July 1, 2013
Text by Louis Postel
Cabriole legs, Louis XVI legs, fluted and reeded legs, legs trimmed with bronze collars, legs with brass toe pieces called sabots, legs with a barley spiral twist… Legs and more legs stride across the loft wall at Masterpiece Woodworks in Avon, Massachusetts.
Of all the imaginable leg styles, however, one is clearly missing—the contemporary style. Because there really is not much to see in a contemporary leg. It looks almost too simple and, of course, that is the idea. The leg is stripped down to pure silhouette, an elegant profile. And while those clean lines so favored today look simple, they can be, in reality, the most complex to pull off.
Perhaps there is no greater challenge to custom woodworkers today than making simple furniture. Richard Hulme and Daryl Evans have been honing their craft as partners in Masterpiece Woodworks for thirty years now. The two men, both fifty-six, met in shop class at Framingham South High School. “Those were in the days when regular high schools had shop class,” says Evans. “And I just fell in love with it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Today, he’s responsible for constructing the company’s pieces, while Hulme is the expert on finishing them. The team also includes master craftsman Robert Waterman and creative director Beth Bourque.
Pieces in various stages of production fill the workshop, from silver-leafed side tables to ceiling-high, glass-fronted bars in cerused walnut to French deco-inspired credenzas and a side table so stripped down and geometric it seems lifted directly from one of the CAD drawings lying close by. (The only thing they do not make is seating. “Too many ergonomic complexities,” says Evans. )
“We were just going over the design of this contemporary side table,” explains Hulme, who with Evans and Bourque will spend hours working out the details. “We are trying to figure out how best to tie the shagreen top into the table’s apron of ripped oak, the shadow lines, whether the horizontal grain meeting the vertical grain ought to be mitered here and not there.”
“When you’re doing contemporary styles—the styles of today—there is really no place to hide,” adds Evans. “All wood naturally changes and shifts, which in the end affects the finish. In traditional styles you can always use a piece of trim to hide where that wood is joined, but not with contemporary.”
“Custom always starts with the finish,” says Hulme. “If, for example, a designer is looking for a contemporary silhouette, which is increasingly the case these days, using an intensely grained wood might be the wrong choice to begin with. Instead, we might suggest a quarter-sawn lumber, which yields a straighter, more modern grain pattern.”
Finishing touches include using organic resins and French polishing techniques. “Polyurethane finishes can look cloudy and plastic, but ours look and feel richer, because they are organic,” Hulme says.
A loyal handful of New England’s top designers, including William Hodgins, Manuel de Santaren, Eugene Lawrence and Meichi Peng, commission Masterpiece pieces, and it shows in the bespoke nature of their interiors. Celeste Cooper, who may be best known for defining the contemporary look in many Boston interiors, has often called on the company’s level of expertise to help her get the well-tailored, crisp look she is known for.
Now based in New York, Cooper asked Masterpiece for twelve large panels finished in goatskin vellum to adorn the foyer walls of her Fifth Avenue apartment. The price Bourque calculated for real goatskin would have been astronomical, so Hulme did some experimenting and value engineering. Finally, he devised another option: faux vellum, a matte finish he created by using ragged-on stains applied in many coats.
Though the faux vellum and the real thing are indistinguishable, Hulme was apprehensive as he shipped the panels to New York. He knew he was pushing the envelope for this special client. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, boy, we are going to hear about this one,’ but we never did, so it must have worked out.”
Working things out on a daily basis is a constant challenge for Hulme, Evans and Bourque. The seemingly endless chorus line of leg samples arrayed along their loft wall is clear evidence of that. •