Friday, June 17, 2011

Jonathan Burden

We really hope that this little interview will stand as a some kind of testament to the power of fashion cycles in the world of design because our discussion with British furniture restorer and antiques dealer, Jonathan Burden might some day be used as proof that the early 2000s was 'the' time to buy English furniture. Mid-century modern—which in this column is not popular—has shoved it aside, but just you wait. He also had truly interesting things to say about faking furniture and the John Hobbs scandal that ultimately ruined one of the best-known dealers in the trade.

How did you get to be in New York? How did you start out?

It started out with a love for antique furniture and I went to a college called West Dean in Sussex. I grew up in Yorkshire and we had old furniture. My father is a vicar so we lived in vicarages and things like that. My father would have the furniture restored by the local restorer and I would go [to watch them]. Just the smells were intoxicating … the varnishes and the shellacs.

And you knew then?

Yes. I asked this restorer, you know, “How do you learn this?” He said the Victoria and Albert Museum had a great course but they said they only take one person every four years. But they said that there’s a super college called West Dean and they specialize in all aspects of restoration: clocks, musical instruments, tapestries. But you needed an apprenticeship or a degree or O-Levels to get in and I was pretty much illiterate. I was very dyslexic, so I got an apprenticeship and got into West Dean.
Jonathan’s loft ‘above the shop’ houses his family of four.
An oversized Jacobean refectory table is used as both a home office and a dining table.
An oversized painting is actually a poster of a relief by Picasso.
Details of the intricately carved Jacobean table legs.
The tabletop they way it usually looks. The Zig Zag chairs by Gerrit Rietveld easily tuck under the table stretchers.
A toy car and a Zig Zag chair stand below a framed poster of a relief by Picasso. Looking north across the family loft.
Jonathan sits on the family sofa by Harvey Prober. The lamp is by Diego and Alberto Giacometti.
A large L-shaped sofa by Harvey Prober accommodates large numbers of guests for casual entertaining.
How did being that dyslexic affect you?

I think it does damage your confidence. But it’s like when you lose any of your senses, your other senses pick up more. I started to use my hands and I became good at woodwork and art … I only got diagnosed halfway through my apprenticeship. I remember the choirmaster asking us to sing a song and I would just look down at this gobbledygook [sheet music] but I could sing it very well … your ear picks it up.

How are you now?

Pretty bad still but I do read. I read periodicals. It’s getting better. And you can get over dyslexia now by reading more than you need, just practice.
Two African sculptures stand atop a marble and bronze table by Jansen. Nearby, Jonathan with the family cockatiel, ‘Birdie Burden."
Birdie Burden – free to leave his cage whenever he chooses.
Peeking into the Ophelia and Florence’s bedroom. The small table is a copy of a design by Jean Michel Frank.
Ophelia and Florence’s bunk bed.
A lamp by Jacques Adnet stands atop a mirrored, églomisé chest of drawers.
A dollhouse is positioned near a wall of closets in the girls’ room.
What got you to New York?

Along came Sotheby’s and said we’re recruiting restorers for our workshops in New York. I forgot about it for a while and worked in London. I kind of got frustrated with London, went to work in Zurich. I loved skiing, so I thought, great, I’ll go skiing. Then New York popped into my head and I called Sotheby’s five years later and said, “Is that job offer still good?” and they said, “Absolutely.”

It sounds like it was all so easy!

It was then because English furniture in the eighties was really popular. Things were really happening. And I was English, so I got a job easily.

What happens to someone like you when there are these scandals like the one surrounding John Hobbs for faking antiques? Do you lose credibility in some way?

I don’t know that it affects me personally but it’s another nail in the coffin for the English furniture business. People are losing interest in English furniture and stories like that make them lose interest even more.
A unique chest of drawers by Gio Ponti is topped with an African mask and a marble lamp by Jansen.
Bedside tables, custom made by Jonathan after a Jean Michel Frank design, flank a wicker bed from West Elm.
A table lamp by Diego Giacometti stands near a clothes-drying rack. The photograph of David Bowie is by Mick Rock.
The family kitchen.
There’s this sense that there is collusion on the part of the restorer to keep mum about what they are doing.

