Friday, April 7, 2017

Metamorphic Desk article in Dollhouse Miniatures magazine



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The Ferd Sobol Editions - The Metamorphic Desk
A historical replication

By Lynne Montes De Oca 
Photography © Montes De Oca & Associates

Magic is a fitting undertaking for a wizard, and The Workshop Wizard has been inspired by history in his latest edition, The Metamorphic Desk.  

Long before becoming the builder of miniature furniture, Ferd built larger things like churches and homes. In the mid-fifties, while remodeling an old house he discovered the impetus for his latest edition.  He found lath and plaster wall cavities that were neatly filled with books and stacks newspapers. This unusual make-do insulation was a virtual time capsule to the previous century.

Although local institutions requested some of the historical treasure trove, most was slated for destruction. He saved a few books and one that piqued his interest discussed veneering.  Ferd had previously considered veneers as the poor man’s solution to hiding cheaper forms of lumber, and was amazed to read that earlier civilizations cherished veneering. One noteworthy mention was that “the most beautiful desk in the world” built by master craftsman Giovanni Socci for a member of the Napoleon Bonaparte family, was made of veneered woods.


PHOTO TOP: Ferd is shown adjusting the jig prior to doweling the delicate joint.

PHOTO RIGHT: A central fan inlay accented by an Aladdin Lamp inlay adorns the letterbox

PHOTO BELOW: The central fan inlay symbolically honors delicate influences of feminine charm and graceful diplomacy, qualities possessed by Elisa. 

PHOTO ABOVE: Many who are familiar with his work know that Ferd’s jigs are the root of his magic. He spends as much or more time on the building of jigs that will then allow him to build his fine editions. Here he prepares the first of six burled panels (the patterned square in the foreground) to be added as a curved skirt to the desk by the jig seen here.

PHOTO ABOVE: With the assist of this barrel jig that holds all loose components in perfect alignment, Ferd applies a thin line of glue between the side panels and the legs of the desk.

PHOTO BELOW: Each piece is checked for quality and also against every other component to assure maximum visual compatibility. Note how a printed-paper copy of the compass inlay is temporarily used here to assist in making design decisions on a desk that due to assembly sequence requirements does not yet possess the final desktop surface.


Ferd looked to his local library for more information but found nothing. Thinking about it over the years sparked more curiosity. Then in a pure kiss from destiny, decades later while visiting world museums online, he came across a reference to the Socci family of fine furniture makers. Further exploration revealed a photo of the very desk that had stimulated his imagination for a half-century. Residing in the Louvre Museum it deserved the wonder it had aroused in him.

Dominating fine furniture in Europe from 1728 to 1878, the Socci name was cemented into history with unique pieces like this desk built in the first decade of the 1800’s. It featured the first time a mechanism in their furniture allowed movement. Charmed by their engineering, enthralled with the veneer, Ferd was infatuated, noting many similarities to his own favored design timeframe. During the Federal Period (1775-1830), for which he’s well known, furniture created before 1810 mostly referenced works by The Brothers Adam. However the final 20 years were influenced by French Empire style and inspired by neoclassicism of the Napoleonic era.  

After The French Revolution, Napoleon put members of his family upon thrones throughout Europe. But the only female given governing power was his sister Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, whom he appointed Grand Duchess of Tuscany. A strong administrator who built roads, hospitals, schools, mines and theaters, she was also a benevolent patron of the arts. Much admired for her exceptional intelligence and aesthetics, when Elisa needed a desk, there was only one craftsman worthy of the commission. Giovanni Socci outdid every marker of craftsmanship delivering “the most beautiful desk in the world”.  The historically rich provenance of this desk intrigued Ferd. The more he researched, the more he wondered if this desk could be replicated in miniature.

Although any stationary piece of furniture may be beautiful, when that piece must also transform in function via internal movements, there are numerous factors a builder must accommodate, especially in miniature scale. Precision and exactness become equally as important as proportion and beauty. To create this Metamorphic Desk, Ferd’s alter egos of Artist, Inventor and Craftsman had to all unite their diverse skillsets into a single accord to fulfill those demands. While this unification of talents has always fueled him, of his numerous editions, Ferd considers this the one that deserved and received the most from him.


PHOTO ABOVE LEFT: Measuring within thousandths of an inch Ferd checks the clearance of the small letterbox that magically appears when the sides of the desk are moved outward. Overseeing the operation is a copy of a portrait of Elisa Bonaparte Bacciochi, whose commission had Giovanni Socci build her this desk. Ferd feels that his own creation must live up to her discerning eye and refined aesthetic.

