EASTHAMPTON -- There is a good chance you have never heard of Silas Kopf, but you can be sure that if you're looking for contemporary marquetry furniture, his name will be on the short list of artists.
Kopf, 54, is the master of marquetry (pronounced market-tree), the obscure Renaissance art of shaping and arranging wood pieces (and other materials, including brass, abalone, and mother-of-pearl) into a detailed picture or pattern.
An intricate, labor-intensive, and expensive art, marquetry was coveted by nobility in the Renaissance. Four centuries later, this art remains intricate, labor intensive, expensive ($6,000 for a coffee table), and highly sought by Manhattan socialites, Saudi Arabian princes, and anyone else interested in unique, delicate patterns made from exotic woods.
While Kopf sells to princes, socialites, and celebrities, his main clientele consists of studio furniture collectors and people who just love marquetry. In 1998, Kopf was approached by a New York architect on behalf of a client whose name could not be
divulged but who was an extremely high-profile entrepreneur in the computer software world who lives near Seattle. (Kopf figured it out anyway.) From Kopf, the architect wanted home-theater doors. Not any doors, mind you, but faced with three life-sized ushers, dressed in `30s-styled, brass-buttoned uniforms, topped with pillbox hats, saluting the homeowners as they entered.
Even though half of Kopf's clients live in New York City, he keeps his studio in Easthampton, a close-knit arts community in the quiet heart of the Pioneer Valley where everyone knows everyone. He's been here since 1978, creating furniture ranging from plant stand-sized cabinets to cases for grand pianos.
"I like its down-to-earth unpretentiousness," he says.
At noon, he strolls across the street to Tucson & Savannah's -- a restaurant set within a converted mill that houses 60 art studios and Riverside Industries, a nonprofit organization that trains and finds employment for the disabled. It's a raucous hour. Jokes fly between artists and Riverside's clients, and there's more ribbing than eating -- but it's all in family fun.
Kopf's studio is easy to spot, coming down from Mount Tom into the Manham River valley. Rising above the mill town is a red-brick tower, part of the 1885 firehouse that Kopf purchased two years ago and has been renovating ever since. Inside is the sweet scent of sawdust and a fine, powdery dust covering tools, worktables, and even parts of Kopf himself. Tall, lanky, and sporting a green Hawaiian shirt, Kopf comes across as more of a beach bum than someone who labors endlessly at a scroll saw and nitpicks over slivers of wood the size of fingernail clippings.
Kopf began his career in the mid-'70s as a furniture apprentice under Wendell Castle, famed for his sculpted and stack-laminated furniture. There, Kopf realized that to create a name for himself, he needed a signature style. He liked the fluid marquetry of turn-of-the-century art nouveau artist Emile Galle. In particular, he admired a lush, floral box that led him to think, "I can do this too."
And he did, though not so elaborately at first. Kopf taught himself how to cut veneers and make small boxes. That grew into coffee tables and cabinets. In 1988, a National Endowment for the Arts grant allowed him to go to Paris to learn classical marquetry cutting, and his skill and process developed.
Each project begins with a drawing that is transferred onto carefully selected veneers -- a textured mahogany for rabbit fur, a bird's eye oak for a pebbled beach, and swirling Brazilian rosewood for water ripples. Kopf maneuvers the jeweler's blade around curvy lines with such ease that you'd be tempted to try this yourself. But then it becomes more complicated as he cuts pieces with interlocking bevels -- known as double-bevel cutting. It's the secret behind his tight, seamless fits. In the end, the pieces fit like a puzzle, forming one large, paper-thin veneer that is glued onto a stronger surface. This becomes the top of a coffee table, the front of a cabinet, or the face of a home theater door.
Painstaking? "Let's just say, it shows up if you're taking a short cut," says Kopf. It's the sort of response you'd expect from this wise-cracking, self-effacing artist. Even on his resume, he writes about himself as if he's an observer: "With respect to style, the guy is all over the map, drawing from art nouveau, art deco, Italian Renaissance, and Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI (or as he refers to them: Louis, Huey, and Dewey)."
Wry humor surfaces in his marquetry too. Take the cabinet, "Bricolage." From the front, the viewer sees a stack of bricks, and a portrait of Kopf as a bricklayer, mortaring a wall around him. It's as if this were a watercolor instead of cut wood: Kopf doesn't miss a detail, capturing creases in the brow, veins in the hands, and shadows under the shirt collar. Who would think of creating a functional cabinet like this?
Kopf leafs through a book, "Gubbio Studiolo in the Metropolitan Museum," to make the point that he didn't originate marquetry trompe l'oeil. The book illustrates a paneled library, created for a 15th-century ducal palace, that appears to be full of desks and bookcases that overflow with art objects and musical instruments. But it's an illusion -- two-dimensional, created from many species of wood.
Often Kopf's ideas come from the art-history library in his office, located behind a frosted-glass door with stenciled gold lettering that reads, "Chief" -- it's a remnant from the old firehouse. When the artist needs a fresh idea, he begins here.
Given that half of the furniture he creates is done by commission, many of Kopf's customers offer their own ideas. They thumb through his portfolio, pick out styles and patterns, and note preferences, such as blonde instead of dark wood, or irises instead of tulips. Others challenge him to branch out.
Innovative on one hand, Kopf enjoys grand, classical gestures on the other. For the past 15 years, he has created marquetry exteriors for Steinway & Sons pianos. Each one takes about a year to complete. His most recent case reads like a mural, tracing the seasonal cycle of a pear tree. It begins with the tree's blossoming, progresses to the bearing of fruit, and ends with the turning of leaves. These Steinways sell for as much as $250,000. At the old Easthampton firehouse, an old firetruck bay is now Kopf's glassed-in display window. A marquetry chair and coffee table sit inside.
"I like the idea of showing people what I'm doing," he says. It's not as if this attracts sales. None, so far. And it's not as if Kopf wants to flaunt his talents either. Simply, it's a way to satisfy local curiosity and to share his work with a community that has called him friend for 25 years.
Kopf climbs up the firehouse tower and looks out over this quintessential New England village. "Here in Easthampton, it's nice to work at a certain level with a sense of sophistication, doing your best," says Kopf. "But you don't have to toot your horn too much here. That's what I like about this community."