Friday, December 17, 2010

Bielecky Brothers

Bielecky Brothers Inc. produces handcrafted custom, wicker, rattan and cane furniture in a huge family-owned factory in Woodside, Queens. The firm has been in business since the late 19th century when Andrew and Conrad Bielecky emigrated from Poland and starting weaving baskets on a Lower East Side corner. Despite the fact that nearly all rattan and wicker furniture is now made in Asia, Bielecky Brothers still functions as a family business with all three great-grandsons, Ed, Peter and Scott Bielecky running what is now the last surviving handmade wicker furniture company in the United States. Sian and JH went to the factory to chat with Peter (pictured above) about carrying on the tradition.
 
Why is your furniture so expensive?

Because it takes weeks upon weeks to make pieces. And it’s a union shop -- these guys get top pay and you can’t find people to do this work. It’s a lost art.
Oldest brother Ed Bielecky with his bulldog Archie.
Youngest brother Scott also moonlights as an actor.
So the stuff you see in Asia? Does it just fall apart?

The difference is that they basically pick it and start weaving it. The wood doesn’t have a chance to cure. The climate that’s over there is so humid, so nothing gets a chance to cure properly. When I get it here, it goes into a big tub of water. Everything gets soaked so that it’s pliable. When they get it, it’s fresh and when it goes to cure it expands and contracts and then it cracks and splits. But it’s already been made into furniture at that stage. When you sit in an imported piece, all you hear is creaking. One of my pieces – you don’t hear that.


Do you ever have sample sale? Maybe I can afford something. You have so much nice stuff in the storage room.

Oh we have those all the time. This is sixty, seventy maybe eighty years’ worth of stuff. We had a contract with Angelo Donghia to make these chairs for him and we made a bunch of ‘em because he used to order them like crazy, then he started getting them made overseas, so I got stuck with all of these. We have chairs from back in the day before there was plumbing—chairs specifically made and we call them ‘potty chairs’. They were too small and we changed the measurements to make it a dining-size chair. They’re one of my bestsellers.
A group of vintage wicker chairs on the left are ready for repair.
More vintage rattan waiting for repair.
Frames for a chair originally designed by Jean Michel Frank and later adapted by Billy Baldwin.
Part of a repair order of eighteen pieces for Boston designer, Susan Reddick. A rattan roll-arm chair stands next to an oversized cane-wrapped étagère.
The swivel chair is a popular choice for summer dining.
A rattan coffee and dining table are for a friend of the family.
Custom chairs ordered by designer Jamie Drake are for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s personal yacht.
Potty chairs are one of your bestsellers?!

The design is magnificent! But we change them.

You take the ‘potty’ out?

Yeah.

Actually I still think potty chairs are a good idea. I mean toilets are ugly. Why do you want to see a toilet?

I can make boxes that go over toilets so you don’t see it. It’s not something that people order.

So this is Mayor Bloomberg’s wicker sofa for his yacht—this is the closest I’m ever going to get to him. Tell me about this.

He wants a new sofa every four or five years they get in touch with me to do this. The exact same stuff every time: two sofas, two ottomans and couple of tables.
Looking into the workroom.
Piles of wicker material getting ready to be woven into furniture.
Joe, a master weaver has been with Bielecky Brothers for thirty years.
A circular ottoman is getting reading for a braided finish.
The frame of a custom sofa is being constructed for a client of White House Designer, Michael Smith.
Tools of the trade.
Furniture forms.
You have some pretty high-profile names here, huh?

Yes, we’ve done Pavarotti, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross. We still do business with Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie and Fitch. My grandfather and my father, they did business with the Kennedys, Rockefellers …

What does Diana Ross want?

She ordered a couple of sofas.

Did you make things extra large for Pavarotti?

