This journal entry celebrates one of those rare moments when serendipity has remarkable timing. I was staying with the Stephenson clan in New York City before Tamara and I traveled to Europe to cover the Heimtextil trade fair in Frankfurt, and Miason & Objet and Deco Off in Paris when her son Miles, a budding writer, read this piece he wrote for his high school journalism class about a desk in his living room.
The minute he finished his recitation, I asked if he would allow us to publish it on the Bruce Andrews Design Journal because it echoes our point of view that high-quality furniture enters an interior destined to be one of tomorrow’s heirlooms. Happily, for our Journal readers, he said yes!
This special piece of furniture has a presidential history, which he describes so refreshingly. I look forward to watching this talented young man develop as a writer—whether he traverses the path toward journalism or authorship (or both)! Without further ado, here is Miles’ Stephenson’s quest to find out details about a very special desk:
The Desk of a President
By Miles Stephenson
It may be peculiar to entertain the idea that an object—particularly an object in the home—can have a life as complex as a person. But for many historical objects of the world, this comparison is appropriate. In place of genetics and an upbringing, an object can exhibit varying characteristics of craftsmanship and maintenance; and while a person can express a history rich with stories and experiences, an object can carry scars and markings of the places it has traveled or attributes that embody its place of origin—a character of its own built into its form.
When I first ran with this idea, I knew I had to find an object in my home with a significant life—an object that effected and interacted with important people or events. A stapler in a middle-school classroom, although a helpful tool, will certainly have a mundane existence as it is passed from kid to kid to staple geometry packets. A 19th-century desk, on the other hand, could have seen some historical events, especially when that desk was owned and used by the 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon—a figure as controversial as he was powerful.
And there it was—sitting in my living room beneath dog-eared magazines and scribbled notebooks, a desk where the leader of the free world wrote and deliberated about some of the planet’s most pressing issues of the early seventies. But how did it wind up here? Who built the desk and what series of events led it from Nixon’s possession to my living room? I had to get to the bottom of it.
Not Just Any Desk
First, I talked to my father, Randal Stephenson, about how and when he procured the piece. “Your mother and I bought it at an auction in the city in 1992,” he told me. “It was an estate sale for Richard Nixon, specifically the contents of his Saddle River, New Jersey home, where he spent the last thirteen years of his life. The company we bought it from was Tepper Galleries at their auction house at 110 East 25th Street.” And there it was: my first lead, with the place of interest in my very city! You can imagine then, how disappointed I was to discover Tepper Galleries had closed in 2010.
In a New York Times article by Eve M. Kahn, Tepper Galleries was reported to have, “folded quietly, without much of a public goodbye,” perhaps due to financial failure. The article goes on to say that Tepper’s owners, Kenneth Hutter and Max Drazen, failed to return their client’s calls and then suddenly packed up the gallery and left for destinations unknown. The situation remains a bit of a mystery among the interior design industry to this day. The company is now Hutter Auction Galleries on 631 West 27th Street.
If I couldn’t track it from the auction house, I’d have to go to the manufacturer. But after examining the leather-topped mahogany writing desk from every angle with a flashlight and magnifying glass, I found no identifying marks or serial numbers. Fortunately, I had the help of my mother, Tamara Stephenson. It just so happens that she is an interior designer and connoisseur of antique decorative arts, and she can identify many pieces of furniture made in the last couple of centuries.
First, we looked at the joinery of the piece. The legs, bound by dovetail joints, were a good sign that the table was made by hand, not machine. Our inclination was further supported by the fact that the piece was missing exact symmetry, only achievable by machines after the 1860s. Short of carbon dating the table, we effectively determined its vintage and place of origin. “With attributes of the colonial style in the distinctive inlaid leather top, straight frame legs, and hand hammered brass hardware, it’s fair to say this piece was made in England in the 1800s,” my mom explained. “Furthermore, the desk is missing some of the distinctive features of some popular styles, such as the claw-foot legs of Chippendale or the Georgian accouterments from popular 18th-century cabinetmaker Sheraton.”
Next, we examined the hues and hardness of the wood, and determined that the craftsman had most likely used West Indian mahogany, a species often found on islands in the Caribbean where British cabinetmakers were sent to harvest the richest and most beautiful woods during this era. After collecting sufficient evidence, we concluded that the desk was made by Gillows of Lancaster & London Furniture, a company founded by Robert Gillows in 1730.
I visited Gillows’ antique furniture section at the domain OnlineGalleries.com and found a similar table marketed as an “Early 19th Century Six Drawer Writing Table,” with an inlaid leather top priced at 18,800 British Pounds Sterling. In addition to being one of the leading cabinet makers of their time, Gillows & Co. was famous for its simplicity and ruggedness, making high quality, sturdy desks specifically for the utilitarian purposes of high-ranking military or government officials. I wonder if this robust heritage could be what attracted Richard Nixon to the desk in the first place.
Just as a person, the desk has seen the wearing of time. In many places, the oiled Caribbean mahogany is worn and the brass-work is tarnished. There is even a wormhole in the leather top, a testament to its longevity, or perhaps a stint it endured hidden away in an attic or cellar. While some see these as blemishes, antique and history buffs see these attributes as a reflection of character. This desk has seen everything from the industrial boom of 19th-century England to a president’s private meetings, and for that, it has rich stories to tell.
This post, The Desk of a President, © Bruce Andrews Design and Miles Stephenson, all rights reserved. Our furniture is now available through Nandina Home in Aiken, SC; Jalan Jalan in Miami, FL; Travis & Company in ADAC in Atlanta; and the Ellouise Abbott showroom in Dallas, TX. We will soon be showing in the Ellouise Abbott showroom in Houston and in the Michael-Cleary showroom in Chicago, IL.