by Don Williams
Part One: I don’t speak or read French. Not a word. So how did I wind up involved in a project to bring the greatest French treatise on cabinetmaking to an Anglophone audience? ‘Tis a long a winding trail.
The seed was planted sometime around the year 1975. I was a kid working as a finisher and restorer at shop in Florida. The old man, “Pop” Schindler, had started the company on the cusp of our first “Great Depression” and had somehow managed to keep the doors open, in great part thanks to his incredible depth of knowledge and skill as a traditionally trained Swiss apprentice. Pop was a curmudgeonly soul, and he had devolved into near-crotchety-ness since his son Fred had taken over the business and freed Pop to putter and mutter (in French).
One day an old-money Palm Beach client (Ambassador Something-or-other) pulled up with boxes full of parts for what looked like just another old piece of junk to put back together. It was, in fact, a simple (for him) tulipwood parquetry secretaire by Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), successor to ebeniste du roi Jean-Francois Oeben, and cabinetmaker to King Louis XVI, renowned for the Versailles Desk.
As I began working on the secretaire, Pop started hanging out with me. It made me nervous, given that I did not know him well and all the other guys in the shop told me he was a cranky old coot who always “knew a better way” to do whatever task was on the bench and would butt in whenever he wanted to because he was the owner of the shop.
The other guys were right.
Yes, he could be a cranky old coot, but I grew to hold him in great esteem and affection over time. And guess what; he really did know a better way to do almost anything being done in the shop (except spraying lacquer, which he viewed as a sin against nature and God). Fortunately I was the victim of a loving and excellent upbringing, so out of respect (at first) I let the old man blather on about old furniture and ways of doing things. What a treasure trove of knowledge was slung at me in rapid fire Frenglish! Once he realized that I actually was trying to pay attention and learn, his attitudes softened and he took me under his wing. I can state with certainty that the time with him working on that cabinet was among the most important learning periods of my almost-40-year career.
When the piece was finished and awaiting delivery, he made a remark that puzzled me.
“Roubo would be proud,” he said simply. With that remark he planted the Seed.
“Roubo? I thought this was Ambassador Something-or Other’s cabinet,” I said.
His look in reply could only be described as that glance from a man towards an idiot in-law or elected politician.
Then he told me about “L’Art du Menuisier.” Pop did not own a copy, but the shop’s most important patron (a renowned collector of French decorative arts) did, he said. A first edition from 1765 or some such time. Someday when we were over at the estate together he would ask to show it to me. That day never came, and I did not see Roubo with my own eyes until almost 10 years later. I devoured the images and plates, and wanted to know what the text said almost enough to learn French. Almost. — Don Williams