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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Arloa Perez, Furniture Decorator

Arloa Perez dipped the wadded up cheesecloth in a paint mixture, made a quick swipe of the cloth down one side of a white lacquered frame, then her three middle fingertips were quickly drawn the length of the frame through the wet paint, pressed and raised, pressed and raised.

Mrs. Perez was not indulging in finger painting. As supervisor of the decorating department of the Baker Furniture Co., in Grand Rapids, she had been demonstrating how the company’s fine furniture is decorated with paintbrushes and fingers.

Her demonstration samples vary from the fingertip pattern that resembled D’jerbian cane to one with the look of petrified woodcuttings, interposed with faux tortoiseshell-like insertions.

Mrs. Perez rose rapidly after joining Baker as a hand decorator. Within a year she was named supervisor of its entire decorating department, which included forty artists. The department covered two floors and was divided into two divisions: fantasy decorating, which incorporates all of the trompe l’oeil work, and the floral, chinoiserie, gesso, and gold leaf decorating.

Among the artists were three called “sprayers,” who specialize in lacquering furniture, and three who were experts in the tedious job of painting narrow gold lines on furniture. Everyone, however, tries to do some fineline striping every day. “You have to, to stay in practice,” She explains.

Patience is one of the main attributes of an artist who decorates furniture. The other is the ability to take criticism. “It’s the only way to learn and improve,” she said. “You have to do it over, wipe it out, and start again.”

Mrs. Perez is a working supervisor. She said she doesn’t ask any artist to use a technique that she herself has not perfected. To keep her hand in she decorates each of the initial pieces issued in a new collection of Baker furniture. They are placed on display in the Baker showrooms in High Point, N.C.

Baker Furniture artists were working nine-hour days, and half days on Saturdays in 1982. The heavy work schedule was part of an effort to ready a grouping of 33 pieces of furniture included in the Baker Stately Homes of England and Scotland Collection for its showroom in London, 11 showrooms in the United States, and stores across the country that carry the Baker line.

For those who would like to try to duplicate Mrs. Perez’s design on a lacquered frame, the paint solution she uses was a mixture of clear glaze, Japan color, and a  “dash of plain or boiled linseed oil, and turpentine.” To simulate tortoiseshell markings, dip a very small paint brush (No.1 size) in naphtha, and let drops of the chemical fall on to the paint glaze, while it is still wet.

An exact reproduction of an ornate chair was included in the King Tut exhibition. The original was in the British Museum. Seven weeks of work were required to complete work on one of the chairs–from “white stock (the base piece of furniture before it is decorated) to shipping carton.”

It takes a worker 40 hours to carve the back of the chair and 45 more hours are involved in the gold-leaf work. The chair is finished with lacquer, which fills the wood and gives it greater durability. Eight months after it was introduced 100 of the chairs had been sold at about $6,600 apiece.

Excerpted from an article in the Toledo Blade, by Elizabeth Alden, September 17, 1982 when Arloa Perez was demonstrating her art in Toledo.




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