into the whole thing as someone interested in an alternative lifestyle,” Kopf said. “I did not want to be in a cubicle, and favored a simpler, less consumerist life. But soon I realized that making craft objects is essentially making luxury objects. The irony is that you end up working for the carriage trade. Nevertheless, I feel I am keeping a tradition alive, and patrons of my work are helping this tradition. I try to make an art object of high integrity that will long be appreciated for its design and craftsmanship.
“I started small, making little pictures and decorated jewelry boxes using the simple floral patterns of Galle,” Kopf told me. “They were nice to practice on and were small enough so that it wasn’t a huge investment in time or material.” His work reflects his love of a variety of styles including Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Galle, Majorelle, and Ruhlmann.
These days, he does everything from coffee tables, chairs, and desks, to pianos, cabinets, clocks and, of course, boxes. “I like putting pictures on cabinet doors that let you see what is going on inside the cabinet, often with a door appearing to be ajar. One piece I did for a customer who collects baseball memorabilia had elements from the collection inlaid on the door, and I suspect the cabinet is used to house some of the collection.
“I design both the furniture and the marquetry, and my helper does most of the casework. Sometimes the decoration dictates the shape of the object, but usually I start with the object. I do all the marquetry, because I feel that if it is going to have my name on it, I should be doing the cutting. Letting anyone else do it would be like a painter letting someone else do the painting. The time works out well, too. The time I put in on design, marquetry, and running the business is about equal to the cabinet work.”
Though he has mastered all the major veneer cutting styles, his favorite is double bevel cutting. Unlike other methods, which create multiples with one cut, it allows you to make only one picture at a time, but yields perfect joints with no filler. Using a fine (2/0) sawblade, and 1/32 nd inch veneer, he tips the table about 14 degrees, cutting two layers of veneer at once. The angle decreases for thicker veneer. The piece on top becomes a conical section that will fall into the bottom conical recess and fill in the gap left by the saw kerf.
The work is as time-consuming as it is beautiful and, as a consequence, does not come cheap. He built one bedroom chest of drawers with a very elaborate garden scene, for example, that was priced at $80,000 for someone who wanted something both unique and collectible.
Some of his more interesting work has been designing and applying marquetry to four one-of-a-kind pianos for Steinway. “The Morning Glory Steinway is my favorite. It’s big and grand and kind of showy. It was as involved as nearly anything I have done, containing a 15-foot-long frieze.” The piano sold for almost a quarter of a million dollars.
Not surprisingly, he’s been the recipient of a number of awards, including an NEA Craftsmanship Fellowship in 1988, and an award from the New England Craft Council. Eager to share his talents with others, Kopf has taught workshops at a variety of craft schools, including Penland, Anderson Ranch, Haystack, Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, and Peters Valley, among others. He’s written articles for several magazines, and has recently produced a video that teaches marquetry. It is called “The Master Techniques of Marquetry,” and you’ll find it on his web site at www.silaskopf.com
Beyond his brilliance in woodworking, Kopf has a deep concern for his own industry and its impact on the environment, and has worked with a string of groups to that end. He’s one of the founders of the group “Conservation by Design.” “I got concerned about tropical deforestation, and do not want to contribute to the problem. I started asking my customers if they would kick in to conservation efforts in the form of an ‘exotic wood tax.’ Most did.”
At first, he was involved with creating WARP (Woodworker’s Alliance for Rainforest Protection), which later became the Good Wood Alliance, a trade organization for certifying vendors exhibiting good forestry practices. “That morphed into Greenwood, which supports low technology woodworking in Honduras in an attempt to get locals to use certified local products for manufacture, rather than simply exporting their raw materials.” From that came the Forest Stewardship Council, which sets the criteria for certification. The next stage was the Certified Forest Products Council, a trade organization that markets such wood.
At the age of 55, not only has Silas Kopf climbed to the top of his craft, but he’s done so with a grace and conscientiousness that marks him as one of the most admirable gentlemen in the field of woodworking.