Gothic in Gotham
August 14, 2011 | 6:34 pm CDT
CWB May 2001


Gothic in Gotham

Craftsman Brett Stern gives a modern New York loft an ancient look with gothic revival furniture.

By Lisa Whitcomb

When craftsman and product designer Brett Stern agreed to hang a few 10-foot-tall 15th and 16th century paintings for a friend of a friend, he never dreamed it would lead to a five-year project in gothic revival. "It is a lot of fun, and I can honestly say that I have been designing and building a castle [in Manhattan]," says Stern.

Upon hanging the pictures, Stern noticed that a finial was missing from an early 19th century mirror and offered to recarve it. The owner of the loft, a comedy film writer who is an avid collector of antique gothic revival furniture, tapestries and art, agreed and was duly impressed with the fine craftsmanship of Stern's new finial.

This elegant kitchen may be decorated in the gothic revival tradition, but its functionality is definitely 21st century.

As a result, for the last five years, the owner of the two-story, 3,500-square-foot loft, which has 22-foot ceilings and overlooks the Hudson river, has been commissioning Stern to build pieces in the gothic revival tradition. "He really had no idea who I was, but it was a trust that we built up immediately. I was excited about the pieces he had and the collections he had built up," reflects Stern.

"Every time I did the research [for another project], I'd find more materials, more mouldings, more decorative elements and carvings. I would go to the owner and say something like, 'I found these great door handles,' and he would say something like, 'They're great; let's make all new doors.' Each project would just start out that way."

According to Stern, the original gothic period was in the 15th century and the gothic revival period was in the 19th century. While devoting many hours to researching, reading and studying the gothic revival period (originating around 1820 and lasting approximately 40 years), Stern noticed many similarities in what society was going through then and now, and how those changes affected people's wants and needs.

During the rebirth in the 1800s, people were experiencing the industrial revolution, similarly today we are experiencing the electronic information revolution. Likewise, societies during both eras felt that the world was becoming too modern and moving too fast, and they did not have the sense that things were being handcrafted anymore. Hence the gothic revival movement (then), and the rebirth of gothic revival now. Stern likes to call today's movement "gothic revival-revival."

With the availability of so many synthetic materials, Stern says, "It is ironic that this is where we are today. People want to have handmade items, textiles and wood in their homes; they want craftsmanship. There is a revival of craftsmanship right now, and people want [to live in] a place where they can feel comfortable and reconnect with natural materials."

Stern's affinity for gothic revival recreation continues to grow with each piece he builds for the loft. His background in invention and product design, which includes such things as his patented leakproof beverage cup lid and various orthopedic surgical instruments, has allowed for an easy transition into woodworking. He says he has had no trouble working in wood with the gothic revival motif because he was schooled in many different craft mediums, including clay, glass, metal and plastic. The only question on his mind when he initially began the project was, "How do I cut a piece of wood for gothic?"

Each project that he takes on for the loft is site-specific. Because most of the pieces are grand in size and scale, Stern must take into consideration things like transportation, weight and overall finished size. Therefore, he makes each piece in several detachable sections so they can fit into places like a tight stairwell and a small service elevator. They also must be able to clear any architectural impediments that already exist in the loft and be light enough to be carried by "a couple of guys," Stern says.

The loft has never had an overall grand design created for it. Each new piece has come about as the result of a previous job or something that has inspired the owner to continue. For example, the door handles that Stern found, led to making all new doors.

In order to keep such a large, continuous project congruous, Stern continues to apply certain design motifs, colors and patterns throughout the loft. A palette of colors, similar to ones used in stained-glass windows, are employed with accents of 22 kt gold leafing and gold paint.

Different door styles are used throughout the loft, but what ties each door together is the use of gothic revival motifs, such as the styles found in the decorative hardware shown here.

Stern is not opposed to buying pieces from other craftsman where and when it is appropriate. Such was the case when he found authentic encaustic tiles for the loft's kitchen, bathroom and fireplace. These tiles have been inlaid with colored clays (14-inch deep), which are used instead of glazing to give the tiles their design. Stern also found a manufacturer to produce the carpeting he designed for the loft, which is a majestic green with a gold grapevine pattern running throughout.

