Mission accomplished — also Chippendale, Shaker and contemporary: Willy Brown and Shelby Reynolds take on every furniture style at their shop, Morningside Woodcrafters. Brown mostly handles the antique repairs and restorations, and Reynolds is in charge of the new construction. This marks their 20th year in business together.
Well connected: The business, at 718 National Avenue, has a solid link to Lexington's past: The shop is part of a row of attached buildings that all were connected once to a bottling plant on Walton Avenue, Brown says. He and Reynolds bought the former auto repair shop in 1989 and gave it a new sense of purpose. Looking for a name, at first they considered Brown and Reynolds, "but that sounded like a tobacco company," Reynolds says. So they settled on Morningside. "On the old deeds, this part of town was labeled the 'Morningside addition.'"
All lacquered up: Stacks of wood, furniture in line for repair and a patina of dust now mostly hide any signs of the shop's former life as a garage. An aroma that is part lacquer, part lumber and part shop dog named Aspen permeates the place.
Versed in vises: Brown grew up around sandpaper and vises. His father had a cabinet shop in Lancaster, and Brown helped out after school, sweeping the floors and picking up the language of woodworking from everyone who worked there. He took over the business in 1979, but he eventually decided to move to Lexington, where most of his clients were, he says.
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Days at the museums: A self-taught craftsman, Brown says he has learned a lot from books and the pieces his customers bring to him to restore, but his on-the-job training has been supplemented with hundreds of hours logged at antiques shows and museums. "Seeing furniture in person and not flat in a picture is crucial for understanding its three-dimensionality and proportion," Brown says.
Behind the scenes: Reynolds took a different route to the business. A Lebanon native, he enjoyed furniture construction as a teen, then he majored in theater arts at Centre College. After graduation, he stayed on to work in Centre's scene shop, doing "slash and burn carpentry" that left him yearning for something of more lasting value. So he set off for the demanding Leeds Design Workshop in Massachusetts, then returned to Lexington to practice his newly honed skills. Seven years later, he and Brown joined up to start Morningside.
An award-winning stable: Reynolds on this day is at work on a bed that recycles Asian window panels for its headboard; he's shaving down the legs with a simple metal scraper, "my favorite tool." On the worktable is a stable of Eclipse awards in an unfinished state; Reynolds makes the wooden bases for the small horse statues coveted by people in the horse business. A few feet away, Brown is preparing to glue an antique table back together.
Can you use it in a sentence? Discussions at Morningside often involve words that would test any spelling-bee contestant: Ormolu: the decorative gilt bronze finish that adds luster to certain European furniture styles. Cellarette: a small 18th-century wine case, such as the one awaiting repair on the shop floor. When asked what his biggest challenge is, Brown says it's probably boulle, a French inlay technique that combines tortoise shell, ebony and brass.
Cosmetic surgery and altered pieces: Brown says they're often asked to distress new pieces to make them look old and refinish old ones to erase the effects of time and neglect. You'd never guess that the elegant polished cabinet in the "after" photo once was a crash pad for a four-legged rat pack. Or that the ornate Gothic Revival headboard in another photo was once part of a church altar. These days, painted furniture is particularly popular. "We're asked to paint over some beautiful wood," Brown says. "A few years later we'll probably be taking the paint off."
The dog ate my Biedermeier chest: Every piece of broken furniture arrives with a story — whether it's the family puppy that gnaws on a pedigreed chair leg, or the mirror that crashes to the floor at 3 a.m.: "I thought it was a gunshot!"
The month of January is filled with tales of dining-room chairs exhausted by the holidays: "Somebody sat on it, and it just gave way" is a common refrain. "I didn't do it," customers assure them.
Even sadder is when the extension slides on a dining-room table collapse, turning the turkey and trimmings into a heartbreaking lump on the carpet below.
New pieces acquire their stories after leaving the shop. Reynolds built one 6-foot by 6-foot Shaker chest and was assured by the customer — "My husband measured" — that it would fit through her doorway. It didn't.
Knock on mahogany: Reynolds and Brown say their business has been relatively unaffected by the recession. Much of their work comes from local designers and decorators whose clients are forced to narrow it down when talking of "home." The one in Lexington or Napa? The Cayman Islands or Park Avenue?
John Morris of Decoratifs collaborates with them often: "They can do anything," he says. "I've been there when they've just gotten a piece that had fallen off the back of a truck. It looked pretty hopeless. But Willy had it all back together in no time."
Do these furniture physicians make house calls? On rare occasions, Reynolds or Brown will come to the home, but mostly they leave that to Jeff Lowry, their sole employee, quasi-apprentice, and master of Aspen the shop dog.