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Working With Roman Artisans Has Its Benefits

By July 26, 2016October 19th, 2022One Comment

For my second collection of furniture for Ralph Pucci International, I thought of making something from lengths of thin blocks of hardwood. I wanted them to look a bit like butcher blocks but since each length of wood needed to be epoxied to the next, the materials had to be very strong. In fact the epoxied connections would be stronger than the wood. If the dining chair was hit by a truck the actual wood would fracture before the epoxy. The profile of the chair could be quite thin while being very sturdy.
In my studio in Rome my assistants and I made extensive full-scale drawings of the form of every strip of solid wood, so they could be read by a five-axis c & c machine, which is software that converts designs into numbers that help the craftsmen make the physical object. Each plank would be made perfectly. After that, there was a meeting in New York with Ralph and his best woodworkers: a large, high-end shop with c & c capabilities. The owner of the company had been sent the files of the drawings ahead of the meeting, which was unexpectedly just a few minutes in length. The gist of the meeting was this: “Look Ralph” said the owner, “I’ve studied the design of this chair. We have loved working with you and wish to continue contributing but I can’t do this chair with you. I have no idea what your woodworker is talking about”. So, after we said goodbye to the head of his woodworking shop (the woodworker never looked at me once after initially shaking my hand) Ralph asked me, “Any ideas how to move forward?”

We then went to a nearby restaurant run by Japanese called Basta Pasta to continue the conversation over lunch. Surprisingly it was the most authentic Italian food I had eaten in New York since having moved to Rome a decade earlier. I then told Ralph that there are two brothers who are falegnami–Antonio and Nicola–with a workshop just a block from where I live in Rome. They are expert woodworkers who have nothing but a simple jigsaw to cut the wood. I said I would show them these drawings and they will make a perfect prototype of the chair and that I would bring the prototype back with me to New York. From there we will find a fabricator.

The wonderful brothers, Fratelli Potena, studied the renderings and the full-scale drawings and they assured me that they could make the chair but it might take a little time. Nicola would be at the helm. Then a week after giving them the drawings they invited me to lunch. They had questions. “Come at 12:30. We can review the drawings and then eat lunch.” We went over the tiniest details of the design, so I was reassured everything would be absolutely correct.

In their studio, every Friday they would stop work at noon and prepare lunch for a variety of friends and neighbors (my friend, Elizabeth, tagged along one day and they welcomed her with open arms). Their shop was on the street level of a three hundred year old stone palazzo. To enter there were large double doors into a space that was probably always meant for artisans, located on a winding backwater medieval street in Trastevere. The big work table was dusted, the floors swept, place settings and chairs were arranged. At once, all sorts of people arrived: An oncologist, a journalist, a painter, an architect.

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Spaghetti alle vongole was served hot and delicious with freshly fished clams, then a salad. After there was great espresso. Lunch lasted 90 minutes then everyone went back to work. On my next trip back to New York I lugged the prototype chair that the Potena brothers helped me make. It was perfect! Now that it was clear what it had to look like, I found a small artisanal woodworking shop in Queens to do the fabrication of the entire collection and the rest is history.

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