PHOTO ABOVE: Ferd holds the three-legged chair on the sliding platform. The brass foot slides within a groove cut into the lower platform allowing the chair to remain hidden until needed and then to emerge like magic from beneath the desk.

PHOTO BELOW: The upholstery of the desk uses custom created fabrics venerating the time frame and design elements of the Napoleonic Era.  Ferd and Millie are shown studying numerous different colors and patterns to evaluate how well they compliment the various inlay choices.  Millie does most of the final upholstery work bringing to it her strong aesthetic and perfectionist’s disposition.


Asked to discuss those extraordinary challenges, Ferd shared, “The moveable parts created complicated interactions needing accommodation throughout and finally proven during assembly.  I sketched schematics to verify that every repositioning of movable parts was possible. For instance the desktop is attached to a sub-top by a small raft, surrounded by an extended apron. When a rail slides this raft, all components must fluidly allow movement. Mapping it out on paper helped visualize complicated clearances that are unforgiving in miniature, becoming obstacles during actions.”

“Admittedly, multiple actions proved too complex to comprehend with schematics alone. So despite my own rule of measure twice and cut once, I took the risk of prematurely building those parts. Unfortunately only then did I discover the complicated reality and consequently tossed many flawed parts and began anew with an improved solution. Because of the movements, individual components had to be sprayed with finish prior to being adhered to one another. Lacquer thickness (.006") was considered even while wood was still being sanded.  Yet allowances needed, could never be so tight that even humidity might negatively affect their ease of motion. The movement must remain as fluid as magic.” 
When questioned, what more could a wizard ask for? The Workshop Wizard shared: “As contributor to a diverse group of collectors, I find motivation and pleasure in satisfying those who appreciate more than just an attractive collectible. When my edition also has historical significance, I’m enticed into my workshop, as though I’m being allowed the privilege of visiting, elbowing with those brilliant craftsmen who came centuries before me. When replicating their work, I’m awed by what they’ve accomplished with so little. While I’ve access to specialized glues, they used glue from hides. I accurately trim perfect measurements on a bench saw while they used hand planes. I nod in reverence to the brilliance of their accomplishments.” 

Asked what he thought Socci might think of his version, Ferd laughs, “I certainly hope he’d consider it the sincerest form of flattery, and be indulgent to limitations miniature scale imposed upon me. During the building of this edition I felt a special kinship to Giovanni Socci, and an awe of his artistry and genius, but I’m totally humbled by any comparison.”

PHOTO ABOVE: A simple edition of miniature furniture that only has to look beautiful requires numerous jigs to build. But when a piece also has to move, then the demand for jigs is multiplied exponentially. In his workshop Ferd moves from one table to the next as each is devoted to a particular stage of the building process and the specific jigs that make it possible.

PHOTO LEFT: Millie’s small adroit fingers coax the satin fabric into perfect placement on the many chairs. She loves the colorful intricate fabric designs of this edition.


Ferd’s latest edition honors the desk built for that rare highly educated woman of immense social and intellectual influence, whose historical power was not based upon monarchy or religion. Elisa’s outreach was afforded via education, social standing and her abilities to connect with those at great distances. Most of her worldly influence channeled through work done at her desk.

In tribute, Ferd used three different inlays showcasing historical significance within their designs. The Compass Point inlay symbolizes the outreach of knowledge and influence into far points of the globe.  The Circular Fan inlay hints at feminine charms of grace and diplomacy, while the elegant round of Carpathian Burl inlay nods to the intrinsic complex base of power itself.  When the desk opens the Aladdin Lamp inlay becomes visible, symbolizing illumination of thought and enlightenment of mind. 

PHOTO ABOVE: François Gérard painting of Elisa Bonaparte and her daughter.

PHOTO LEFT: As Grand Duchess of Tuscany Elisa enlarged the local mines and soon Italian quarries were shipping across Europe.  Much of the marble was employed in architectural usage like columns and richly covered floor mosaics as seen in this room box vignette. Many marble busts of Napoleon were quarried from her mines. From her desk, Elisa managed production and governed international commerce.


In his ninth decade with no signs of slowing down Ferd is in his workshop daily, still motivated by his personal mantra: Commitment to Excellence, which also is the name of his latest book.  Available online, this beautifully photographed large coffee table book explores his life, work and miniature building. His DIY projects encourage miniaturists to build along side him while polishing their own skills.

Ferd and Millie who have three daughters, consider The Metamorphic Desk as a milestone marker on their miniature journey and see it as a manifestation of the empowerment of women.  While this pinnacle edition has been on the workshop bench for the past 15 months, it has lived in Ferd’s imagination for the past 50 years as “the most beautiful desk in the world”.

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