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AGED FROM SCRATCH : In Costa Mesa, wood furniture is handcrafted by artisans. Then each piece is distressed to make it look like an heirloom with a past.

March 20, 1993|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an out-of-the-way industrial park warehouse in Costa Mesa, just-built furniture is sent back in time two centuries.

Robb and Kristen Sepulveda and their staff of nearly a dozen craftsmen create tables that look as if they've been sitting in an Irish farmhouse for generations, cabinets that might have held great-grandma's wedding china and beds that early New Englanders would have crawled into on a cold winter's night.

At Taylor Bowen Industries, each piece of furniture is created individually, with costs ranging from around $300 for a pine-framed mirror to $3,000 for a large, carved armoire made of solid alder.

They start by building furniture much as it would have been centuries ago.

"Each piece of furniture is made by a team," said Robb Sepulveda, "and is bench-made. That means one craftsman will build it, and then his assistants put in drawers, crown-molding and basically finish it off. But only that one team would work on that one piece."

The pieces are built of raw pine or alder if a harder wood is more appropriate. Designs are based on American primitive, Italian country and Irish country styles or are built to match a client's specifications.

Pieces are fastened with wooden pegs, and other Old-World craftsman techniques, such as dove-tailed corners, are used. On staff is a carver who chisels in details such as leaves and flowers.

Once the piece is built, says Robb Sepulveda, the fun begins: making it look so authentically old that it would take an expert to tell the difference.

Layers of paint, finish and sealers are put on and taken off in carefully orchestrated ways to create the patina of age. Fruits, flowers, vines and other details are painted on by Sepulveda or the artist on staff.

The final step in the process is distressing the wood.

Sepulveda said it took him six months to teach someone his distressing technique. None of the scratches and gouges are applied randomly; each is put in a particular place. Scratches run contra, as if a glass were dragged across the top, while gouges run west. There are deeper gouges near the feet of the furniture, as if it had been moved and hit a lot. "There really is rhyme and reason to how we do it, and that's what gives it a look."

The Sepulvedas taught themselves the techniques they use. "We went through a lot of museums and asked a lot of questions to learn how to make the furniture look authentic," Robb Sepulveda said.

Robb Sepulveda was a home builder before he and Kristen went into the business of building and aging custom furniture two years ago.

"When the crash in that industry came, we had a spec house we were trying to sell. We wanted something different in it to help it sell and set it apart. I had seen American primitive furniture, liked it and decided to put in a couple bathroom vanities and other American country pieces in the house. That's when we really started searching for antiques, but we couldn't find anything that would fit the configuration the house needed."

Sepulveda had built up a photograph library of the kinds of furniture he wanted, but when he went to the East Coast to buy them he either couldn't find them or found prices too high. From that experience, he decided to try to make the furniture himself.

"We picked two pieces we liked and simulated them as closely as possible and put them in the house."

As interior designers came through the house, they liked his furniture so much that they asked him where he got it and where they could purchase it for themselves. And so Taylor Bowen Industries was born.

The Sepulvedas gave their company the same name as their young son, but later discovered that the Bowen name had additional significance for the business. Kristen's great grandfather, Charles Bowen van Vorst, started a furniture manufacturing business in Los Angeles in 1893.

The Sepulvedas attribute the success of their business to people's desire to personalize their homes.

"You could always go to a store and buy your furniture, but it wasn't unique. I think that's why people use things like slipcovers. They want their own fabric, their own customized look. And that's what we give them," Robb Sepulveda said.

Custom items also suit modern homes where, aesthetically, the country furniture motif is perfect but, in a practical vein, what may be needed is a shelf deep enough for a television, extra drawers for storage or a bed frame that can accommodate a king-sized mattresses.

And the furniture is a good for families because it is virtually impossible for children to damage. Scratches and blemishes just age it more. In fact, Sepulveda said, the constant waxing over of the scratches builds on the antique look.

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