Special Finishes Enhance 'Art Quality' Furniture at Blue Raven Design

Valencia, CA-based Blue Raven Design blends functionality and art into its custom furniture line.

By Beverly Dunne

The name "Blue Raven Design" was inspired by the symbolism of the raven in folklore, said Michael Dekel, owner of the Valencia, CA, furniture shop. The raven has many associations besides the negative ones found in Western culture, he said. For example, the raven is considered a giver of life in some Native American traditions and in Jewish folklore, he added. "I was intrigued by these positive aspects of the raven.

"The fact that the raven is blue makes it unique. It is something that you would never see," he added.

With such an inspiration, the furniture Dekel creates is similarly unique. Described as "art quality furniture" by Dekel, each piece incorporates beautiful woods, special finishes and unusual designs. A special feature of this furniture is the combination of materials that make up each piece. The use of exotic woods, veneers and plywood, as well as concrete and metal, adds interest to the pieces, Dekel said.

Blue Raven Design offers more than 20 pieces in its catalog line, including tables, mirrors, bedroom sets, armoires, desks and sideboards. Since each piece is made after an order is received, changes can be made to the standard line. "Our goal is to create unique, artistic, functional pieces that have the client in mind. Once we understand what the customer wants, then we can take liberties with the design to fit his price range," Dekel said.

When price is not an issue the shop "pulls out all the stops." On these pieces, solid wood is used wherever possible, Dekel said. These pieces also feature the more exotic veneers such as lacewood, bird's-eye maple and English white sycamore, as well as solid brass decorative hardware and Blum Tandem concealed drawer slides. Pieces in his line range from an $800 Mantis end table featuring maple, plywood, poplar and glass to an $18,000 Renata entertainment center made of tiger maple, purpleheart and padauk.

Finishing is critical to achieve the "art quality" look of each piece, since an improper finish can muddy the figure of exotic woods or alter the color of stained plywood, Dekel said. The shop generally uses water-based polyurethane finishes instead of oil-based finishes because of Environ-mental Protection Agency rules. While water-based finishes take longer to dry, they produce a harder final finish, Dekel said. Also, water-based materials do not affect the color of stains, he added, whereas the amber hue of oil-based products turn red stains orange, blue stains green, etc.

The shop uses aniline dyes or universal tints to achieve color, depending on the desired look. Because aniline dye comes in powder form, an exact color can be achieved by mixing it with the proper amount of water. Furthermore, aniline dyes are perfectly transparent and absorb into the wood more deeply, producing a rich-looking color. However, aniline dyes raise the grain, so sanding and sealing is necessary, said Dekel. Universal tints are added directly to the finish, allowing the shop to color and lacquer in the same step. Difficulties arise if more than one coat is needed to achieve a certain color, because the finish loses its transparency.

Flecto Varathane finish is used for all water-based needs. At full strength it is used for topcoats; diluted by 50 percent it is used as a sanding sealer. Since the material tends to "clump up," Dekel said, it is put through a strainer, then it is applied with an HVLP gun at 30 psi.

As a final step, Minwax finishing wax is applied by hand with steel wool and rubbed with a soft cloth. Any number of coats can be used on a piece, he added. Customers can even apply the paste, using a soft rag rather than steel wool, to renew the finish.

Because of the variety of materials used in its furniture, Blue Raven Design is constantly experimenting with finishes. Black automotive paint was used on smaller areas of the Renata sideboard, for example. Oil-based finishes, because of their amber hue, are used on some bare wood. And Krylon varnish, typically used as a fixative for graphics, has been used on aluminum, since it doesn't alter the color but prevents the metal from oxidizing.

Metalwork is handled in-house. Blue Raven Design shares its 35,000-square-foot shop with a trophy manufacturer and thus has access to metalworking machinery. Having access to a CNC mill, a Charemilles wire ADM machine and other equipment opens up design possibilities, Dekel said, since he can create custom metal pieces, hinges and door pulls whenever he needs them. "While other shops may design metal pieces and farm them out, we have the luxury of having the equipment in our shop."

Machinery in the 4,000-square-foot area of the shop devoted to woodworking includes two Powermatic 10-inch table saws, a Powermatic jointer, Delta bandsaw and Hitachi chop saw. Long runs of large pieces are outsourced to a local shop, Dekel said. Because of the custom nature of the work, the shop also features a wide array of clamps, routers, jigs, fixtures and drills.

Blue Raven Design was established in 1994 when the architectural market collapsed. He had worked as an architect for seven years after receiving his degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Santa Monica. Given the opportunity to start a new business, Dekel returned to building furniture, a craft he had pursued on and off since he was 14, he said. After a few pieces were exhibited in an L.A. County gallery, interest in his furniture grew. From there, Dekel accumulated enough pieces to start a catalog line of furniture. Blue Raven Design continues to exhibit in at least one show a year.

Dekel's architectural experience has influenced his furniture designs. The use of steel and concrete, foreign to most woodworkers, are the main materials used in building construction. Other elements of Dekel's design incorporate classic furniture styles. A recent entertainment center, for example, was built after Dekel had pored over books on Shaker and Craftsman furniture. "While you can't see the influence directly, there is a certain Craftsman feel to the piece," Dekel said.

Inspiration also comes from common objects. The Mantis tables, for example, were modeled after the "grasshopper" oil pumps. The roofline of the building occupied by the shop's lumber supplier inspired the shape of the Renata sideboard.

"Sometimes you just need to look around to get inspired," Dekel said, adding that sometimes he will embark on a "shape collecting adventure."

Blue Raven Design's furniture can be found all over the country, Dekel said. From word-of-mouth referrals as well as contacts with interior designers, the shop's customer base has extended beyond Southern California to Washington, DC, New York, Iowa and Chicago. Advertising in Metropolis magazine has brought inquiries from China and the Middle East, he added. The furniture line makes up half of the company's business. The shop also works with interior designers to fabricate custom casework for residential and commercial projects.

Dekel and another furniture maker, Dennis Whittekiend, handle all of the projects. "I trust Dennis completely to take any project from start to finish," Dekel said. In the past, Dekel has employed up to six woodworkers, but has discovered that two furniture makers are sufficient. "There is not a constant stream of work in this field to guarantee work to more than one other furniture maker," he said.

To offset the instability of this market, Blue Raven Design is hoping to establish a line of custom humidors. Many humidors, Dekel said, look like jewelry boxes that have been converted to store cigars. Blue Raven's will feature ashtrays that swing out from the base of the humidor as well as concealed drawers to store cigar "paraphernalia." Prototypes, already in progress, feature Honduras mahogany, purpleheart and sycamore. Dekel estimates that a 50-cigar box would retail from $400 to $600 and a 100-cigar large box would retail from $600 to $800. Dekel added that he would eventually like the shop's focus to turn to larger runs of furniture and accessories. The shop would continue to design and develop prototypes and offer custom finishing.

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