The art of craft

March 1, 1996 § Leave a comment

After Greene & Greene | Paul Pacak

San Francisco woodworker Paul Pacak — who will be spotlighted in March in a solo exhibition of furniture he designed and built — learned from the best: the master craftsmen of the Arts & Crafts movement at the turn of the century.

It’s not that he’s been around that long. Rather, Pacak, 39, has been inside the heart and soul of the more than 1,000 pieces of Arts & Crafts furniture he has restored in the past decade. He is known for his expert restoration of significant pieces in major collections, including those of such celebrities as conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and actors Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis.

“As I worked on more significant Arts & Crafts pieces and learned more about furniture, I began to understand the subtle differences between good, better and best,” says Pacak. “One aspect of the furniture that especially fascinated me was the finishes, particularly Gustav Stickley’s.”

As his interest grew, Pacak set out to “crack the recipe” for the finishes that gave the furniture of Stickley, Limbert and others its special character. His success has been highly acclaimed.

“The pieces you’ve refinished for us are now some of our best,” Arts & Crafts collector and film producer Bill Couturie wrote Pacak. “I don’t think there are many people out there that look at them and think ‘refinished.’ In fact, the pieces have been improved by your work.”

Joinery detail | Paul Pacak

While Pacak has occasionally crafted a new piece to meet the needs of a collector, his furniture-making is not widely known. The upcoming exhibition will be one of the few times his original designs have been publicly shown.

“Ideas come from everywhere,” he says. “I remember doing a double-take in a store window only to see that what I thought I saw was far more exciting than what was really there. Ideas tend to originate that way.”

He prefers to let a new design emerge, working simply from an idea and not from drawings. Without the limitations that can come from detailed drawings, the piece can find its own character — and often ends up with little resemblance to the original idea.

“Years ago, I recall someone saying, ‘Tradition without innovation is stagnation, while innovation without tradition is frivolous.’ I think that’s profound — and quite true,” Pacak says. “I consider that quote often and believe its message may be the key to longevity in this endeavor. Time must be set aside to follow through on a promising idea.”

Pacak acknowledges that the construction of a complicated new design can be grueling and financially risky, especially when a piece is being built on speculation.

“I’ve compared the process to taking a cold shower while tearing up $20 bills,” he says with his typically sardonic humor. “But accomplishing a unique piece of furniture that captures the attention and moves people in some way is its own reward.”

The exhibition of furniture he designed and built demonstrates an astonishingly wide range. From a hand-carved clawfoot on a colonial table to the fire-engine red detail on the back of his post-modern side chair, Pacak’s designs span across time.

But there is one constant in Pacak’s work: All of the pieces, whatever the design, are built in accordance with the highest principles of craftsmanship. A basic honesty and integrity of design and construction are the hallmark of his work.

Pacak finds the renewed interest in fine hand-crafted furniture a positive development. “We seem to be locked into a craftsman revival period that is helping develop a new appreciation for handcraftsmanship and the decorative arts,” he says. As a student of the past and a collector of antiques himself, he predicts the movement away from trendy, throwaway designs and toward unique, beautiful furniture will produce furniture that will last a lifetime and beyond — and some of the most sought after collectibles of the 21st century.

“There is every reason to assume that the best of these new designs will be among the most sought after collectibles of the 21st century,” Pacak says.

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