All the shelter-magazine buzz these days is about neo-Baroque, and those Louis XV chairs are a lot older than anything Charles Eames ever cooked up. If your purchases are less than pristine, they need a specialist, and Richard Moller has the best hands in town. Moller learned his craft the old-fashioned way, through apprenticeships and several years working for the French-furniture specialist Thorp Bros. and at Sotheby’s. These days, he does work for decorators like Mark Hampton and David Kleinberg. He says he likes a challenge—elaborate marquetry, gold-plated ormolu—but he’s not averse to doing a small repair for as little as $200; when possible, he’ll work on location, for a minimum of $100. Elaborate repairs, however, can soar into the thousands.
By Richard W. Stevenson
Richard R. Moller is artistically multi-talented, a man who combines diverse skills and interests to live a textured, challenging and useful life. He’s been a photographer since he was a teenager in New Jersey. He’s played the piano since he was five, and the instrument in his Pound Ridge living room is a rare 1874 Steinway.
And, for forty years Moller, 60 has been fashioning a reputation as a premier restorer of high-end and expensive period furniture. Collectors, dealers, museum curators and designers all make their ways to the Moller shop in Pound Ridge. He and Aaron Sunwall, his assistant who’s been with him seven-plus years work from a capacious shop in the basement of the Moller family home, an arrangement that makes for the easiest commute around. The shop’s proper name is Richard R. Moller, Ltd.
“I’ve been here for 20 years,” said Moller. “Back then if you said you were working from home people smiled kindly and assumed you were out of work.” Now, of course home offices and shops abound, another cultural tectonic shift in America. Moller’s wife Lorraine teaches communications at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the couple are the parents of two daughters, both of whom are dancers.
As a teenager Richard Moller worked as a photographer to finance school and then also apprenticed in the shop of a Yugoslav émigré woodworker. This man, said Moller “was incredibly gifted artistically. He was a painting restorer and a furniture repairman. He could look at a piece and get into the head of the original artist or maker”. After this exacting experience Moller signed on at Thorpe Restoration in Manhattan, a firm then pre-eminent in the restoration of continental furniture, French examples in particular.
He stayed there for six years, sharpening skills as he worked with cabinetmakers from 10 different countries. Moller recalls these many mentors fondly; they all wanted to help him but gave him slightly different advice, one from the other. The German would say, “do it this way”, the Norwegian would then correct that work and the Japanese craftsperson would have an idea different from both of them.
“They each had a slightly different style, depending on their training, their life experience ands their physical strength,” said Moller. “That’s when I realized I could go ahead and form my own personal style.”
Still in his late 20’s Moller was invited to join Sotheby’s Restoration at a time when that New York City auction house decided to make a major commitment to furniture work, offering one-stop services to its clients. Moller managed Sotheby’s cabinet shop for six years and then started his own business. Moller and Sunwall can restore most anything in the decorative arts line, but their focus is on fine antique furniture.
Sotheby’s recently auctioned an 18th century French commode in the rococo style, serpentine in shape and embellished with oriental lacquer work and elegant ormolu mounts. The piece sold for $180,000 and the buyer promptly brought the chest to the Pound Ridge shop for a bit of work and as Moller said, “It’ll be worth more when I’m finished.” The commode is signed by its maker and dated 1750, placing it in the reign of Louis XV.
To know French furniture you have to know your Louis. That’s how cognoscenti date French furniture, via the reigns of the four French monarchs named Louis who occupied the throne before the Revolution cried “off with their heads”. Louis XIII reigned from 1610 to 1643, abetted by Cardinal Richelieu. From l643 to 1715 Louis XIV ruled France, famously declaring “L’etat c’est moi”, meaning of course “I am the state”. Louis XV and his mistresses Madame Pompadour and Madame du Barry were as devoted to pleasure as they were to power. He reigned from 1715 to 1774, which was also the age of the shapely cabriole leg in furniture. The final Louis in this quartet was Louis XVI, who saw the end of the ancien regime and the beginning of a return to classicism in furniture.
During the reign of Louis XV the rococo style emerged, a style that became all the rage throughout the continent and in England and America as well. “Rococo” comes from the French “rocaille” meaning stylized rockwork or shellwork. It yielded architecture and furniture that is lighter and more playful in style than the preceding baroque. Its repertoire of shells, scrolls, vases, fronds, figures, fruit and flowers produced pleasing three-dimensional effects that translated beautifully to the large expanses of an armoire, a commode or a buffet.
Beginning in the late 17th century and right through the 18th and into the early 19th centuries the French were pre-eminent in the burgeoning field of interior design—and in the crafting of the elegant furniture and accessories that made a chateau a home. It was a period when dwellings morphed from being simple shelters into a reflection of the aspirations and attainments of an emerging middle class in the Western world—strivers who wanted to copy the already rich and the aristocratic.
The woodworkers of France were up to the job. In French an ébéniste is a cabinetmaker, an artisan who specializes in dovetailed, veneered furniture. A menuisier, on the other hand, is a joiner who fashions furniture from plain or carved wood and secures the joints with mortise, tenon, and pin.
The oriental lacquer work on the chest the Moller shop is currently refurbishing is also an integral piece of decorative arts history in Europe and America. Beginning in the 17th century Western decorative arts have frequently incorporated techniques and design elements from Asia. “Japanning” was a painting and decorating technique that evolved in imitation of oriental lacquer work, here and in England and on the continent.
In “American Painted Furniture” Dean Fales writes “The remoteness and exoticism of the Orient have always had a strong lure for the West. This influence could be direct, through Chinese porcelains; one step removed, through books and Indian calicoes; or delightfully obfuscated, through translation by English and Dutch craftsmen, whose delftware, furniture and prints were imported here from the mid 17th century on.”
As the middle class grew in this country, consumerism blossomed, and au courant consumers in the city and the country yearned for up-to-date furnishings painted and decorated in the latest styles. Some of the most famous and costly antiques in American collections today are the high chests of drawers, occasionally with matching dressing tables, that were “japanned” in the early years of the 18th century in Colonial style centers, Boston in particular.
After forty years Richard Moller obviously still loves what he does for a living. The techniques and the materials used in fine woodworking are essentially the same as they have been for centuries, a connection to history that Moller cherishes. He also likes the idea of giving old furniture new life, of restoring a fine piece to the intent of its original maker, of actually getting inside the head of a fellow adept from the 17th, 18th or 19th century, And, as his accountant said recently, “Rich, of all my clients, you’re the only one who actually makes something.”
Richard R. Moller, Ltd is located at 3881 Danbury Road in Brewster, NY. For more information call (914) 329-1531.