Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Dealers & Artists Writing Samples
“Maven of Marquetry,” @UCSD, January 2009 Southern California is a long way from the court of Louis XIV, but Patrick Edwards 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 mysteries of marquetry, the decorative veneer that has embellished furniture for centuries. There are many types of marquetry, 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 two layers of veneer.  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. The four cuttings are then used to decorate two pieces of furniture: the première partie (the interior of the brass cutting matched with the background of the tortoiseshell cutting) and the contrepartie (the interior of the tortoiseshell cutting matched with the background of the brass cutting). Pairs of Boulle commodes and coffers continued to find collectors until the French Revolution. During the 19th century, the renewed interest in French decorative arts led to a Boulle revival.  By the 20th century, though, the exotic materials, not to mention the elaborate gilt mounts, were deemed incompatible with the dictates of function and austerity.  Moreover, new environmental laws restricted the hunting of tortoises—yet another impediment to the perpetuation of this historic technique. A visit to Edwards’ workshop is a step back in time. “No power tools” is a rule he has followed from the beginning. He has made some changes, though.  For example, instead of tortoiseshell, he uses hardwoods like padauk and walnut burl.  The motifs, too, are different. For his designs, Edwards is more likely to study 19th century folk textiles than a Rococo pattern book. A Hawaiian quilt was the inspiration for the two-sided “RockeTable.” The première partie shows the quilt pattern cut out in pewter and purpleheart. Flip the top over and the contrepartie shows the same pattern cut out in the same materials—in negative.                        Most sumptuous of all is the pair of tables that were inspired by a model in the Royal Palace in Brussels. The original, which is known colloquially as the “family table,” was a gift in the 1830s, from the king of France to his daughter, the queen of Belgium. Edwards meditated for years on how to adapt the table. For materials, he chose Ceylon satinwood and Brazilian rosewood.  Because the latter is protected by international convention he used a supply which had been harvested in 1952, before the restrictions were enacted. Days and days were spent cutting out the thousands of fine elements. Another challenge was designing and commissioning the gilt bronze mounts. Boulle marquetry has been modernized, but it has not been democratized.  The price for the pair of tables is a princely $150,000. Furniture making was far from Edwards’ plans when he enrolled at the University of San Diego as a freshman in 1967. His major was nuclear physics, but he also took classes in history, literature, and philosophy.  “It was a wonderful, event-filled experience, and I was excited to meet intelligent, thoughtful professors,” he recalls.  In the spirit of the times, the French philosopher Herbert Marcuse and Black Panther Angela Davis were teaching at UCSD. It was this very stimulation that first led Edwards to have doubts about the future. In the late 1960s, a career in weapon development (the normal trajectory for someone with his degree) was fraught with controversy. Nonetheless, after graduation, he signed on with a laboratory.  His annual salary was, he sighs, $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 (“like chess”), but Edwards was, to say the least, ambivalent about the project. Edwards had always liked antiques.  In college, he kept himself in pocket money by restoring and selling old furniture.  At work, he conspicuously spent his lunch hour reading art magazines, and during the weekend, he went to the 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. But knowing what he did not want to do was easier than settling down to one congenial occupation. 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.  For a time, he even had his own television program, a pioneering example of distance learning. It was during these years that he wrote a sprawling opus—still unpublished—on 19th-century American furniture.  He met with supportive curators, though the experience was also a lesson in institutional parochialism and obstruction.   Added to that was the fact that furniture history was an undeveloped discipline.  It was associated with genteel antiquarianism and not yet accepted as “real” art history His love of furniture making eventually prevailed over these other activities. Edwards is largely self- taught because there was no one in America to teach him what he wanted to know.  He even had to build his first chevalet, the special sawhorse for cutting the veneers. His understanding of woodworking is, however, a world away from the off-hour essays associated with amateur craftsmen. “After physics, furniture making seemed pretty simple,” he jokes.  To deepen his knowledge of historic techniques, he studied 18th-century prints. When this lead to more questions, he got in touch with the staff at the Getty Museum. Thanks to the contacts he made there, he was invited, in 1991, to Paris, 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 and immersed in a foreign culture.  His classmates were half his age and he did not speak French. But he made it clear to the teacher—whose flagrant skepticism of Edwards’ gifts added little to his sense of welcome—that he was there to leaarn.  Instead of choosing a complicated project, Edwards chose a simple one.  His reason: he wanted to be free to focus on the techniques that were being taught in class. Exceptionally for an American, Edwards was invited back to the Ecole Boulle. In total, he completed four three-month stints in Paris.  His French improved and his relations with the students warmed.  The breakthrough was his knowledge of Pink Floyd’s lyrics. The discovery of a social lubricant in Roger Waters’ metaphysics was not the only advance. During his final stay, his San Diego workshop was accredited by the Ecole Boulle to receive interns. Between 1995 and 2000, Edwards oversaw eighteen young craftsmen, who lived with Edwards and his wife Kristen, a short walk from the studio. “Saving the past for the future” is Edwards guiding philosophy.  In 2000, he founded the American School of French Marquetry to perpetuate these skills. 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 is essential that we transfer the knowledge of the past masters to future generations.”
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971