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ARTISANS

Modern master of an ancient art

After building one too many TV cabinets, Aaron Radelow found his calling in the world of marquetry. Patiently, he turns ordinary wood into extraordinary inlaid designs.

September 25, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

The pieces of Aaron Radelow's life don't seem as if they could fit together, but they do. He's a young guy buried in an ancient art form, spending busy days slowly creating images -- called marquetry designs -- from tiny bits of wood and applying them to furniture. It's a complex skill picked up just two years ago after he was laid off at a cabinet shop and one that collectors are willing to pay plenty for; an ebony and mahogany console table of his sold for close to $16,000.

In his Escondido workshop, Radelow, 33, listens to Bach while cutting a leaf, cube or button the size of an ant from exotic hardwoods, metals or precious materials. But when he's "lead-footing it" in his truck to the Getty Museum to see how he can re-create a priceless ivory-inlaid writing table, it's Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top at full volume, baby.

Radelow, who has passion and patience, has found his calling in an art that celebrates contrasts. In marquetry, thick planks of wood are sliced paper thin, dark-colored pieces are placed next to light ones and shapes are cut to lock into their mirror image. Positives and negatives become a whole. Marquetry appeared in Asia Minor in 350 BC, was refined in medieval Italy, blossomed in France during the reign of Louis XIV and was reinterpreted in Art Deco designs of the '20s.

Radelow finds inspiration for his furniture designs by poring over books on French marquetry, as well as the pages of Street Chopper magazine. Aluminum legs on a $12,500 Art Deco-style coffee table, now in a private collection, are curved like a motorcycle wheel.

He decided in a junior-high shop class -- after making a Danish modern glass coffee table while his classmates struggled to build crooked birdhouses -- that hands-on craftsmanship, not college, would be his ticket. He spent almost a decade working in cabinet shops, including one in Anaheim owned by author Dean Koontz. But he yearned for a challenge beyond banging out Old World-style entertainment centers.

He turned to two masters: woodcarver Ian Agrell of the School of Classical Woodcarving in Mill Valley and marqueteur Patrick Edwards at the American School of French Marquetry in San Diego. Learning the finer techniques from them, he says, "set me free to do what I want and test my boundaries." His work is displayed at the Trios Fine Arts Gallery in Solana Beach, and he's booked solid with commissions.

The furniture maker's success made it possible for him to build a one-man workshop on hilly property that's lost among citrus and avocado groves. His shop is so remote that some wealthy patrons take helicopters to check on the progress of a painstakingly long project. Those arriving by car along the wiggly country road are told to look for a Gothic gate that Radelow sculpted from heavy white oak. Gray stone griffins lurk overhead.

Past a bungalow where Radelow's pet python sleeps is a workshop, its concrete floors kept pristine. Most marquetry pieces are so small that if one were to fall onto a dirty floor, it would probably never be found and would have to be recut.

"Sometimes, it seems like an eternity working here," Radelow says as he backs away from a cutting horse known as a chevalet de marqueterie, which he made to saw intricate shapes. He positions the veneer into the blade with his left hand, pushes the blade back and forth with his right hand while his heels apply the pressure.

"I have to get up every once in a while and roll my neck around to get the cramps out," he says, peering through a magnifying visor.

One example might explain the aches of making something so small and detailed.

An image of an aristocratic gentleman that fits in Radelow's hand took 40 hours to make. It is just one of many figures to appear on a three-paneled cabinet. He traced a sketch, colored it with pencils and selected the veneers to "paint" the picture. The white wig and stockings were carved from bleached alder wood, the dark sleeves from ebony, the speckled coat from mahogany. He cut the pieces one by one with the chevalet, then assembled them with tweezers and glued them on a panel door.

"To end up with a finished, polished piece of furniture, is, ah, how can I put it?" Radelow says between long exhales. "Intense."

*

The Getty Museum has an extensive collection of marquetry furnishings. "The Making of Furniture" exhibit, opening Oct. 7, will examine the process of designing and building a French writing table during the reign of Louis XV. For more information, (310) 440-7300; for more about the table, www.getty.edu/art/collections/objects /o6157.html

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