A note on my Oeben table examinations

Since before my first encounter with one of the two Oeben mechanical tables at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2012, I have been fascinated (obsessed some might say!) with this atypical furniture form. To learn more about them and their “works”, I arranged a series of examinations. In 2016, I got up close with the two other tables in North America: one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the other at the National Gallery of Art. In October 2017, I visited three publicly displayed tables in Europe: the Cognacq-Jay Museum (Paris), the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London). During these encounters, I made a series of notes which I will share in upcoming posts.

To this end, I want to reiterate that I am not a conservator, nor have I had any curatorial training. When I examine these pieces, I do it from the perspective of a woodworker trying (as best I can) to put himself in the shoes of the period craftsman. What I present are my interpretations. So, I am happy to discuss alternate viewpoints.

I’d like to thank the conservators, curators, and administrators who took time to arrange and accompany me on these visits.

A sticky situation

Apologies up front. This is going to get a bit technical…
Hopefully, this figure will help you understand how everything relates.

The parts of the table specified.

Now that I have latch plates, it’s time to start the process of fitting them into the prototype. It’s straightforward:

Underside of the top showing one of the racks. The chalk marks denote the travel extents.

Begin by locating the stop plates (small, hardened metal plates which impact the stop rods during opening) in the table top. Install the stop rods in the aprons, using them to define the grooves in which they will eventually be housed. The extents of the table when open, and closed can be determined by positioning the top (and main box) in each state. Since the two pieces are connected through the mainspring barrel drive gear, this also governs the plate locations limiting the main box in grooves nestled out-of-sight within the aprons. Bolts visible within the side compartments of the main box protrude through its walls, and travel in these channels. With the open, and closed positions of the main box and top defined, the main box latch plate can be marked and mortised. As with everything in this project, sequencing is critical!

The prototype table (stripped to almost its essentials!) showing the areas of consideration.

So, I begin by reassembling the prototype carcass, and installing the racks and guides. For the moment, let’s leave the mainspring barrels out to simplify maters, and just concentrate on getting the top to move smoothly. Problem is, it doesn’t. It binds. Still. This was the issue three years ago when I first installed them. They were each slightly stiff, and needed to be “opened” a bit by the machinist. Now, individually they slide smoothly, and freely, but they’re still binding when assembled…

Observations and thought follow…

Consider that when the original table was built around 1750, micrometers weren’t a standard tool in an ébéniste’s kit (they still aren’t). So, while the various parts and pieces fit tightly together, it should not require fractions of a millimeter alignment to get things working.

Check each guide by holding a straight edge to its back – it’s ever so slightly convex, bulging into the travel path. Could this be the hang up?

Just a slice of light between the rack and rear apron.

The gaps in the back panel through which the top racks slide when actuated feel crowded – but we can see light between them, and the rack when deployed. Remove a few shavings to ensure clearance…

Could it be due to wood movement? It’s possible, but…

Following about 40 minutes of discussion with Jim, my studio “neighbor”, I realize the upper racks have been installed just slightly askew. Rather than the distance between them being identical at each end of the rack, they are farther apart on one end than the other. So, if I install the top from the rear of the carcass into the guides, it fits albeit tightly. However, when I attempt to slide the top into the carcass from the front, the racks are too far apart to fit into the guides. To compensate, remove one rack, adjust its mortise, then reinstall it. This can be prevented in the future version by using a spacer stick or panel during assembly. But that’s not the only problem in this case.

Underside of top illustrating out-of-parallel racks (lines exaggerated for clarity).

Turns out, when the top racks were installed they were set against the guides, marked, and fastened. This left no space between the guide and the vertical part of the rack where it passes the guide on its way to the top. What I’m feeling is that friction is increasing as the top is slid into the guides – the further it goes, the more these rub against one another. Try spacing the guides further apart, about 1 mm – friction decreases!

By opening this gap 1 mm, the top slides freely!

Eventually, addressing all of these issues I’m able to get the top sliding smoothly through the guides. When the mainspring barrels are added, and the top is pulled into its closed position, it gently swooshes into its open position when released. Success (finally)!

…and we’re back…

A sample of the mechanisms necessary for the Oeben mechanical table re-creation

Approximately five years ago, I contacted David Lindow to re-create the mechanisms necessary for this project. Together his crew members, Jon and Josh, managed to build exactly what was required. While parts began arriving to my studio three years ago, the final piece, the latch for the small drawer, only arrived this past June. Having completed some other outstanding work, I am pleased to be picking up this project anew. This past week, I’ve been creating latch, and stop plates which I’ll write about separately.

You might be asking why it has taken this long to progress…

I undertook this challenge to satisfy a requirement in my pursuit of the Michael Fortune Fellowship. The goals of which were to:

  • expand my skill set,
  • highlight the techniques necessary to create such pieces, and to
  • call attention to this genre of furniture and the subdomains which compose it.

Although I was able to create the majority of the prototype in a short amount of time, progress is only possible at the pace of the slowest element. This doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten, or “dropped” this undertaking…

In the interim, I undertook a personal project to examine several of the sister tables (some of which I’ve already posted on…). Eventually, I will relate these experiences, including one where I’ve been able to contribute to its conservatorial record! Nor have I worked out all of the details; I still wrestle with the process to create a Louis XV leg. For now, however, I will return the focus of this weblog to the details of re-creating this table. With all of the contracted work completed (I think!), the plan is to:

  • continue working on the prototype until it’s operable, and all of the mechanisms are properly tuned, then
  • switch to the final piece.

