By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
If we still had medieval guilds, then Jed Bark would some sort of Grand Master Framer – he’s the guy The Metropolitan Museum turns to when they want works framed, not to mention artists like Donald Judd and Richard Avedon. His huge airy space in Long Island City had long tables filled with incredible artworks: at one point on our tour, he turned over one piece of work and said, “It’s by a guy named Warhol. Never heard of him.”
He studied art and history at Stanford and he still makes his own art (although he was secretive about it) but a part-time job he had as teenager working in a Palo Alto art supply and frame shop eventually led to him establishing a very serious business in New York. He doesn’t take himself seriously but he does take the work very, very seriously. He is a purist, looking to scholars and preservationists as to how best to approach treating works of art so that no damage may come to them in the framing process. His own artistic sensibility and what he happily claims to be his “nerdiness” (we had to cut those bits out) also means that many major artists have come to trust him with their work.
Which New York Social Diary HOUSE interviews have you read?
I read the one about the monk [Tucker Robbins]. I am associated with an ashram in New York State but I don’t live in one and I’m not a monk. And I never was a monk. And I never will be a monk.
Ah … you don’t know yet.
No I don’t.
Staff bikes in the front hall.
Lockers for personal stuff.
A staff member pointed out that paper cups produce a lot of trash. Now everyone has their own cup with nail polish decoration.
Do you meditate daily?
Well, when I’m following my practice rigorously I meditate daily.
What do you think that has done for you?
[Laughs] It’s er … it’s centered my life. I guess that’s as good a way to say it. It’s given a center from which I can move out and to which I can return. Peace is one thing. Each of us has different issues. Peace is an issue for me. Contentment is an issue for me, one that I struggle with always.
Located on second floor are all the wood and metal shops.
Racks of custom wood profiles. The ones in front originated in 17th-century Holland.
More mouldings in hard maple, walnut and mahogany.
Bark stocks ten variants of the simple exhibition frame, and custom mills them as required.
This profile, known as the "Marden", was designed specifically for the work of Brice Marden.
A special drill press set up. Various drill bits attached to a magnetic holder.
Michael Ryan assembling a maple exhibition frame.
The maple frame with hardwood splines before the splines are sanded flush.
A frame joined with a special spring clamp Bark discovered in Germany in the early '80s.
Do you think that is inevitable for someone who is the type to start their own business? I mean this is quite a show to keep on the road.
It must be, I suppose … discontent among other things, or something like that, at the heart of entrepreneurs. I’ve always wanted to feel a little more content though!
Well it’s drive and ambition.
Yes, it’s drive and it’s ambition. And it’s a creative outlet, looking for new sources of excitement.
But then you have to keep it all intact, keep it all going.
Well that’s always the challenge of the entrepreneur turned manager. I mean this is a small enterprise and I’m not a serial entrepreneur as they say. This has been it for me and certainly I was not a manager when I started. I had no business background at all.
Sanding a frame part with a pneumatic sander.
Lindsay Dorr-Niro performing some fine work on a Marden frame.
Emily Joy touching up the edge of a frame.
Pneumatic sanders in the foreground. Matt Barrett carves a detail in the background.
Matt is focused on achieving a perfect miter on an inside bevel.
Ralph Fleming applying a special rubbed finish.
Only water-borne paints are used in the spray room.
Frames awaiting another coat of acrylic paint.
Many whites: warm white, pearl white, soft white, polar white.
Racks of water-based stains. There are more than 75 of them.
The Metal Room. Small welded brass and aluminum frames in the foreground.
Metal frame corners and on the wall, the scrapbook of the Metal Room guys.
Various welded corners and hardwood profiles clad in metal: copper, zinc, brass and aluminum.
A metal braising torch to the left and protective gear for the welder.
Metalworking tools hang on magnetic strips.
How old were you when you started in your own business?
I was 25. I grew up in Palo Alto and worked in bookstore as a 16-year-old in Palo Alto. A wonderful bookstore run by a wonderful man who had a wonderful business partner who had a frame shop and art supply store in the back. He sold the bookstore to a jerk so Herb, who ran the frame shop moved out on his own and he said as he was leaving, “Do you want to come with me?” and I said, “Absolutely.”
What were you learning from him?
[Laughs] Oh … a certain liveliness. He was a very spirited guy. He was lots of fun. Those of us who worked for him were the backroom boys and it was wild. Oh … we learned how to make frames but that was sort of incidental. He was the kind of guy who gave us the keys to the shop. When I was at Stanford, in finals week I would go study in Herb’s shop because it was the quietest place around.
Composition ornament isbeing mounted on a frame before gilding.
Laying gold leaf in the foreground. Burnishing it in the background.
Mary Helen O'Brien burnishing a white gold frame with an agate burnisher—as it has been done for centuries.
A leaf of white gold in a book of gold leaves.
Lifting the leaf with a gilder's tip.
Yelena Budylina burnishing a yellow gold frame. The gold leaf has been applied over red "bole", a natural clay.
Frames about to be sprayed. The slot to the left allows frames over 10' high to be moved in and out of the spray room.
Gilded frames awaiting toning and finishing.
Bless Tive cutting the miter on an aluminum profile.
Aluminum tee mouldings that have been modified for a specific frame design.
Two aluminum profiles engineered at Bark for a Richard Avedon exhibition at Gagosian Gallery.
What did you study at Stanford?
I was a pre-med student and a history major so I was all over the place. And then at the end I switched to art. So always for me it was medicine, which also meant service in a way, or art. Those were the two paths that were sort of pulling me.
Were you making art at the time?
In my senior year at Stanford I was. I made lithographs with a wonderful artist named Nathan Oliveira. And I studied sculpture with Stefan Novak.