Well there are all these workshops that are closed [from visitors] and they’re in the country and stuff goes on. We’re an open workshop here and anybody is allowed to come in. We’re not hiding anything but there are workshops that are completely hidden and funny things have been going on for years … but at that level [John Hobb’s fakes] is amazing … it’s huge. And they did it for years.

And yet there is such skill involved.

I don’t admire it but it’s incredible what they did. You need somebody with a lot of taste, a lot of ability and a fantastic eye for proportion.

I think it’s okay what they did as long as they were open about it.

But they weren’t. And this particular restorer, Buggins—what a name!—came out and said look, “I’ve got 325 pieces of furniture I made and I’ve got pictures of every one of them.” That is just insane, that amount of furniture manufactured from old bits of wardrobe that no one wanted and were being made into ormolu Russian desks and going to auction in Paris! I saw one of the desks and it was fantastic-looking. People will still buy them.
Looking down the spiral staircase into the lower floor showroom.
A custom-made leather screen divides the lower floor showroom from Jonathan’s workroom. The pair of white chairs is English Regency.
In the workroom a birdseye maple center tabletop is being polished.
Eileen touches up a Biedermeir chair.
Tai repairs one of a pair of William Kent benches. Against the wall is a breaker pile of old wood used to repair furniture.
The restored William Kent bench.
So why is English furniture ‘dead in the water’, as I think you said earlier? Is it English furniture in particular or just antique furniture?

I just think decorative arts are in a slump because there is this big cycle. It’s like the 1970s when people were buying Georgian homes and the interiors would be 70s-looking with plastic furniture. Now people buy Georgian homes in the UK and they will completely remove the decoration and put modern furniture in there and it will look great but they are not mixing antiques with modern. But they will. Gerald Bland does that and I like to mix. Mix it up!

Who is buying the really high end stuff then? Rich Russians?

Yes. There’s like five clients right now buying very, very good antique furniture in New York and around the world and they’re fairly well-known because there’s very few people buying. They’re single-handedly keeping English furniture going.

Wow! You mean individuals?

Yes, private clients.
The rear garden.
The rear façade of the building, originally built in the 1870s as a tobacco storage warehouse.
Ohh! We want to know who they are!

You’ll have to turn the tape off! But at the lesser end, well that’s the real tragedy because nice pieces of English furniture have no value at the moment.

You know I have a friend who has a beautiful chest-on-chest and about ten years ago she brought it to Doyle’s to get it valued and they said $13 000. She went back there last month, she’s finally decided to sell it and they said between $800 and $1000.

And those are the things that aren’t making any money. Chests-on-chests, wardrobes, things like that aren’t getting anything at all. This is what Buggins was doing, and Hobbs. They bought these things that no one wanted and making things that people want. It was very clever. He just died, John Hobbs. In his bathtub in Fulham.

Was he ruined by it all?

I think so.
The main gallery of Jonathan Burden Antiques. Front and center is 20 foot-long Irish, mahogany dining table. The pair of steel and marble side tables are custom made by the Burden workshop.
A William IV sofa from a castle in Scotland stands next to an English art school coffee table.
A pair of keyhole mirrors inspired by Serge Roche hangs on the rear wall of the showroom. The gilt bench in the forefront is from the estate of Doris Duke.
Dominating the back of the showroom is a four poster Anglo-Indian bed. Standing atop the bed is a pair of Zig Zag chairs by Gerritt Rietveld.
How much are you hands-on restoring now?

I love to get in there every morning—you caught me in my apron this morning—and I go in and have a good go. As the staff comes in, I’ll go through the job day with them and then eventually as the retail day picks up, I’ll do a little bit upstairs or go off and see an auction, or go and see a client, go see Gerry [Bland], or Mallet or Kentshire.

Do you have any other passions than furniture?

Um … what are my other passions … not really. I’m pretty much set on what I’m doing. I like sailing. I’ve got a little shed [at my house on Fire Island] and go down there and tinker. I like to bring something back to life.
• Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge
• Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch