Challenges of restoring an Art Deco masterpiece

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It was nearly two years ago that a trip to southern West Virginia revealed a hidden treasure. A part-time antique dealer of many years had “an old warehouse” where items purchased long ago had been hauled and left.  Some five years before we arrived he made an interesting purchase. Not knowing what it was but recognizing the unique nature, he purchased it from a lady who was going to a retirement facility.

IMG_7801The lady had been a house-keeper in a number of high end hotels across the country in the 1940′-60’s.  The last decade of her work was in New York City where she was the head of house-keeping at an upscale hotel. Since hotels regularly upgrade and remodel their facilities, and because she was head of house-keeping she ended up with this amazing set of bedroom furniture that was being removed from a penthouse suite that was being remodeled and redecorated.

img_7802It’s hard to know if the hotel would have had these custom pieces created for their suite, or if a client who lived as a long-term tenant at the hotel (a common occurrence in the 1920’s) would have custom ordered these pieces and left them behind when they moved or died.

Unfortunately, these are the only bits of information we have gotten about the pieces, but at least it offers some clues. The former housekeeper moved to a nursing home and it would appear that “Ruby” is now deceased. After she sold her bedroom suite, it was tucked away in the back of the dealer’s warehouse under mountains of others items.  Over the years they had been damaged, repainted inside and out numerous times, and suffered water damaged thanks to a leak in the roof two years earlier.

Even with all the terrible old paint and damage, it was clear this was something extremely special, but the decision to purchase them and trundle them all the way back up home and sink the time and money into restoring them was a big decision.

The designer was unknown, we couldn’t even determine the IMG_7805extent of the damage hidden beneath half dozen layers of paint which was inside every internal part of every drawer. Add to this the fact the wood would have to be properly dried out over a six month period before work could even begin.

But the design alone was breathtaking, and heads above most of the art deco furniture we have encountered over the years, so if it could be saved it would be well worth the efforts and expense.

Eventually it took two craftsmen a month, ten gallons of stripper, countless hours of small repairs and sanding them into good shape. After getting them down to the original base layer it was obvious that only the best lacquers and materials would be suitable for this furniture.  Painting was not an option because furniture that is painted looks, well, painted and the luster of lacquer can not be replicated or imitated by mere paint.

After all the blood (literally), sweat and money the pieces were beautifully restored  Given that the original owner and the brief sketch of background information on the pieces origins along with the lost history and records of era, the question still remained – who designed this magnificent furniture? Clues beneath the paint hinted some woods on the piece were never painted originally and the original black lacquer and gilt was found on some components.

IMG_7808We work with several auction houses specializing in twentieth century design and the raw pictures we provided of these pieces created a stir.  Opinions all have a common theme. Based on the style and construction details they were made between 1925-1940.  The designer obviously had some French art deco influences, it has echoes of Paul Frankl’s work and was likely made in America. The woods were exotic which ruled out particular production lines and designers.

The general consensus of several experts were identical – DONALD DESKEY.  After completing studies in America and France he returned to work for a short period at Frankl Galleries and thereafter set out with Phillip Vollmer to form a partnership in design and consulting. Still to this day documents are being unearthed showing designs and commissions they performed heretofore unknown.

This would not be the first time a custom made piece from Donald Deskey has been found to which no documentation can be affirmed, often to the frustration of the dealer and researchers alike.  A trip in January 2015 back to Bluefield to undertake a massive removal of debris from the warehouse revealed the remains of the mirror which had been mentioned many times by the antique dealer. The glass was gone and most of the wood rotted and destroyed but enough remained to get a fair idea of what the mirror may have looked like, and upon the back of the mirror was the AMODEC label.  We have submitted this information to Deskey & Associates to now ask them to do a more in depth search of the archives to see if the papers can be unearthed.

The round knobs are not original to the piece – these were chosen to best compliment the piece as the original knobs were replaced a long time ago by the previous owner.

Luckily, many of the papers of Donald Deskey’s estate have been donated to the Cooper-Hewitt museum in NYC, and they may yet yield decisive information.

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We have purchased and sold hundreds of quality items from the 20th century, mostly Mid Century Modern designs. The best of the Art Deco  era has no competitors when it comes to unique thinking and construction. High quality wood was ample, imported readily and so were experienced craftsman, thus elaborate designs could be executed. The production of such pieces today would be astronomically expensive. Mid Century Modern designs by comparison have a fraction of the components; true Art Deco is exceptionally elaborate.

