Saturday, September 08, 2001

Every piece tells a story

Favorite furnishings hold family memories in every crevice and curl

By Joy Kraft
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The rich mahogany table with its heavy marble top and Victorian-carved legs was a pain in my teen-age neck.

        For several years, I was the designated caregiver for the family heirloom next to my grandfather's chair. Its intricate curls and twisting lines hampered my hurried dusting. And the occasional polishing was ponderous at best. The carved rosettes were impossible to gloss over quickly, and the rag always caught on the loose petal my mother had repaired with Elmer's.

        I had no use — or appreciation — for the table.

        Now that it sits in my foyer, so many years later, the table is a treasure I pass a dozen times a day.

        My grandfather's cut-glass ashtray has been replaced on the table by dozens of family snapshots framed in brass: the great-grandfather from Weisbaden, who bought the table for the family home in Ironton; the grandfather who carted it to Akron; my mother who had the good sense to hang onto the past.

        I still curse at polishing its hollows and curved recesses, but when I do, I think I smell my grandfather's cigar.

        Curious to search out sentiment in other people's lives, we called several interior designers to see what piece of wood, slab of stone or hunk of metal had been transformed into their household treasures.

        We found a handmade buffet, a sofa upholstered with a favorite Oriental rug, French candlesticks and a breakfast tray — all turned into everyday heirlooms.


Father's handiwork
        Her father's woodworking hobby turned into a bonus for Susan Jackson of Park Hills and her two sisters.

[photo] Susan Jackson kneels next to the Shaker-style buffet her father made in 1987.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        The retired metallurgical engineer made each of his three daughters a dining room table. And, as a bonus, another piece of their choice. Susan and one of her sisters chose buffets, the third a chest of drawers.

        “The dining room table is a gateleg version. Mine is solid walnut. My second sister's is cherry, and the other one is also walnut,” she says.

        “My buffet is a Shaker rendition with four drawers — all dovetailed by hand — on one side and a single door on the other. The insides of the drawers are maple and the turned pulls are walnut, so you get a little bit of contrast in the woods.”

        That her father made the pieces by hand makes them valuable to Ms. Jackson. But the creativity that went into each piece and the finishing touches — such as the crown molding — make them precious.

        “He didn't have a pattern. He had some books with dimensions that gave him a starting point,” she says. “He would lay it out on paper and get it to where the proportion was right and go from there.”

        John Jackson, 88, makes light of his talents.

        “I'm not sure you want to call it a heirloom,” he says. “I just wanted to do something that had some value and wanted them to have something useful.” Spoken like an engineer.

        He knows the worth of family furniture. In his Middletown dining room is a walnut sideboard “handed down from my mother . . . and from her parents to her. One story I heard through the years was that it was used as a desk by my grandfather, a doctor in West Virginia.”

        Of his own woodworking, he shyly admits to “a little sense of accomplishment.”

        And though Ms. Jackson was third in line receiving her pieces, “I treasure all the more the time he spent making it for me, all that handwork and finishing.”

        Like her father's sideboard, “it'll stay in the family, no matter what.”

A rug and a sofa
[photo] Jim Jones covered an heirloom sofa with a prized Oriental rug.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Jim Jones finally got it right. The Avondale interior designer inherited a Dunbar sofa from his godmother, then took it to the upholsterer to have it covered. And he left it there — three years.

        “They kept saying, "Don't forget your sofa.'

        “Dunbar was originally made in Indiana. It's a fine piece of furniture, probably from the '50s or early '60s, and a very expensive piece,” Mr. Jones says. “I was surprised she owned a Dunbar. She was a schoolteacher.

        “I bought fabric for it two times, but kept changing my mind. I just didn't find anything I liked on it. I wanted it to be more of a man's sofa,” he says.

        Rearranging some Oriental rugs he'd collected, Mr. Jones uncovered a 20-by-12-foot rug he'd owned about 20 years. And as he took in the purples, burgundy and oranges in the design, he found the fabric he wanted on his sofa.

        He was pretty pleased with himself.

        The upholsterer was not.

        Though they were glad to get rid of the sofa that was taking up shop space, “they said, "Don't ever bring us another rug,' ” he says. The stitching and binding of such a heavy fabric was problematic, though it's more of a flat-weave than plush.

        “We used suede on the sides and the back to cut down on the stitching difficulty. And it turned out to be wonderful.”

        Despite the difficulty, the job took only about three weeks — “a little longer than normal,” according to Mr. Jones, who is very satisfied with his sofa and his rug as upholstery.

        “Of course I'll try that again,” he says.


Childhood memories
[photo] J. Bryan Amerine and his French candlesticks
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        The copper candlesticks with sterling silver bases on J. Bryan Amerine's cocktail table are part of his childhood setting and part of his father's war years.

        “My father was in the service 10 years, in Europe a good part of that time. . . . Because he was a captain in the Army, he was able to ship back a lot,” says the designer with Cincinnati Design Center at Longworth Hall.

        The candlesticks took their place on the family dining room table, and his mother passed them on to him about 10 years ago.

        “They were probably purchased in France and they're very simple. Not ornate, just plain lines,” he says.

        “My home is very eclectic, transitional. Some might think it's contemporary, but it's not true.” The candlesticks are a perfect fit.

        As a child, Mr. Amerine spent two to three weeks a summer with his father's sister. And he remembers a French-looking breakfast tray on her sideboard.

        “It was a glass tray in a wood frame with handles. And under the tray was a handkerchief. I learned as an adult that my parents had given it to her.

        “When it came time to break up her house, she asked me to come and take whatever I wanted. It had a very special meaning for me because of my parents and because I remembered it from my childhood.

        “It's small, only about 8-by-12 inches.” But that's what he chose.


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