A more polished image Home: The art of veneering takes on a new luster as consumers become more interested in furniture's decoration and complexity.

September 01, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

How did veneer get such a bad name? One of the ironies of the furniture business is that the general public considers veneered pieces to be inferior to solid-wood construction. The reality, however, is that the most beautiful, durable and expensive furniture in the world is made with this process.

So why do people sneer at veneer? It's mostly because the process of gluing thin slices of wood to a base has only been perfected in the last few decades. And unfortunately, there's still a lot of poor-quality veneer out there.

But veneered furniture may soon be getting the respect it deserves from consumers.

Consider two trends:

First, the simple virtues of solid wood furniture aren't so appealing to those ready for a little more decoration and a little more formality in their furniture.

Second, consumers are becoming more interested in what's known as "activity" on the surface of their furniture. The more complexity in the natural grain of the wood, the better. And by extension, decorative veneering techniques like inlay and marquetry are gaining popularity.

"They appear to customize a piece at a time when consumers are interested in personalized style," says Michelle Lamb, a home-furnishings trend forecaster.

Veneering and inlays, she says, offer color and texture contrasts within the same piece -- something consumers are looking for with the current importance of mix-and-matching as a design style.

Veneering is a process that dates to the Egyptians. In its modern form, a thin sheet of wood (sometimes thinner than a piece of paper) is glued to a core material such as laminated board. The process has several advantages -- and perhaps the most surprising is that it's an extremely stable way of making furniture.

"Wood has a mind of its own," says Paul Hermann, director of design at Karges, a high-end manufacturer of period furniture. (A small table from Karges can cost as much as $5,000.) "We veneer nearly every piece we make, or we have no control over expansion and contraction." Solid wood shrinks, warps or expands, depending on factors like humidity. It simply doesn't last as long as well-made veneer furniture, says Hermann.

Veneering has practical and aesthetic advantages as well as structural ones. Manufacturers can get more mileage out of exotic woods like ebony, satinwood and kingwood. Because each log is sliced so thin, it yields a great deal of veneer.

Wonderful patterns are created, depending on how the wood is sliced. Take, for example, Henredon's Splendour collection. The contemporary dining room set, made of ash burl with satinwood and yew wood inlays, uses "book-matched" veneer on its chair backs. The two pieces of veneer have been opened from a common edge like the pages of a book to create a mirror image in the grain.

Glitz and glamour

"Henredon is known for its glitz and glamour," says Paula Liggins, buyer for Royal Furniture here in Baltimore. "They get that with their veneers."

Using veneers from the same piece of wood also allows for a beautiful grain pattern to be repeated consistently on, say, the doors of a sideboard or over a large expanse like the top of a chest.

Veneer used to create an ornamental, pictorial design is called marquetry. Its origins are an Italian mosaic craft known as intarsia, which blossomed in the 15th century.

Dutch and French cabinetmakers in the 17th century developed marquetry to a fine art, while the most beautiful examples in England were created in the 18th century. Marquetry covered everything from chests to clock cases to toilet boxes.

Fashioners of marquetry had a range of colors and intricate grain patterns to work with, depending on the woods they used. They could make their flowers or birds look three-dimensional with shading, which they created by singeing the edges of wood with hot sand. (The technique is still used today.)

You'll find contemporary marquetry mostly in reproduction furniture and adaptations of period designs. Baker Furniture, for instance, produces one or two pieces in most of its collections, says director of design John Black. In its Stately Homes, one table's surface has 1,000 different pieces of marquetry. "We've used every available wood one way or another [in our collections]," says Black.

But pictorial marquetry isn't, in general, to people's taste in the late 20th century. What you are more likely to find when you shop for fine furniture is a bit -- and sometimes more than a bit -- of decorative inlay.

The high-end furniture company Councill, for instance, uses inlay in the majority of its pieces, such as its demilune table fashioned of mahogany, bands of satinwood and thin lines of ebony. Such inlay is often for accent rather than being the raison d'etre of the piece.

"The appeal of inlay," says Paul Hermann, speaking of a Karges table with inlaid cross-bands of satinwood, ebony, holly and tulipwood, "is its intricacy. It's the wonder of how you go about achieving it."

Learn the lingo

Burl: Veneer made from wood with burls in it. Burls are hemispherical growths on a tree, which yield a complex grain pattern.

Ebony: A dark tropical wood. Because of the variation in color, manufacturers sometimes use wood dyed black in their inlays to get a uniform effect.

Inlay: The setting of wood or other decorative material such as tortoise shell or mother-of-pearl into wood so that it is flush with the surface.

Intarsia: The craft of making pictorial mosaics on a solid wood background, the forerunner of marquetry. It was developed in 15th-century Siena.

Kingwood: A rich brown wood with black shading, something like rosewood. Comes from Brazil.

Marquetry: Decorative veneering, creating ornate floral bouquets, ribbons, birds and other pictorial designs.

Satinwood: A lustrous yellow-gold wood from Sri Lanka.

Veneer: Thin slices of often exotic woods glued to a substrate, or base.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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