Back in 1961, Peter was given a gift by his mother, the money to buy a dining room set for his apartment. At Bloomingdale’s Department Store, there was a display of reproduction medieval Spanish furniture. Peter observed that the construction was solid basic carpentry, similar to the boat building he had been doing over the previous decade. So, instead of buying the dining table, he bought tools and pine lumber. With these, he built a bed frame, a headboard, a radiator-air conditioner-book cabinet, a kitchen island, wall shelves, four chairs, and… a dining table! Friends were enthralled by the work and said he should do it for a living. Three years later, Peter Asher Furniture was born. The shop was located on East 9th Street (the “East Village”) in New York City. When Peter and I met in 1966, it had expanded to a double storefront with a showroom in front and a huge shop in the back. Very soon, I was running the showroom and we lived upstairs, with an intercom between home and shop.
The style of Peter’s handmade furniture began as something similar to the antique Spanish furniture he had seen at Bloomingdales, but it evolved into something quite different. We labeled it “medieval-modern” and an artist friend called it “precision crudeness.” The edges resembled the result of the action, over time, of water on stone or of centuries of use (like tables in old European restaurants). This effect was created by first routing the edges, then disk sanding, and finally hand sanding. (There was a great deal of hand-sanding!)
The first wood Peter used was eastern sugar pine and ponderosa, usually stained dark and finished with wax. Later, the finish was changed to Minwax Antique Oil Finish, which was essentially linseed oil with a Japanese hardener. He discovered that each coat could be hand-buffed in the tacky stage, thus driving the finish into the wood grain while avoiding sanding between coats. Later, he also made furniture from unstained hardwoods (maple, oak, walnut, cherry, teak, poplar, and birch). The hardwood finish included a first coat of heated linseed oil, which stayed moist for several hours soaking into the wood. This process created a semi-transparent surface that literally turned the wood grain into an art form.
In the mid seventies, when the East Village degraded to a not-safe-for-family neighborhood, our small family moved to California. We built furniture in Malibu, Concord, Marin County (where we had a shop in Mill Valley’s Old Brown Store), and finally Bolinas.
Experimenting with finishes, we had discovered that nothing seemed to rub out a finish to the proper shine and smoothness like the skin of our hands. After moving to sunny California, we accelerated the process by drying the finish in the sun. Over the years, I did more and more of the finishing and wanted to spare my hands, so I experimented with tack cloths made by soaking pure cotton sheeting in Minwax Antique Oil Finish and hanging it on the clothesline to partially dry. This method was second-best, but less toxic.
Our last adventure in furniture-building was for the offices of an oilman in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Palm beach Florida. The wood-and-leather set included a huge boomerang-shaped desk, a glass conference table, a couch, a desk chair and side chairs. One of the most exciting moments of that time was delivering the first set to San Francisco airport, to be put into the belly of a passenger airline, to be rushed to Florida.
We still have the old wood and leather patterns. Sometimes we daydream about building furniture again.