He understands the intricate processes involved in building and adding layers onto a design, and says he is continually inspired by other designers' elements and ideas, such as British architect/designer A.W. Pugin (1812-1852), who worked on prestigious historical buildings like the palace of Westminster Abbey England. However, Stern says he never copies another designers' work; instead, he adapts their ideas and creates new patterns.

Stern builds each piece of furniture alone and only hires installers to help him as needed. Each piece he builds is fabricated from either solid oak, which is stained dark or from MDF, which is painted in a polychromed format. "The MDF cuts and carves well, especially for coffered ceiling applications," he says. About 75 percent of his work is hand work, and Stern says if he can figure out how to make something himself, then he will not pay someone else to make it.

He rents his shop space as needed, and works with a lot of Porter-Cable and DeWalt portable power tools. In his rented shop space, Stern uses a Martin sliding table saw, a Bridgewood 12-inch table saw and 15-inch planer, a Tannewitz 24-inch bandsaw, a Supreme Woodworking Machinery Co. joiner and an SCMI moulder. Shop owner Phil Douglas keeps the blades sharp and the heavy-duty equipment well maintained, says Stern.

Anyone who has ever seen the Manhattan loft has likened the grandiose scale of the gothic revival motif to that of a castle's interior. Stern says he needs to take periodic breaks from doing the work because for him, doing the pieces is very intense, to the point of being obsessive-compulsive. During these breaks he returns his focuses to designing products for companies, writing, consulting and inventing.

Stern spends a total of four or five months each year working on the loft and grosses about $100,000 annually from this project.

"My client understands that I am not just building it. I am designing the pieces, doing the research and finding the materials for him," he says. "Even when I am not working on a specific project for him, I am out there looking for things that will fit into the overall theme, like the wallpaper I recently found. I don't do it because I have to, but because I think he [needs things like] wallpaper. I look for things like carpet and tile, because you just cannot walk into a home hardware chain store and find them [in the gothic revival motif]."

For all of the medieval pieces that Stern has worked on in the loft, he has never created a shop drawing. All dimensions are figured out in his head. He adds, "I don't really know [what the end result will be] until I am touching the wood, measuring it and looking at the proportions." Then, he says he envisions the final piece. Stern says that creating gothic revival pieces is not as hard as some may think. "I find it very simple. It is just basic carpentry, but you are putting more details and mouldings on it," he says.

Instead of being stained dark, this oak bookcase has become a focal point with its painted stained-glass colors and gold trim.

The cost of each piece is not easy to determine. "There is so much time, research and planning involved that it is hard to determine the cost of a project. I have to consider the materials used, the amount of overhead I will incur, the time involved in research and planning and the cost to move the final product," Stern says.

Sometimes the work is worth more than he charges because of the sheer intensity involved in each piece, he adds. "This is okay, because I know that I am creating something beautiful. I know that the client is getting something beautiful, and I know that the client is amazingly happy and appreciative of what I have done, and that is hard to quantify."

Currently Stern is finishing up a bookcase that has open and blind traceries on each side, and he is also working on another section of a quatrefoil coffered ceiling. These motifs, as well as trifoils and grape ivy, are just some of the known motifs from the gothic revival period.

Stern says he is not sure if this will be the end of the Manhattan "castle" project. But if it is, he definitely wants to continue working in the gothic revival tradition. "The pieces are so majestic that I think the moment someone looks at a piece, they can immediately appreciate the labor, the love and the discipline that went into making it," he says. Stern has found that overall, the loft project has been both rewarding and challenging.

He says, "A project has to be a challenge. I try to do a project that I haven't tried before," and adds that he initially took on the loft project because, "It was just so different, and no one else was doing it." Stern admits that he will probably never take on a project of this magnitude again. However, his future plans include designing and building one-of-a-kind gothic revival furniture pieces on a smaller scale for people who collect unique furniture. Stern is also contemplating designing a gothic-esque line of furniture that even non-collectors would enjoy.

"I am one of the lucky few, being that my avocation is my vocation," Stern adds happily.


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