|Project by Mark A. DeCou||posted 01-22-2014 05:54 PM||4819 views||14 times favorited||35 comments|
Charles Rohlfs Style Chair, recreated in Honduras Mahogany, by Mark A. DeCou.
This project was a commissioned item, if you’d like something similar, please start by visiting my ETSY.com store to review the commission listing
You may also email me directly at:
I remember well several things that I’ve run across in my life, they are the kind of items I’ve encountered that stick in my head like a photograph. If you are also blessed with that ability, you know what I mean, the rest of you will just have to take our word for it.
I really can’t do math in my head, nor remember people’s names very well, don’t care a lot about my grooming as long as I’m clean. But, one thing I can do well, is mentally photograph something that astounds me, and sometimes it’s a piece of furniture. If I can tie a really cool “story” to the photograph, something interesting about the person involved, then I’m truly smitten.
One night I was sitting back watching the PBS Antique Roadshow and they had a fun lady bring in an odd little chair. She laughed with the appraiser that nobody in the family really wanted it, they had discovered it in a family attic, and drew straws to see who had to take it…and she “lost” and had to take it.
As the PBS movie camera came in close “Snap”, and my mind photographed it, WoW!, what a chair! Not the tired old designs of the New England mansions, not the gaudy French work, or the scary German work, not the overdone simple lines of Craftsman, not the overachieving Victorian-era scrolls and flowers…but rather something so simple looking, yet so complicated, so dated, and yet so timeless. The carved back is all one piece, shaped to look like Oak wood cells in a microscope, how profound. You could put this chair in the most posh modern interior space and it would hold its own. Timeless. What a piece of carving, what a design, what a wonderfully crafted item. I told you I was smitten.
I listened on as the appraiser told the story of Charles Rohlfs, or at least what is commonly thought to be known about him. I decided that night, that I had to know more about this Charles Rohlfs and had to figure out how to build such a chair. That was many years ago, I’ve forgotten how long back, and life goes on, and I never built the chair, although it came to mind several times.
And to be honest, at the time I first saw the chair on PBS, I really don’t think that I could have built it, as it was just out of my reach from a skill basis. I’m not a great carver. I’m not really a great, or “reknown” furniture maker, and not even a woodworker that is all that accomplished. I whizz through the daily barrage of photos on lumberjocks and some times wonder why I even try, the standards are just so high.
Ok, that’s a short list of what I don’t have, BUT, what I do have is a big imagination, and that stubborn stick-to-it-ivness to sit on a chair and do something requiring high-focused attention, pushing back fears of failure, until it’s finished.
After several years have now passed since that PBS show first aired, my carving and woodworking skills have continued to improve, and I have taken on increasingly more difficult things over the years. I like to do projects that really challenge me. Rather I look for something that scares me and is beyond what I’m capable of doing at the time…and then I strive to push through the fears and sit on a stool until it’s finished. Once that is done, I’m ready for a new challenge. I am visited often by woodworkers, not sure why, but they call and ask to be invited, or just show up. I typically tell them the same things each time, ”learn to spray lacquer, buy some carving tools, and pick a project that scares you….” are all on that list.
And for me, the Rohlfs Chair was scary…
A couple of years back I went on a woodworker’s-walk through the Nelson Atkins Gallery in Kansas City. My wife and two kids were with me, so I was scooted along pretty quickly by those less enthralled with what the gallery had on display. But, I got to see a lot of stuff. Sure, they have a big Monet, and a bunch of other stuff someone splattered with paint on a canvas, that others pay big bucks for. Unfortunately, the “big bucks” mentality drives our culture’s love of art, instead of the quality of the art. Not sure where that went wrong in this culture, I just grew up in it like the rest of us. Some of it in the museum was so bad looking to me, I think I could have painted better, you know what I mean. Somewhere in our internet Cat-Video world, we’ve completely forgotten to honor those that are actually good at something, while we watch Teenagers do video-reviews of some factory made crap they bought. How we got “here” is a bit of a mystery, but I hope it changes soon.
But, at the Nelson Atkins gallery, there is also has some pretty incredibly crafted functional-art pieces, and some of it happens to be furniture. And, they have a few famous maker’s in their collection, although I think they are missing more than they have to do a proper collection of furniture makers. But, like I said, I’m a woodworker, so I’m biased.
If you want to see that photo-journal of the furniture pieces and some other things at the Nelson Atkins gallery, you can visit my blog about the trip
On that gallery trip, I stumbled onto a Charles Rohlfs’ crafted Desk. As a woodworker, his work just shakes you. You may not even like it, but you can’t deny that you are shaken by it.
I wrote a lot about that in my Blog article on the Desk, so I won’t repeat that here. But suffice to say that I was so surprised and blown away by what I saw, and some how I recognized it as being from the same maker that did the chair I loved so much on the PBS show. I really don’t know how my mind made that connection, might be that mental photography thing I told you about, but from 30 feet away in the hallway with kids begging me ”can’t we just go… I’m hungry…I’m thirsty….that statue is naked Dad…Dad I’m tired…please Dad can we leave…Dad that painting is naked….Dad I’m bored, Dad that Statues’ butt is naked, and on and on…...” somehow I noticed the Rohlfs Desk.
I just knew when I saw the desk from the hallway that it also had to be a Charles Rohlfs piece. I stayed and studied the desk as long as my kids and wife would allow that day, and was once again motivated to recreate that stunning chair his.
