Jonathan Burden (Re)Makes a Table
Jonathan Burden circles an aged slab of wood that is about to be sold as part of a hasty, no-frills auction in Long Island City, New York. Trained in furniture conservation, he scans the scarred underside and then slowly runs his hand back and forth over its well-worn top. “It’s probably French,” he says, his British accent giving him the air of Sherlock Holmes at a decorative arts crime scene. “It was never a door. It was never a floor. You can see underneath that there are etched indications of bases.”
From these observations, Burden closes in on a theory and then whimsically extrapolates to imagine the wood’s previous lives. “I think it was probably a work table in a kitchen, because you can see it’s been scrubbed and scrubbed,” he notes. “Maybe it was used for making pastries. It was probably in a big chateau somewhere as a work table, like in a Downton Abbey-type kitchen.” Burden emerges as the highest bidder for the wood. He will soon transform it back into a table, with the help of metalsmith John McDevitt.
“If you have a computer drawing everything for you and scaling it, you lose something there. I can do CAD drawing, but I’m not very good at it. I just draw it all by hand—plan, section, elevation. It just makes you take time. And if you think back to a hundred years ago, that’s how architects learned the trade and then became master craftsmen themselves and great designers. There was a great fusion.”John McDevitt
From a possible past in a French servants’ quarters, the wood moves from Queens to Brooklyn, home to McDevitt’s metal workshop. “What really sets John apart is that he uses solid, cold-welded steel,” says Burden. “It’s not tubes but real, solid steel and it reads as such.” McDevitt is also a British expat: born in Cheltenham, at the edge of the Costwolds, while Burden hails from Yorkshire. The two met nearly twenty years ago and now collaborate regularly on many of the striking custom pieces that sit among Biedermeier chairs, Chinese stone tables, and Italian Art Deco lamps at Burden’s eponymous Manhattan gallery, located in a former dairy warehouse.
“It’s probably French. It was never a door. It was never a floor. You can see underneath that there are etched indications of bases. I think it was probably a work table in a kitchen, because you can see it’s been scrubbed and scrubbed. Maybe it was used for making pastries. It was probably in a big chateau somewhere as a work table, like in a Downton Abbey-type kitchen.”Jonathan Burden
Burden has decided to make the wood into a low table. He envisions a clean-lined steel base and a ribbed understructure that will allow the long table to have an open bottom. “So you look at it and think, ‘Oh, that’s quite a nice base,’ but it’s not grabbing attention,” says McDevitt, who studied fine art and psychology in England. “Because it’s perfectly square, it’s not disturbing, so you concentrate on the wood.” Burden likens the design to putting the antique top on a pedestal.
A few weeks later, the table is complete—ancient wood joined with modern metal—and Burden and McDevitt go to visit it in its new home, The Apartment. They pause in front of the circular steel mirror that is another of their joint projects. “I found a similar one at another auction up in Harlem and then went right to John about manufacturing it,” says Burden. “It took us a while to figure out how to do it.” The piece has been very successful, and now they are now developing a bookshelf system that was inspired by both a Viennese Secessionist shelf and Burden’s recent inheritance of 50 boxes of books. Based on two square tubes of steel, it will have brass capitals, modular steel arms, and glass shelves.
“We’re trying to show people that you can live with antiques and also have a contemporary mirror on the wall,” says Burden. “You can have an antique tabletop on a contemporary base.” McDevitt looks down at the table and then glances around the living room. “In the end,” he observes, “it’s all a matter of proportion.”
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