Cabinetmakers rarely attempt a bombe vitrine due to the difficulty of producing the sculpted forms involved, but when they do the design possibilities extend far beyond what can be achieved with flat and single-bent forms. Furniture shapes of double curvature such as bombe chests were and still are produced using wood carving techniques, but bending glass to a double-curvature form and fitting it to wood is rarely if ever attempted in contemporary woodworking.
This display cabinet measures approximately 24 x 30 x 60 inches. Made of claro walnut (native to California) and slumped glass, it has three flat 1/4" plate glass shelves, dimming halogen lights in the top, locking door, and one drawer (not locking) in the base. Lites (panes of glass) are true-divided (the tree branches separate the panes with wood), with several dozen total separate panes of bent glass installed. The piece was made between 1994 and 1999.
'Bombe' is a French term which simply means rounded, 'vitrine' comes from the latin 'vitrum', for glass.
My intent with this piece was to create an organic form unconstrained by the limitations of ordinary woodworking, to make something that looked like it was about to get up and walk away. In order to do so I had to use very difficult and inconvenient methods. Most woodworking bears the earmarks of convenience- which is to say that woodworkers design pieces with straight lines and flat surfaces because their tools make those shapes far easier and faster than they make curves and bulges. I was growing tired of designing pieces around the limited capabilities of my tools, with straight pieces of wood and maybe a simple curve here and there. So I designed a piece as I wanted to without regard to convenience of tooling, and then went to the lengths necessary to acheive what I had designed. If you want to learn more about the technical challenge involved, go to this article on my site.
Photo credit Bruce Ashley, Santa Cruz CA.
|Note that the glass in this piece is spherical in shape, that is, it is bent in two directions, both up and down and side to side (so-called 'double bent'). This makes the piece highly unusual. Most display cabinets use flat glass, and many use single bent glass which is bent one direction but not the other. Such single-bent glass is cylindrical, and is straight in one direction, usually up and down. The wood frames required to hold glass that is double bent as in this cabinet are far more difficult to produce than wood frames that hold flat or single bent glass, thus cabinets of this design type are very rare.|
Historical precedents for this kind of work include pieces produced by French cabinetmaker Francois Linke in the late 19th century. Linke was famous for his sculpted and highly ornate pieces, such as a bombe vitrine which may be seen at Jan's Antiques. The extremely detailed and frivolous furniture of that period utilized natural forms without regard to efficiency and cost.
Gustav Stickley and the Craftsman movement of the early 20th century eschewed such flamboyant and expensive design, and rightly called for more practical design that was elegant but affordable by most people. Since then most furniture design has used efficient methods incorporating rectangular forms, and the excesses of the past are frowned upon. But did they throw out the baby with the bathwater? Is there a place in cabinet design for natural form which is not fancifully self-indulgent? Should all cabinet design be constrained by efficient technique? Is craft less artful when it depends upon efficient technique? Should production time and expense limit art?
In contemporary woodworking, I have not seen or heard of any other examples of this kind of work, though it's possible some may exist. I believe that my piece is highly unique in artistic concept, if not entirely original in engineering design. I doubt you will find anything like it available anywhere, with the exception of rare antiques such as Linke's work, which are not done in a contemporary style.
The techniques involved in making this cabinet were highly time consuming, and I took my time in order to do the best job I possibly could. In all, the piece took about 1350 hours to complete over a period of about 5 years. That's equal to 2/3 of a year of full time work.
Technical woodworking info: Joinery at the four corners of each of the five main frames that constitute the upper cabinet is lapped tenons (which are spherical like the frames), glued with urea formaldehyde glue. Curved bars (branches) are joined by cope and stick and polyurethane glue, then re-inforced with epoxy and cloth in the rabbets (entirely hidden by glazing putty). Four of the main frames are butt-glued to each other with dividers between using aliphatic glue, and the fifth frame is removeable. This door sits on pins at the bottom and is locked at the top. The upper frame assembly is screwed to the flat table top. Flat table top has two floating panels in a mitered frame glued with splines. The four legs of the base are joined to the rails with standard carcass mortise and tenon joinery, the short rails at the drawer are joined with mortise and tenon and dovetail joints. Drawer is dovetailed.
The finish is orange shellac with paste wax. The door is one of the smaller curved side panels and lifts off with no hinges. It locks securely in place with a standard extruded brass cabinet lock and key. Four halogen lights are mounted in the top four corners of the case, with transformer and dimmer mounted under the table top next to the drawer.
|The glass is GNA (German New Antique), which is not an antique glass, but rather a contemporary machine rolled glass with slight but noticably visible striations in the glass making it appear antique. Putty is used to hold all the glass in the frames, is colored dark brown to match the walnut, and is visible inside the cabinet. I slumped the glass myself with a kiln and refractory-cement form which I made.|