Another day at the office. Reconnaissance for thousand year-old wood in the wild of British Columbia. 90-second reel.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
The holy grail of exotic woods is a 500-year old mahogany called simply 'the tree' - as it has only ever been found in that one tree. Its provenance is pure Indiana Jones - discovered in the 1970s in a ravine in the heart of the jungle of Belize, it took more than a decade of mud, sweat and tears to extract.
It is the stuff of legend on account of its infamous hologramatic 'tortoise-shell' figure, surpassing in texture perhaps even the tortoise-shell of Boulle under Louis XIV. The atelier currently holds the last two remaining boards in circulation worldwide at over 2 1/2 metres in length.
Just as unique is a 300-year old African rosewood whose trade-name is 'waterfall' due to its unparalleled fluid figure. Our reserve is from the middle of the 60-metre tall tree where the figure is exceptionally intense - the filet mignon, so to speak. This sort of material is only acquired by word of mouth - not so much acquired, in fact, as entrusted.
LIVING ON THE EDGE
The real beauty in turn of working these woods lies as much in their unreal surface-figure as in their exceptional strength, which allows for an edge of extreme finesse. Quite literally, the cutting edge.
The atelier uses strictly woods from trees that have naturally passed, which is in most cases a few hundred or thousand years ago. We have a strict respect for the soul of the material and have nothing whatsoever to do with any sort of unchartered logging in any part of the world.
DARK SIDE OF THE MOON
Once a year, a minute after midnight on the first full moon of the fall in the Dinaric Alps, our local lumber jack sets out into the forest to fell some 17th-century maple. After a centuries-old tradition, it is accordingly known as master-grade 'moon-wood' - this 'flamed' aka 'tiger' maple is prism-like in its refraction of light.
Less than one tree per ten thousand exhibit this degree of figure and closeness of grain - and it has been prized as such first and foremost in lutherie since the 17th century by the likes of Stradivari and Guarneri. Following custom, the cassette in his walkman is 'dark side of the moon'.
COLD AS ICE
Rather a one-off stash of wood came to the fore recently when a giant spruce tree was excavated by a scientific research team from beneath a receding glacier in northern Alaska, where it had lain perfectly preserved in ice for over 3000 years at an average temperature of minus 62 degrees centigrade. As a result of being immersed in the minerals of the ice across millenia, its grain is enriched with a unique silver-blue mist.
The irrational mathematical constant of 2.71828 (abbreviated) is a part of the system of streamlined proportions developed by the atelier. It is reflective of exponential proportions across physics from a wave in the ocean to a wavelength in outer space - which may be a reason for the symphony it unlocks.
An interesting aspect to meteorite is how its form is derived by a combination of 1. the eternity of its geological formation as a star in space and 2. the instant of its shooting out of space down to earth. Only collector-grade specimens are used with a provenance of noted geological expeditions.
The most notable aspect of being in the desert, accordingly, is the absolute silence. The void. Simple as it may sound, one can begin to sense the meaning of sculpture - of mass, volume, light, space - in no better way than to disappear into the sands amidst the towering rocks under the rising sun and the setting stars.
SET IN STONE
The atelier is partial to onyx on account of its somewhat particular connotation as object of decadence from the pharaohs to palazzi of the 1700s to bachelor pads of the 1970s. Each slab is selected and cut directly from the quarries on the basis of its mineral foliation and high crystalline content. Under the chisel it rings like glass.
Our bronze is cast in wax in a custom alloy by an old bell-foundry where each curve is tapped and tuned by ear as a measure of proportion and not much has changed since the bronze age. The brass is cast in sand in a foundry for propellers which is also much the same since its establishment in the 1930s - each contour is calibrated along the chord-line for pitch balance conditioning by the naked eye.
HEART OF GLASS
The crystal is cast, beveled and patinated by the oldest living mirror-maker on Murano whose practice remains much the same since its entry into the golden book of Venice in 1658. Guido is last in line of descent from one of the three master-craftsmen of the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles - who was poisoned by the Venetians for betraying the secrets of their guild to the French. And lived. An exclusive custom patina has been developed in collaboration with the atelier.
HELL BENT FOR LEATHER
The leather detailing is done in chieftain Morocco leather by an old book-binder's in Mayfair who have bound manuscripts for the world's leading private collections and libraries from the Bodleian in Oxford to the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris. The upholstery is hand-stitched by the number-one tappezzeria in Modena for exhibition-grade post-war Ferrari restorations, a sixth-generation family affair with a background in saddlery. We use full-grain oak-tanned aniline from a tannery in the Scottish highlands in operation since the mid-18th century. It is sourced from their own strictly spring-watered pasture-fed herds raised in a 500-kilometre range.