As life has it, with the wife, kids, house projects, shop projects, yard work, chicken coops to build, church work, etc…..pretty soon a guy is out of time, you know what I mean. I read it all the time on lumberjocks, lots of people write about how they are hoping to get a couple of hours this Saturday to work on this or that, so I know you all understand, and I’m in the same boat with you. But, I try hard to keep it all in the proper priorities, and sometimes like you, that’s not easy.
As for shop time….there’s not much else that I like to do, so that helps. If I could play the guitar that would probably interfere, but I’ve had to give up on that again recently after my third attempt. God just didn’t make me a strummer of strings, so I just get more shop time now.
And, to make more shop time I stay off the phone and internet, so I don’t carry a cell phone, nor do I have one of those fancy screens that lets you see the latest Cat-Playing-a-Piano Video that the rest of you spend so much of your boss’ time sharing with each other. I can’t do it all, so I had to drop out of the Cat-Video business.
I’ve read too many stories of gifted and creative people who kept their personal life in such poor control that the others they loved would not stick around. History is full of stories of depressed artists that died broke and alone, and I suppose that is my biggest worry about this life I’ve chosen for myself. I’ve determined that dying broke ain’t so bad, but I don’t want to go it alone.
Since I realize that I’m not all that easy to “stick around” either, I try to monitor my priorities and lessen the pain to the others in the family. What I’ve found in my shop work, is that if I really badly want to do something, I have to first find a paying customer to fund the endeavor, since all of my “hobby” time is taken up by other things and other people’s priorities. As I’ve gotten older, working until midnight like I used to do, just doesn’t seem to happen anymore, maybe it’s that way for you also?
Still and unfulfilled dream (the chair), a couple of years back I picked up the latest book on the work of Charles Rohlfs. Flipping through the photos, will either quickly overwhelm, or excite you, if you like woodworking.
Mr. Rohfls reportedly did his furniture for just a 10 year stint, before calling it quits. Apparently, he shut down the shop and didn’t tell anyone why. He was a Shakespearean Actor and loved the stage, and it was rumored he wanted to get involved in politics. As for me, I wish he had stuck to the furniture work, I wonder where he could have gone with another 10-30 years of creative thinking about wood? I like that about him….the mystery.
What the picture book shows is even more impressive when you realize that it was all done in 10 years, and without SketchUp, or CNC machines, just the same way I prefer to work. Mr. Rohlfs was, in my opinion, one of the most masterful, out-of-the-box designer/builders that this USA has created. I highly recommend the book, you’ll see what I mean. And quite frankly, he puts most of the rest of us to shame.
So adequately motivated by the book, I had to start praying that God would bring me a commission for the Chair, a special someone that wanted the chair bad enough that they could fund my Bohemian lifestyle while I built the chair for them. Not a small prayer request.
It took a couple of years, but God brought that special person. Get this: He didn’t even want to see stained wood samples of the coloring I wanted to do, he just said that he’d trust me. Wow, when God does His thing, it’s amazing.
This special guy has waited patiently for over about 18 months for me to schedule and complete the project, and I’m excited to be able to share with them what has taken so many hours to craft and carve….and sand with little tiny bits of sandpaper on the end of a sharpened Popsicle stick….lots of sanding and filing.
Without their dreams, my own dream would have gone unfulfilled, and for that I am very thankful.
What’s next on the Rohlfs-Style agenda for me? Not sure, I will leave that problem to the Nazarene Master Craftsman.
As for the coloring, my wood staining process has progressively gotten more complicated over the years. What used to take an hour to slap stain on with a rag has turned into such a process that the stain and finish on many of my projects takes way longer than it probably should, but that’s just “me” and I’ve learned a lot about color and mixing, and light than I used to.
The coloring on this piece is a mixture of Old Master’s Gel Vintage Mahogany with hand mixed-in amounts of Reddish/Brown Dye Stain, Black Dye Stain, Dark Walnut Dye Stain, and Red Mahogany Dye Stain. If I ever run out of that can of stain I mixed up, it will be hard to recreate it.
I have been using TransTint dyes for the past few years along with my oil pigment staining work, and I really like the flexibility that gives my work. No longer am I beholden to the color chart of stains offered by a certain brand name. Once I bought an air-brush kit, I came up with all sorts of new things to experiment with.
After the rubbed out Gel-Dye/Stain process, I followed with an air brush to tone the coloring using Lacquer Thinner mixed with the same concoction of Dye Stains, but with more “Black Dye” added.
The idea is to give some variation to the coloring, darker in the corners, and other places that would take on darkening that comes with a hundred year’s worth of dirt and air oxidation and waxing of an old furniture piece, that was my goal.
Following the staining process, I sprayed dozens of coats of Satin lacquer using an air brush gun, and my small detail spray gun. The trouble with spraying something like this is getting enough finish into the undersides and tight spots without causing drips on the main sections. If you “fill” the front grain, but leave the underside and edges with less finish it shows up immediately. Overall, the finishing work took about as long as the hand filing/sanding of the carvings. But, I’m happy with it now, and can say that it is the best that I can do.
Peter Marcucci, another lumberjock member, was instrumental in finding me the commission, and providing his excellent technical assistance as I built this chair, and for that I will be forever grateful.
My wife tells me that when I get “going” that I talk so much nobody cares what I say, and that same burden follows in my writings, so I’ll stop and get back to something else.0
Thanks, for reading along.
Mark A. DeCou
(Note all text and photos are protected by copyright by the Author, Mark A. DeCou, all rights and privileges are reserved, please request permission before using all, or in part.)
-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan - www.decoustudio.com