Niermann Weeks marries high technology to antique styling with grace, precision

April 12, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Annapolis -- In the workshops of Niermann Weeks, tables, chairs, lanterns, consoles, beds, sconces, chests, chandeliers and planters are poised in an orderly jumble, like time travelers arrested briefly between the distant past and the near future.

The objects are made of wood or metal, most with painted finishes. Some are reproduced with eerie exactitude from the antique originals; some are graceful adaptations; some are pure imagination. Some are very complex, such as a painted-metal etagere with faux marble shelves and cast-resin curlicued supports. Some are starkly simple, such as a wood half-circle console with no decoration but its beautiful, slightly battered, finish.

But all of them have a common vocabulary -- striking lines; subtle, tactile finishes; subdued color; careful detail, a certain soigne sleekness -- that speaks of both ancient history and modern technology.

"We like simple things that have a patina to them, or a character to them, but they're not usually real involved, or real elaborate," says Joe Niermann, who oversees the woodworking, casting and painting operations in new facilities in an Annapolis business park. He points out a visitor's chair in front of his desk. It is stately, somewhat square of line, painted cream and gilt -- though much of the gilding is "worn away," showing the red ground below.

"This is a copy of an 18th-century Italian armchair," he says. "And I first saw it in pieces years ago, and I just loved it. It didn't have a seat in it, and the arms were off and the back was broken and the legs were all chewed away -- I've got it in a box, in the other room, it's so fragile it looks like something from Tut's tomb --

there are worm holes in it, there are patches. . . . It's a simple chair really, very elegant, nice, quiet styling. . . . But there is something appealing about it, isn't there?"

Role of craftsmanship

"There's something that just kind of hits you" about an old object, says Mike Weeks, who presides over the firm's foundry operations in a nondescript building on the waterfront in downtown Annapolis. Craftsmanship plays a big role, for him, in the desirability of an object. "It's the way it was made back then. You look at it and think, 'This was definitely made by a person who really knew what they were doing.' "

If the approbation of such major designers as John Saladino, Mario Buatta and Hugh Newell Jacobsen is any clue, the same might be said of Niermann Weeks.

Mr. Niermann and Mr. Weeks met in Memphis, Tenn., where both were involved in restoration work. Both have art backgrounds, though Mr. Niermann once massaged numbers for an insurance firm, and Mr. Weeks, after a stint in the Peace Corps, worked as curator for the National Ornamental Metal Museum. Then Mr. Niermann, whose specialty is painted finishes, took some metal restoration work to Mr. Weeks, and a partnership was born.

Early objects were metal tables. "We became known in real short order as a metal coffee table firm," Mr. Niermann says. Then they began showing their work at furniture markets in Dallas and Washington, and designers began taking notice. They moved to Annapolis about nine years ago to be closer to their East Coast clients.

Today the firm's work has a variety of sources, aimed at a variety of markets.

They still locate and reproduce old objects -- an 18th century French chair in wood, a Venetian mirror, an early 18th century tole lantern -- but they also work for some of the country's most noted designers, turning out sleek metal-work chairs for Hugh Newell Jacobsen, a swirly, Regency-style plant stand for Mario Buatta, and 10-foot-tall galvanized steel palm trees (a variation on their popular tole palms) and a table whose top is an old clock face, complete with hands, for John Saladino.

They adapt ideas they like from old objects -- a Russian chair they redesigned to make it more comfortable, a cabinet painted with designs from an antique Chinese screen -- and they also create entirely new objects, straight from imagination -- an intriguing chandelier of interlocked spheres, a graceful tole plant stand with legs like a TV tower and a top made of little painted aprons of steel.

And they do custom work for people who know exactly what they want and can't get it anywhere else -- a pair of tiny occasional tables with faintly Gothic lines, a set of star sconces exactly 9 inches across.

Painstaking finishes

Virtually all the metal work is made of steel; finishes of "bronze" or "brass" or "gold" or "rust" are painstakingly painted on. All the techniques are based on "how things were done in the past," Mr. Niermann says. "The finishes are designed from the bottom up," in the same way that successive years would have added layers to an old object. "Once you have those techniques, you can use them on new furniture."

The process can be daunting to the uninitiated.

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