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 Joel's Blog

Architectual Woodworking - A Wedding in the Mansion  


This past weekend I attended a wedding at the Palace Hotel in New York. The hotel, build about 25 years ago stands behind the Villard Houses, two neo-Renaissance mansions built in 1882. When the hotel was built there was a move to demolish the houses but preservationist won and buildings were incorporated into the hotel high rise. It has proved to be a great business decision and the hotel hosts events and has a bar in part of the space, which is one of the most spectacular interiors in New York City.

From a woodworking perspective it's important to understand several things - that craft and decoration pays off. Without preserving and adapting these rooms to modern usage, the hotel would be one more nondescript business in the city. With preservation they have a competitive edge.

Unlike museum quality work, when you look closely at the carvings, which are opulent and wonderful, you might notice that the gold carvings on first floor are fancier and better executed than the carvings on the second floor. This is an important lesson - most people won't notice, and unlike a few random stellar examples in a museum, the practical exercise of creating a house full of decorations means compromise. I wonder if there are any architects up to the task of designing and orchestrating a neo-Renaissance interior with all the carvings. I bet with CNC for the bulk work, some nice detailed handwork and some cleverness it could look great and be cost effective.

Finally, for all that designers say that older crafts are dead, and people these days want modern looking furniture of glass and steel - it isn't true. If it was true the "Gold Rooms" as they are called, wouldn't be popular. But they are! A lot of the appeal of many of the bars and restaurants in New York are their classic interiors. So the real issue isn't "should a new project be modern or antique?", the real question is how to create a "craft heavy" interior on a reasonable budget.

Incidentally the UN was having a big meeting at the time and the hotel was host to several high level delegations. For the first time going to a wedding I had to pass through security and there were secret service and swat team members all over the place looking me over.

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Comments: 7
10/02/2013Bob Easton

Quick, find a bar of soap and wash your mouth out (or your fingertips and keyboard)!!!
Perish the thought. The CNC carved detritus (mostly from China) is already so abundant as to bury us. No mas!

If you want elegance, do it right with hand carved material.
I am a huge fan of hand carving but even in the 19th century, when these mansions were built, the huge demand for carved moldings, details, friezes & etc meant pervasive use of pattern carving machines, stamped moldings, and other stuff. The other thing is that there are carvings and there are carvings. most CNC carvings I have seen are BAD, but there is no reason why they cannot be made better, and to make the better you do need a real carver at the helm. And I would much rather someone builds more buildings with fancy carved interiors with machine aid then being scared off the project because of the cost of hiring a talented carver to carve 3000 ft of identical molding.
I take it the carving above the marble is on the second floor. Looks as crude as my efforts at architectural carving. The other carvings look exquisite. Wish you showed more pictures!
I'm not positive, but possibly not. One of the things that is really interesting about the mansion is that as a whole the decoration is magnificent, but when you look at the details the stuff just isn't what we see in museums. And that I think is really important. Museums usually reflect the best work around. This work is more typical of large mansion projects. Some of it great, all of it pretty good, but you don't have your "A" list carvers working on 500 feet of identical molding. Also there is 130 years of wear and tear on the piece. (which is why in museums they don't let you touch anything)
I could see a compromise - using CNC to do the basic blocking for the carvings, leaving the final/fine detail for the hand carver.
10/02/2013Bob Easton
Paul has a reasonably good suggestion. Use CNC to do the mundane work, especially with long runs of molding and an artist adds a hand made refinement.

THANKS Joel, for showing us this beautiful work!
10/30/2013Richard Wright 
During the hayday of furniture making in the 1800's, most of the detail carving was roughed out by duplicator then finished by hand by professional carvers, exactly as Paul suggests. In Grand Rapids MI, at that time the furniture making capitol of the US, there were over 300 carvers employed by the various furniture companies. If you look at the best of it in museums, it looks and feels hand carved, because it really is. My guess is that is what happened at the Palace. Perhaps the master carvers did the first floor, journeymen the second, etc.? Sadly,a lot of the junk out there today which is called "carving" bears little or no "touch" from a real carver, and it looks it too!!
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