To the trade: Furniture restorer Michael Keith is into details

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Photo: Christian Hommel Photo: Christian Hommel

Do you respect wood? Michael Keith does. A master of old-world craftsmanship, Keith is a furniture maker and restorer of the highest mark. Passionate about the details and intent on preserving the original integrity of antiques, his is an art based upon labored hours in his workshop/studio.

Your first exposure to old-world craftsmanship occurred when you were a young boy and your mom got you a summer job. Exactly how did this happen and what did you learn that summer that got you hooked on the trade?
My grandfather collected antiques and so did my mum. During one summer holiday, my younger brother broke an arm chair and I helped carry it into the local restorer’s. That’s when my mum asked whether it could be repaired, and also if there was a summer job available for her son. To my surprise, she was referring to me. As any British apprentice will know, the first thing I learned that summer was how to make a strong cup of tea in a mug, known in the trade as a “mug o’ splosh.” I learned an appreciation for the physical work of restoration and also the detail to it; the skill level and the attention to detail as well as appreciating the actual pieces for the workmanship that went into creating them.

What is your favorite era in furniture and why? What kinds of pieces do you surround yourself with at home?
I don’t have a specific favorite era. I would say I have an overall appreciation of wood, craftsmanship, and the design element in furniture. When I first started working I was taken with some fancy, exotic rosewood pieces, including a Chippendale library breakfront bookcase, which filled the entire restoration shop that I apprenticed in, and a Regency breakfast table with lion paw feet that my grandfather had; amazing veneer and great carving. Then I moved onto more country-style oak pieces with a little mahogany cross banding for decorative detail and contrast. At home today, we have that rosewood breakfast table of my grandfather’s, and my mum’s French elm armoire, mixed in with a few tables I designed and built.

Your motto sites a “painstaking attention to detail” when restoring old pieces or recreating historically accurate replicates. Would you call yourself a perfectionist? How does this play itself out within your process?
Yeah, I suppose so. What I have learned over the years is that all the small details worked into a piece, if done well, take time and thought and although they are not often seen, you do pick up on them. I know this from restoring pieces. You get to see what works and what doesn’t work. You get to see it evolve. One of the pieces I worked on was a secretary that had been veneered and book-matched in flame mahogany so it had a very distinctive grain pattern that had been applied to the whole piece; like wallpapering even the switch plates on a wall. So to match the missing and broken pieces takes painstaking patience and attention to detail. You need to be somewhat of a perfectionist to get that right otherwise you see the repair from two miles away. With pieces like that I like to use historically accurate materials, too. It’s another detail that really makes a difference in the overall value and integrity of the piece.

How would you describe your overall design aesthetic in a few words?
I like to design furniture that showcases the raw material and the joinery. My designs are influenced by antiques, but are focused more on clean lines and functionality. In the execution of the piece, when I look back at it, I can see a simplified version of an antique. My intention is that they’ll fit in well in a home with primarily antiques, as well as in a more modern setting.

What’s your least favorite type of furniture design?
There’s a look to some pieces that I just don’t like, and it can be found in any era; a clunkyness that feels unbalanced is my least favorite quality in furniture design.

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