Production line models can look very good from the top-end manufacturers of the era, but custom pieces stand out and always carry hallmarks that indicate custom work upon close inspection. These one-of-a-kinds took considerable time and the expert execution of skilled craftsman to produce. We must remember they went straight from the designer to the workshop, details ironed out on production lines eliminate excessive elements and components are standardized to allow cheaper assembly and production – not so with custom pieces.

Pieces of this size from the Art Deco era, or anytime before 1970 for that matter, are rare.  King size beds were not common and only produced for an elite clientele – one that had both the money and the spacious bedroom to accommodate such pieces.  The headboard is 113″ wide with end tables that attach to create a complete unit still allowing over 81″ between the tables. The dresser has a top drawer that unfolds to reveal a secretary area that folds down to provide a space for paper work and file storage for letters, receipts, jewelry and odds and ends.  Taken in combination these pieces are large, bold and require a luxuriously sized bedroom to accommodate them properly.

It’s interesting to note that there was never a bed frame attached to the headboard.  It is obvious that a box spring or similar style mattress simply sat in front of the headboard, giving it a low profile.  However, a low frame could be created to accompany the headboard if desired.

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IMG_7821The month spent by Hillenbrand furniture makers of Charleston was well worth the effort and time spent on these now splendid pieces.  They are truly one-of-a-kind, era defining designs which stand heads above most  Art Deco period furniture pieces.  The pieces demonstrate a design by someone with splendid attention to the smallest of details. Some examples of this are the doors of the end tables which were cut on 45 degree angles to that the “frame” around the doors was virtually non-existent; the challenge of this appears small but is actually exceptionally difficult. The plinth base of the dresser is a prime example with the absolute two lower platforms given raised (up to 1/4″ at some points) grain to diffuse light giving it a ripple effect – yet smooth to the sides. The secretary is an amazing detail (and if you have noticed we are still sourcing a lock for it that is appropriate).

The low, exceptionally long headboard will allow a bed between of 81.5″ in width, with a headboard total length of 113″ it is truly grand. Few bedrooms seventy years ago could provide the space this furniture and makes it obvious they were done for a elite client of means.  The headboard has extras that no headboards of the era would normally have. Such as recessed lighting (rare on any piece regardless of era) and a drawer that opens from the top of the headboard revealing room for storage as well access to the inset glass.  A central pull cord allows the lamps built into the headboard to be activated.

The built-in lights were replaced with LED lighting eliminating any heat concerns and provides illumination that washes over the end tables and the bed area, softly.

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End tables feature holes whereby the end tables affix to the headboard providing impressive strength and stability to all components coupled with protrusions to the side and below to actually clip into the headboard thus eliminating the need for attachment to a wall.

Beveled edges provide the line all round on every single component that gives the piece the characteristics of the influences Donald Deskey had when working in the Frankl Gallery. It is suggested by evidence beneath the paint that at one time quite possibly glass was affixed to the tops of the nightstands and central piece of the dresser. We are considering having cut black glass to see how it fairs.

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The dresser however would have to be considered the flagship piece of the set.  2-3″ thick solid wood with raised grain has been used as massive plinth bases to allow the remainder of the base to appear floating, to which attaches the main body with flawless curved thick wood and drawers.

IMG_7814In a sea of Art Deco and designer pieces the design speaks for itself and withstands the most extensive scrutiny.

This item is featured in our Ebay & Etsy store and is available for sale worldwide.

Questions most welcome are comments and suggestions.

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2 Comments

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  1. Great pieces. Glad the stars aligned, finding it, knowing it was worth saving/restoring, and having it done.

    • Thank you for the comment. 90% of the work done happened before the first coat of anything went on and there were nerves present until it started taking final shape and becoming beautiful. It seems odd to say that these pieces were the largest restoration project we have undertaken, but it is true. The amount of work to bring it back is hard to comprehend until you are in the thick of it. I find sometimes myself drifting away from Mid Century Modern to Art Deco – some of the best work of Modernists started with their daring steps into Art Deco with incredible changes in the way people saw furniture and architecture.

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