Greatest Commission Ever?
Irion Company fills a house with 90 of the finest pieces of American period furniture
Synopsis: It was a once-in-a-lifetime scenario. A customer who had a passion for furniture, an enormous, empty house, and the desire to fill it with reproductions of the greatest American period furniture ever built. This was the mission that Irion Company Furniture Makers took on nine years ago, and the story of how they worked with the customer to accomplish that mission is one that no lover of furniture making should miss. Read how the craftsmen worked with the client to choose the furniture, how the individual craftsmen handled the reproductions without shortcuts or compromises, and then see some of the 90-plus pieces of furniture that have been finished to date.
In 1999 Irion Company Furniture Makers, a highly regarded period shop in the rural town of Christiana, Pa., received a commission to furnish an enormous house with reproductions of the greatest American period furniture ever built.
The customer explained that he wanted to re-create the feeling he got when he saw the best furniture collections in museums. And he wanted no compromises along the way. No fudging of the dimensions, materials, construction, or detailing. Every piece should be built so it could stand beside its original like an identical twin.
In the nine years since, Irion has built and delivered 90 pieces for the job, which is now nearly finished. The roster so far includes four breakfronts, three secretaries, three high chests, 15 tables, four tall clocks, and over 30 chairs, and carries a total price tag of “probably over $2 million.” One of the most impressive pieces, the nearly 11-ft.-tall, serpentine-front HolmesEdwards bookcase, is featured on the back cover and in “How They Did It,”.
“He didn’t look like much,” remembers Kendl Monn. “He came in wearing sweatpants and there were handprints in flour on the back. He’d been baking cookies that morning.” But Kendl, who has 23 years’ experience at Irion, 15 of them at the helm of the shop, and is deeply knowledgeable— and highly excitable—on the topic of American period furniture, soon realized that he was talking to a man whose passion for furniture might rival his own.
In that first conversation, the man in sweatpants—a financier named John who covets his anonymity—showed Kendl a picture of a chair in Albert Sack’s The New Fine Points of Furniture and asked if Irion could make it. Kendl knew the chair well. A Thomas Affleck Chippendale-style dining chair with ball-and-claw feet, it had carving on its Gothic splat that merged right into carving on the crest rail, making it an extreme challenge to build.
Kendl recalls that when he gave an estimate of $5,000 for the chair, John asked him, “Why should I pay this much for a chair?” And Kendl told him, “I can’t answer that question. I could show you other chairs nearly as good that would cost a lot less to make. But if you want that chair, all I can tell you is it’s a fair price. And it’s a great chair—any cabinetmaker would give his right arm to build one in his career.” After thinking it over, John ordered 18.
Then he invited Kendl to see the newly completed house where the chairs would go.
From Fine Woodworking #198
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