Yes. It’s funny actually because we call it the ‘Pavarotti Chair’ to this day because when he sat in the chair in my showroom, it stuck to the sides of him and when he stood up, the chair came with him. I had to make the chair larger and it created a new style, so we call it the ‘Pavarotti Chair’ now.
End tables are stacked atop the employee ‘facilities’.
A motorcycle given to oldest brother, Ed, for his confirmation present is now used by youngest brother, Scott, for short errands.
Master cabinet-maker, Albert Torres, sanding a frame.
Urbano works on an order for designer, Tom Scheerer.
A rattan frame will soon be transformed into a chair.
Piles of materials are divided into baby and mature rattan.
A custom bar cart is for a friend of the family.
More stock. A custom chair is being finished for designer Tom Scheerer.
Give me a little history about the business—when did it start?

My great-grandfather came over here in the late 1800s from Poland and he started weaving baskets on the corner of Manhattan [the Lower East Side] because that’s what he did as a child. Poland has an abundance of willow. He did well enough to open a storefront. He used to deliver chairs tied to his back on his bicycle to the Upper East Side or wherever it was that people could afford these chairs.

So people used this kind of furniture inside then, like Victorian-style chairs?

Yes, exactly. We’re actually, I believe, the last wicker company that makes handmade wicker furniture in the United States.
Headboards ready for finishing.
Clippings from Bielecky Brothers projects.
Entering "Ed Blvd" where Leo Rios, an employee for Bielecky Brothers for thirty years and the firm’s master upholsterer, does his thing.
Elsa at work, sewing slipcovers.
Explain to me the different types of cane and willow.

Willow doesn’t exist anymore. I’m sure it grows here and there but you can’t harvest it to make it. I guess they put an embargo on it because it was over-harvested.

What is the difference between wicker, cane and bamboo?

Bamboo is hollow and I don’t use it. Everything we use is rattan and wicker and cane all come from the rattan pole. The skin on a rattan pole is used for cane and they dowel out the core of the rattan pole and that’s how you get wicker. If it looks like bamboo, that’s rattan with the skin on it. It all comes from the same rattan plant.
Wicker is first soaked to make it more pliable for weaving.
A 60-year-old steam box for rattan is still in daily use.
The finishing room.
Grayzina giving a smooth finish to the front of a dresser drawer for designer Carol Gross.
Junior is spraying a top-coat on custom chairs for designer Michael Smith.
A rattan chair for Michael Smith stands next to a wicker chair for Mayor Bloomberg’s yacht.
A finished table is for a client of designers Bill Diamond and Tony Baratta.
Furniture is waiting for a final sanding and sealing in the finishing room.
A finished white rattan chair is for designer David Scott.
Hourglass tables.
A pair of rattan chairs are for designer Tom Scheerer.
Chairs await shipping.
Where does rattan come from?

We get it from Indonesia. It’s getting more and more difficult to get—why exactly I don’t know. I have a distributor from Long Island and he says that a lot of these people don’t want to go in the fields and pick certain sizes anymore. I don’t know if they’re keeping it for themselves or whether they just have better opportunities to do other kinds of work. China has it also but the best stuff comes from Indonesia.

When you were little kid did you assume that this was what you were going to do?

No. I believe I wanted to be a football player [laughs] I was dabbling in architecture and design and that brought me this way. I design a lot of the pieces myself—they don’t always get sold …
The workout room is a favorite of Scott Bielecky.
A storage room adjacent to the weight room yields ‘Seconds,’ piled high.
And do the people that work here have to do an apprenticeship first?

Again, it’s a lost art. I have a couple of people left from Poland who have been working for me thirty, forty years. The same with the Dominican Republic. A couple of South American countries where they still weave baskets, so that’s where I get my workers from. [A hand bell rings loudly]

What’s the bell for?

That means that lunch break is over and people need to get back to work. We’ve been doing it like that since I’m a kid … I’m sure my grandfather did it and my great-grandfather did it.
Views outside of the factory’s Woodside, Queens neighborhood.
• Sian Ballen
• Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch