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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Maven of Marquerty

After a degree in physics, Patrick Edwards took the road less traveled and, in a manner of speaking, ended up at the court of Louis XIV

By Amy Gale

Patrick Edwards (above) .

Southern California is a long way from the court of Louis XIV, but Patrick Edwards, Revelle ’71, has revived furniture-making techniques that were fashionable at the Sun King’s palace of Versailles. At the American School of French Marquetry in San Diego, Edwards teaches aspiring artisans the intricacies of marquetry, the decorative veneer that has embellished furniture for centuries. There are many types, but it is for his lessons in Boulle marquetry that Edwards attracts students from all over the world.

Boulle work is conceptually simple but takes years to master. It involves simultaneously cutting a design from stacked layers of veneer using a perpendicular blade.  During the 17th century, when the technique was brought to perfection by André-Charles Boulle (the cabinetmaker to the French court), the most popular materials were tortoiseshell and brass. However, since new environmental laws restrict the use of these materials, Edwards has made some changes. For example, instead of tortoiseshell, he uses hardwoods like padauk and walnut burl, and when he was building a pair of tables inspired by a model in the Royal Palace in Brussels, he chose Ceylon satinwood and Brazilian rosewood. Because the latter is protected by international convention, he used a supply that had been harvested in 1952, before those restrictions were enacted. (The price for the pair of tables? A princely $150,000).

The chair (left) is a recreation of a Biedermeier "Tulip" armchair made in Vienna in 1825. It has a solid wood frame with a French walnut veneer surface, finished on all sides.

Edwards is dedicated to the process of woodworking. A visit to his workshop is a step back in time. Smells of furniture polish and sawdust waft about the room. For tools, he uses dadoes, fillisters, handsaws and a chevalet—the special sawhorse for cutting veneers, which he built himself. “No power tools” is a rule he has followed from the beginning to preserve the craftsmanship of working by hand. “All handwork has the element of risk, of taking the material to its limits, and taking the tool to its limits with the potential of failure,” Edwards says. “If you want to get better, you learn more to improve your skills, but if you’re using a machine, you just buy a new one. You are a consumer, not a master of anything.”

As well as hand tools, he uses a traditional shellac—an early finish made from bugs, resins, oils and waxes. “But the most important thing in this business is the right glue,” Edwards says. His glue dates back to the 18th century and is made from the bones and hide of cattle.

Furniture making was far from Edwards’ plans when he enrolled in Revelle College as a freshman in 1967. His major was nuclear physics, but he also took classes in history, literature, and philosophy. Edwards credits the late Paul Saltman, who was then the college’s provost, with fostering a climate of intellectual vitality. “It was a wonderful, event-filled experience, and I was excited to meet intelligent, thoughtful professors,” he recalls. “Revelle College was quite small and relatively isolated, so there was a sense of family.”

After graduation, he pursued a career in weapon development (the normal trajectory for someone with his degree) and signed on with Maxwell laboratories. His annual salary was $10,000—a fortune in those days for a young man just out of college. He was assigned to a team simulating a nuclear attack on Colorado. The work was challenging but Edwards remained ambivalent about the project. Deep down he wished to save something rather than destroy it.

Edwards had always liked antiques. In college, he made pocket money restoring and selling old furniture. At work, he conspicuously spent his lunch hour reading art magazines, and during the weekend, he went to fairs, instead of dropping mock bombs on Denver, like his more diligent colleagues. Such waywardness was brought up during a performance review. It was either his job, he was told, or the other stuff. The talk helped Edwards to clarify his goals. He realized that it was best to quit and move on to something more suitable.

His ambition was to work with furniture, but it was unclear if that meant teaching and scholarship or something more hands on. So he did a little of this and a little of that. He taught at local community colleges and worked as a museum conservator at the Banning Museum in Los Angeles. But his love of furniture-making eventually prevailed over these other activities and he set off on a “cultural anthropological journey” across country to discover what happened in America between 1800 and 1850. He went to antique shops, historic homes, museums, dealers and conservation programs to trace the cultural influences of furniture based on migration routes and civilizations.

“I spent about 15 years driving around the country in a pickup truck collecting antiques and asking questions to find these interconnective pockets of decorative arts,” Edwards says. It was during these years that he wrote a sprawling opus—still unpublished—on 19th-century American furniture. To deepen his knowledge of historic techniques, he studied 18th-century prints. When this led to more questions, he got in touch with the staff at the Getty Museum.

Thanks to the contacts he made there, he was invited to Paris in 1991 for a stage (a three month course of study) at the Ecole Boulle, the preeminent school for design and craftsmanship. “It was kind of miserable,” he says, recalling the time he lived apart from his family, immersed in a foreign culture. His classmates were half his age and he did not speak French.

However, exceptionally (for an Amer­ican), Edwards was invited back. In total, he completed four three-month stints in Paris. And during his final stay, his San Diego workshop was accredited by the Ecole Boulle to receive interns. Between 1995 and 2000, Edwards oversaw 18 young craftsmen, who lived with Edwards and his wife Kristen, a short walk from the studio.

In 2000, Edwards founded the American School of French Marquetry to perpetuate these skills. His guiding philosophy is “saving the past for the future.” Some students are furniture makers, but the school also enrolls a lot of midlife professionals who are attracted to the cerebral and introspective challenges of veneer making. Three centuries ago, every European capital counted a handful of marquetry masters who embellished tabletops and cabinets. Edwards is one of the last links to that heritage.

“It’s hard work but I have the satisfaction of saving something,” Edwards says. “The process of working by hand generates a pride of workmanship and accomplishment. I work until I’m tired and I don’t look forward to 5 p.m. on Friday when I get to go home, because I enjoy what I do.”