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Master of Modern Marquetry
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The ancient art of marquetry is revived by a gifted artisan.
Written by Judith H. Dobrzynski
Produced by Doris Athineos
Silas Kopf, dressed in worn jeans and a work shirt, hovers over a cluttered work table and traces the contours of a tiny eye—no more than a quarter of an inch across—onto six pieces of wood veneer of various hues. In seconds, he cuts them out with a string saw, beveling them so they fit together perfectly. Cemented with a touch of glue, they will form the nucleus of a colorful parrot he’s creating from dozens and dozens of wooden pieces. Along with another parrot, both set amid marquetry branches, it will eventually grace the front of a cabinet designed to hold oversize illustrated books about birds.
If you think marquetry is a dead art, a relic of the Renaissance, you haven’t met Kopf. For more than 25 years, he has been turning out hand-cut marquetry marvels, some laced with humor, others as elegant as a classic commode, and still other trompe l’oeil tableaux so realistic they demand a double take. “I don’t think anyone else in marquetry has his accuracy or range of colors,” says Wendell Castle, the 80-year-old wood master who is known as the father of the art furniture movement.
The story continues on the following slides. Shown above is Kopf’s “Cat Desk,” where the shadows of the “open” desk play a trick on viewers.
Kopf works his magic in a refurbished fire station in Easthampton, Massachusetts—a sprawling jumble of sawdust, wood samples, gum tape, masking tape, glue tubes, sponges, drills, saws, sanders, and a World War II-era veneer press. There he turns out marquetry-clad tables, cabinets, desks, clocks, chairs, Steinway pianos, and more. They are owned by museums, including the Peabody Essex in Salem, Massachusetts; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; and the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery, as well as by many well-heeled collectors.
Above, a flowery Steinway piano is transformed by “Morning Glory” marquetry.
Each of his creations might be the centerpiece of a room or could serve as an accent. Either way, they seem destined to be conversation pieces. One fall-front cabinet masquerades as an aquarium. A coffee table offers marquetry magazines. A lectern is fronted with faces, and a cabinet intended to house a collection of baseball memorabilia is decked out with—what else?—a baseball and mitt. Says Kopf, “I want to make marquetry modern.”
That wasn’t his original goal. Kopf graduated from Princeton University with a degree in architecture. But this was in the ’70s. Kopf let his hair grow long, and instead of designing buildings, he decided to seek a future in woodworking. “My parents were mortified,” he says genially. (In unrelated developments, his parents came to approve, and he has long since shorn his hair.)
The woodworking world wasn’t welcoming either. Attracted by the art nouveau furniture of Richard Newman, Kopf went to see him, hoping for a job. Instead, Newman suggested that he seek an apprenticeship with Castle. So, Kopf says, “I called him and said I’d do anything.” Castle, seeing no woodworking skills on Kopf’s résumé, turned him down. Undeterred, Kopf took a low-level job at a woodworking shop outside Rochester, New York, not far from Castle’s studio, and phoned Castle every three months to tell him what he was learning. “After about a year, Wendell had an opening,” Kopf recalls. Nowadays, Castle calls Kopf “a natural,” and the two remain in contact.
Shown above is the “Floral Vase” cabinet. See details on the following slide.
“Floral Vase” Details
The marquetry light dawned in Castle’s studio. “Successful people seemed to have a signature to their work,” Kopf explains. Marquetry, which had been “a retiree’s hobby for decades,” looked like a good niche. Armed with a book, he started teaching himself. At first, he made simple jewelry boxes that sold at craft fairs. But within five years, “it was all furniture,” he says.
Kopf’s signature marquetry has trompe l’oeil detail, as on the “Floral Vase” cabinet.
His sights were raised again on a trip to Italy, where he viewed the work of Renaissance masters and fell in particular for a masterpiece of three-dimensional illusion and detail made by Fra Giovanni da Verona, circa 1500. It depicts a cupboard with four doors, each with 10 panels, and each opening at a different angle. Inside lie two stringed instruments, two flutes, and a scroll of sheet music. “Look at the way the broken lute strings spiral behind the sheet music,” Kopf says, pointing to the piece in a book he has written called A Marquetry Odyssey.
The “Aquarium” cabinet (above) was recently purchased by the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, where it’s currently on view.
Kopf began to add more details to his works, making them more “painterly.” To improve his skills, he used a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to study marquetry techniques in Paris. There he found the work to be exquisite, but he felt French design was too weighted by the past. “My task was to extract what was interesting and turn it into my aesthetic,” he says.
About half of Kopf’s work sells through galleries, notably Gallery Henoch in New York, where a show last fall included a lottery for a $12,000 cognac cabinet. Kopf got that idea from 18th-century master David Roentgen, who used the ploy in 1768 for his work and that of his father. “They sold 24 pieces, and that created their careers,” he says.
Kopf’s “Bricolage” piece is a perfect example of his “fool-the-eye” marquetry.
Commissions make up the rest of Kopf’s work. These pieces start with a conversation about the design. Kopf will then send drawings of his idea along with samples from his vast “wood library,” which includes exotic species like Bocote, Narra, and Bubinga as well as mahoganies, many satinwoods, rosewoods, and more. Once a design is agreed upon, Kopf gets to work, generally using about a dozen different woods in each piece.
On average, Kopf completes about a dozen pieces each year. He never repeats his creations without some variations in the design. And he strives to be adventurous—up to a point. Years ago, he crafted a 6-foot-tall corner cabinet with 10 rows of rats running across the front. Blaming his “overconfidence” at the time, Kopf says “Life Is a Rat Race” eventually sold but at a deep discount. That hasn’t happened since.
Long-legged “Parrots Escape” (above) is on view at the Museum of Art & Design in New York City through July.
The eyes have it. “Argus,” Kopf’s corner cabinet, consists of 60 left and 60 right eyes. See this piece up close on the following slide
“Argus” Cabinet Detail
Each eye is made of 15 pieces—some no bigger than a grain of rice.
“Bad Hare Day”
Kopf’s “Bad Hare Day” piece is playful in nature, its fine detail shown in the color and precision of the woodworking.
See the rest of this piece on the following slide.
“Bad Hare Day”
“Bad Hare Day” continues around the other side of the piece, following the rabbits’ dramatic escape from the fox.
Kopf’s “Garden” cabinet exemplifies his expert use of shadowing in his art.
Virtuoso craftsman Silas Kopf in his studio, which is a refurbished fire station in Easthampton, Massachusetts.
In “Jailbreak,” the two doors are shaped like trapezoids, which contributes to the illusion.
For more tips from the pros on collecting classic pieces, see our presentation about modern-day portraiture.