Why did you come to New York?
To be an artist, to be a sculptor. I was considering going to Berkeley because Stefan was there and he had a great place … but it all felt so comfy – so I headed off with my welding torch. To make art was the reason I was here and the [framing] business was sort of a poor relation. It was a way to pay the rent. I worked at Bellevue Hospital for two years doing recreation work at the tuberculosis hospital. I was a conscientious objector so I had two years alternative service. Toward the end of that, I realized: I don’t want to work for anybody anymore. The one thing I knew how to do was picture framing so I started a little picture framing enterprise out of my loft.
Mindy Otten-Chen preparing to cut acrylic sheet on a Striebig panel saw.
An oversized poplar strainer with cross braces.
Brian Smith reviewing the list at the large rip saw.
Lumber for special projects: walnut, basswood, curly maple, cherry, mahogany, ash.
Juxtaposing period and material: An Italian Renaissance profile wrapped in copper sheet.
Climate control: Two devices for measuring temperature and relative humidity.
How did you set yourself apart? I mean there are picture framers everywhere.
Oh, then you mean?
Then and now.
Then, I had no idea actually how to set myself apart. I don’t think I even thought about it. The first two serious clients I had were Don Judd and Klaus Curtis.
Were they taking a chance on you?
In Don’s case it must have been a leap of faith because he had no way of knowing if I knew what I was doing in terms of preservation.
Philip Kennedy inspects backing boards.
Matthew Larson cutting an 8-ply cotton fiber window mat.
Sarah Parkel trimming tape for a corner pocket which will hold a work on paper in the frame.
A completed corner pocket of Japanese paper and Mylar—no adhesive touches the art.
Mark Minevich placing a work of art on its back mat.
Pressing an acid free blotter to a rice starch pasted paper hinge.
David Johnson installing cotton rag board spacers in a frame.
Sarah and Mark with Chris Ritter, all in various stages of hinging art works to back mats.
What do you have? I mean why are we sitting here interviewing you instead of the little guy in the frame shop down the street?
Well what happened was quite organic. I didn’t know the proper way to hinge works of art on paper so that the [works] would be safe …
Ah yes, I read that excruciatingly boring interview on your website between you and [Margaret Holben Ellis] a professor of paper conservation solely on the subject of hingeing ….
[Really laughs] As someone said to me, “Jed, that is a real nerd website.” And I said, “Thank you. Thank you. That’s what it’s supposed to be.” Anyway, I read a little bit and then I started talking to conservators. I called the Met and asked for the conservation specialists. I asked them a bunch of questions and they were very patient. Hingeing is the most risky thing you do because you actually put adhesive of some kind on the art. It can damage the art itself and it can be now or later. And it also can be impossible or very difficult to remove if it’s the wrong formulation or the wrong method. So both how it’s done and the technique and also the materials that you use are crucial … and this gets boring—fast. But this is the heart of preservation. And then I bought the books … it’s a very rich little field. The dedication and the conservation was the initial distinction.
The back of a nickel-plated brass tee profile frame.
The back of a frame. Documentation from the back of the artwork is in a clear envelope.
The staging table where the art handlers temporarily store crates.
Bark's art moving truck is loaded and unloaded inside the building behind this door.
Large artworks in storage slots.
The hallway where frames are moved from the woodshop to the preservation studio.
So you took a relatively academic approach.
I take a relatively academic approach to everything. My father is a medievalist – it’s in my blood.
That’s very interesting—the apple has not fallen far from the tree. It’s all very monk-like.
Yes, very monk-like. Back to the monks.
So when you look at a painting, does your eye immediately go to the frame first?
Actually, if I’m interested in the paintings, I’ll completely forget the frames. I just took a little jaunt to Rome and Naples and I don’t remember very many frames.
A range of archival matting materials; many are subtle variations of off-white.
A frame sample cabinet. A piece of 19th c. Italian theatre backdrop above.
Simple stem profiles Bark has been making for over 40 years.
A variety of profiles in a variety of gilding treatments.
Frame designs created for specific paintings—the one on the lower right was for a Pissarro.
A white gold frame and convex mirror. The profile is derived from the base of a Doric column.
The conservation and design library, with mirrors hand made and hand silvered at Bark.
One mirror in a frame decorated with casts of arm bones in white gold and another in a 17th c. Dutch profile.
A purple-heart tondo mirror frame and sculpture by Stefan Novak.
In the showroom an old easel with a hand carved wooden screw carriage.
The front showroom. A 1936 Alvar Aalto shelf.
Terra cotta showroom wall and aluminum and acrylic panel wall.
The design of Bark's LIC showroom and factory was by architect Michael Schmitt.
Two Bark mirrors flank a Mexican bark paper piece in the waiting room.
Stefan Novak sculpture and late 19th c. Kodak box cameras on an Ebay table.
Annie Liebovitz gave this picture to Jed Bark in 1974.
Do you still make any actual frames yourself?
I don’t. When I’m [in my country house] upstate I’ll mess around with finishes because up there I have a full woodshop. Right now I’m actually interested in mosaic panels for frames …[approaching it] by using almost paint-by-numbers books from Amazon.
So out of all the things you do, what do you like the best and what do you dread?
[Very, very long silence.] Um … I think working directly with the artists is the most exciting. Nothing can beat it. Like working with Mitch Epstein, his wonderful photographs of trees … it’s an opportunity to do something for his work that we’ve never done. I mean working with Avedon was hysterically fun. He was so energetic, inventive, demanding, mercurial and just … engaging beyond belief.
What makes your heart sink?
The only thing that makes my heart sink is when business is bad.