A custom-made valet chair proved the perfect surprise birthday gift for a time-poor but style-conscious architect. Penelope Barker speaks with client Felicity Brown and makers Veronica Paiva and Luke Atkins of CHRISTOPHER BLANK to reveal the story behind this unique and successful project.
Felicity Brown was pondering that thorny annual problem: What to get husband Tony for his upcoming birthday. Then she had a light bulb moment.
“We have a young child, Tony works full-time as an architect and we had recently moved from inner-city Melbourne to a home further out, “ recalls Felicity. “With the longer commute, we had to be more organised! I had thought of getting him a furniture piece for his birthday of some sort that would be really special to him and recalled that my dad used to have a valet chair. Tony loves minimal, mid-century design so I started researching online to find a vintage valet chair but couldn’t find anything I wanted.”
It then occurred to Felicity that she might be able to find someone to make a valet chair for her. “At first I struggled searching the net to find furniture makers around Melbourne. Then one maker I approached said he was too busy at the time to help me but suggested I look at the Handkrafted site.”
After speaking with several makers put forward by Handkrafted, Felicity selected Veronica Paiva and Luke Atkins of CHRISTOPHER BLANK. “Their aesthetic fitted with my ideas,” says Felicity, “and they were really enthusiastic about the project.”
“This was an exciting project,” said Veronica and Luke, “as it’s not a standard piece but something different and also, it was to be a gift, so there’s a special sentiment and sense of love involved.”
“The request for a valet chair is also indicative of the trend to better dressing and the dapper style for men that is super prevalent right now.”
With each new client Veronica and Luke follow a process of introducing themselves then asking “a lot of questions! We want to know exactly what the piece needs to do. If you start with the functionality then the design grows organically from there. With a valet chair, this is even more the case as it has to be functional for a particular user.”
Following the initial discussions, Felicity drew up some sketches. “They were pretty average, however,” says Felicity. “Normally I would have asked Tony for help but of course it was all a secret!”
The key features were then firmed up such as rails for shirts and trousers, a box under the seat for cufflinks, watches and ties and a shoe rack at the bottom.
“I researched elements of mid-century modern design and details of traditional Savile Row tailoring,” says Veronica, “then drew sketches. From there, Luke took the design to the next level.”
The final piece, with an elongated back reminiscent of the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was made from recycled Australian hardwoods such as Tasmanian oak and messmate from an old house, with rails and detail plugs in English elm, a blonder timber. Details resolved from traditional men’s tailoring included the leather tab to left the seat and leather lining of the accessories box beneath it as well as the shoe rack in woven belt leather, which also references the woven webbing seating that is a common element of mid-century modern furniture design.
During the process, Luke and Veronica kept Felicity updated with photos as the piece took shape. “It was a great process,” says Felicity, “and I would definitely love to do it all again.”
“On the day, I wrapped the chair up in huge reams of paper,” says Felicity. “Tony was absolutely thrilled. He could see it was a chair but when he unwrapped it he was amazed. We have some lovely heirloom pieces from both our families and the valet chair will become a lovely heirloom piece from our own era. There are so many rip-offs of famous furniture designs these days that it’s taken the shine off collecting original mid-century pieces a bit. It really is special to have a custom-made piece.”
By Penelope Barker
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