Hopefully, this will allow me to achieve the greatest efficiency during build-time. Expect a higher frequency of periodic updates.

Planning ahead

I recently received a Get-Ready Grant from the Craft Emergency Relief Fund, an organization that helps to support and protect the career aspects of artists. As a career woodworker for eight years, legacy planning was perhaps the last aspect I had not addressed professionally. Talking about legacy planning for artists is one of the least interesting aspects of my grant. You’d probably be more inclined to change the bag on the dust collector than involve yourself in this discussion! Stick with me though, and I’ll try to convey the importance of the subject. Maybe I can even make a case for the benefits you’ll derive from this exercise while you’re still on the top-side of the grass!

Plainly stated, legacy planning is about what to do with your “stuff” after you’re gone. Your “stuff” comes in many forms from the artworks themselves, to the tools and materials necessary to make them. But, your “stuff” also includes intangibles you might not have considered…

Why put yourself through this agony? Three reasons:

  • most obviously, it will reduce the administrative, physical, and legal burden you leave to family and friends when you’re gone,
  • it can help preserve your reputation by protecting your name and works, and
  • it can provide an incentive for clients to purchase more of your work now!

This past week, an illustrator with a studio in the same building as me recounted meeting with the son of a recently deceased oil painter (who also had space in the same building). Despite his passing nearly a year ago, the son was still coming to terms with the situation. Visiting from out-of-town, he had returned to survey the father’s estate. The painter’s home was brimming with work my neighbor explained. We never intend to hurt those closest and dearest to us. Yet through our inactions that is the result. It manifests itself emotionally, but can be a considerable financial drain.

The quagmire deepens if third-parties, such as galleries, have any of your artwork. Who holds the rights to the work in their possession? What can, and cannot be done with them since the originator has expired? Can, for example, the gallery put them on sale to liquidate them thus potentially devaluing the artist, and damaging their reputation? Further confusion results if, in the process of reconciling the painter’s home, the son finds another artist’s work. If not clearly marked as such the potential exists to confuse it for his parent’s. How is he supposed to determine proper attribution? I face a similar issue due to slightly different circumstances in my research. On a recent visit to a French museum, a colleague and I came across what we believe to be an unacknowledged Oeben mechanical table. Since Oeben held special patronage, he was able to ignore guild rules; one of which was the requirement to stamp all pieces produced! Not only is this frustrating, it permanently decreases the value of the work! The question will always remain, is this an original, or the product of someone else working in the artist’s style?

Finally, when Jean-François Oeben, cabinetmaker to King Louis XV, died at the peak of his career in 1763, his workshop was deep in debt, and his two chief craftsmen, Jean-François Leleu and Jean Henri Riesener fought for control. Contrast this with the case of Sam Maloof whose production continues today, and through activities such as the recent Smithsonian seminars continue assisting the community by addressing provoking questions. Because of their meticulous record-keeping, the pieces Maloof produced continue to increase in value. His clients understood this, and his back-order log grew as he aged. This didn’t “just happen”, Maloof planned ahead.

You don’t have to do it all yourself, and you don’t need to get it right on the first try, but you need to get started.The raw material for a wood worker is wood (duh!). A jeweler uses precious metals, stones, etc. For a writer, the basic building blocks are words, sentences, and paragraphs. However, unlike natural materials, letters don’t assemble themselves into these structures. So, writers go through the process of creating “drafts”; each one (hopefully) improving on the previous bringing them closer to what they were intending to say, the way they intended to say it. The Get-Ready Grant CERF+ provided got me started. Due to the legal structure under which my business operates (an LLC), I used it to consult with an attorney, and draft a will and healthcare directive documents. Lawyer fees aren’t insignificant, so to prepare for these meetings and help reduce costs, I relied heavily on the CALL Estate Planning Workbook from the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

It can be daunting thinking about, and plan for the time when you’re no longer thinking and breathing. If this paralyses you, talk with someone about it. Explaining it to another person (and recording it!) can be the beginning of the process which can be transformed later. But only you can take the first step…

Surprise! Musee Nissim de Camondo

Façade of Musée Nissim de Camondo

While in Paris recently, Ronaldo Messina lead me to the Musée Nissim de Camondo, one of the treasures in the municipal system. The place is filled with specimens of XVIII century furniture, and is an example of a “modern” residence circa the close of the XIX century.

Included in the collection are pieces by Leleu, one of Oeben’s skilled journeymen who became a notable maker in his own right. A highlight of the visit was seeing the Oeben cylinder desk re-created by Bert DeClerk. We experienced the greatest surprise, however, on the third floor in Moïse de Camondo’s apartment. There, we spotted what appears to be another Oeben mechanical table which I don’t see listed in the Jean-François Oeben book mentioned previously!

Another potential Oeben mechanical table...

Since we toured the museum on a Sunday when the curators were off, and were the last patrons to leave, we could find no further information about it. A few e-mails later, a conservator kindly responded to my request, and provided a bit more information. Turns out, the piece is unstamped, so they are unwilling to attribute it to Oeben. From what we could tell, it has all of the characteristics. Perhaps on a subsequent visit, we will be able to examine the piece in detail. Until then, I will be happy in the knowledge that we managed to “discover” another mechanical table I was unaware of until this trip!