HEART OF GOLD
For gilding we use the same old restoration-grade hand-beaten Florentine gold leaf that has been used since 1600 on historic interiors form the Palais Garner and Galerie d’Apollon in Paris to Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome and the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. A combination of traditional and in-house techniques are integrated from byzantine painting to ceramic kintsugi for a range of timbres.
THE FINE PRINT
The foam padding in any upholstery and the templates of architectural maquettes are cut under a 1943 Planeta printing press, for precision to the thousandth of an inch. It is preferred to more modern ready-made methods in giving closer actual control and the hands-on touch that keeps it yar.
BIG IN JAPAN
All finishes are mixed from scratch in the atelier be it a French polish, Cremona varnish or Swedish tar, depending on the build. The exception is the Japanese fuki-urushi lacquer that is applied by an old master workshop in Ishikawa in the traditional manner accordingly of more than a thousand translucent coats. It is an age-old practice and they also produce lacquerware in exclusivity for the imperial household.
Getting straight to the source is the only way to gain access to the most coveted master-grade woods in history and stay ahead of the curve with what specimens may surface. It is also the only way to find the perfect piece for a particular project that will make all the difference.
The atelier has built an extensive network of trusted relations with lumber jacks from the Alps to Alaska, through which we are fortunate to have first choice on some of the most hard-to-get collector-grade woods around for any scale of project. A recent example being 3 tonnes of 18th-century Gaboon ebony in original log dims for a private commission, whose crushing strength of 76.3 Mpa allows for a matchless finesse of construction.
NO STRINGS ATTACHED
In a one-off collaboration with the luthier of Prince's iconic 'model C' guitar, the atelier designed a hollow-body electric guitar using a single slab of 17th-century master-grade Bosnian flamed maple. Legend has it the tree was struck by lightning one stormy night in the 1680s and felled for this reason alone - which may after all account for its electrifying tonal bloom.
Naturally seasoned for more than two centuries and inlaid with Japanese cherry and wenge, it took 18 months of prototyping to complete as every single bit of hardware and pick-ups has been cast, turned and wound by hand. It is sculpted with nodal curvature of chladni patterns as per classic violin construction and a custom system of brass tubes in the manner of wind instruments.
A special cross-over project of sculpting in sound as it were, on another level, getting into the architecture of tone. The sculpture of an object as musical instrument poses the ultimate chance and challenge to sculpt across three dimensions and on into the fourth dimension.
For all the time that one is so physical in sculpting, it is around a form that is elusive, in parallel, on the other side, in the metaphysical. All the time that you are there, sculpting, it is around a form that is not there - the sound, the tone that is intangible.
Music is only ever heard on its way out. Music only ever is on its way out. So you sculpt not to get to the core of something - as if to release a figure that is within a stone 'already there' - you sculpt to get to the core of nothing. The nothing through which music can be, free - of even the slightest deflection that might impede it - to find its way out. A way that is light, that is dark, that is colour.
If you look deep enough into the texture of the wood, you come to see through it, the texture of the sound it will unlock. The sound will attack, and decay. In that fraction of a moment, the infinity of that moment, it will have been. You see through the form of the instrument, its function. And you have the chance, the challenge to see through the function, the absolute assertion behind and beyond it.
THE RECORDING HOUSE
As one of a few passion-projects on the side, the atelier took on the set-up of a recording studio for a friend in their 18th-century residence on the island of Hydra. It is an old carpet factory round the corner from Leonard Cohen's, with the original woodwork intact, now stocked with a range of vintage analog gear and master-level recording equipment.
The installation followed a site-specific study in acoustics and rather a radical architectural reconfiguration to unlock the range of character in sound throughout the property, from the brightness of 6-metre high ceilings to the reverb chamber in the rock-hewn cistern. The studio operates by word of mouth and the central headquarters are in the kitchen.
It is all very well to discuss De re aedificatoria over a cognac in a chesterfield up at Oxford but at the end of the day there is nothing like getting down to where it's at - be it in a storm on the Pacific west coast to get imprints of driftwood textures for a sculpture, testing resins for varnishes with an old restorer in Florence or taking proportions for a project in a Khmer temple. In the philosophy of the good old uomo universale, that extra mile cannot be measured in words but it is plain to the eye when one comes to stand before the end piece.
ON THE ROAD
The atelier is a bit old-fashioned. We read books, play records, ride bikes, keep journals, take photographs, make photocopies, draft blueprints, draw on a drawing-board and type on a type-writer. The resulting archive of mood-boards and manuscripts serves as an ongoing framework of research across disciplines through which to trace new connections in new dimensions of meaning and form.
Following an everlasting love for print, the atelier has come to operate an independent publishing branch producing a biennial journal and a series of bespoke folios to accompany each body of work.
Each publication is designed in a different format from studio scrapbook to over-sized hardback and catalogues a selection of studies, concepts and ongoing work. Get in touch for a copy of the latest issue just released in a limited collector's edition.