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Furniture Maker Carves Niche in Art World : The rich and famous line up to own the detailed work of Topanga Canyon’s Tomas Braverman

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From his brook-side, tree-shaded, Mediterranean house and workshop in rustic Topanga Canyon, master furniture craftsman Tomas Braverman creates unique pieces of functional art for television stars Larry Hagman and Harry Hamlin, KABC news anchor Paul Moyer, actor Robert Wagner, “Cheers” producer Charles Burrows and numbers of affluent cognoscenti.

One prolific collector is philanthropist and art collector Max Palevsky, who characterizes Braverman’s work as evocative, rather than innovative, in the manner of a Charles Eames or other great designers. “Tom specializes in creating pieces that are reminiscent of an era. He is a master craftsman, a dying breed,” Palevsky said. “He is an authentic artisan.”

Moyer agrees. “Having a Braverman in your home is like having a Ferrari in your driveway,” he said. Although Moyer’s father died when he was 7, he said he remembers him as being artistically gifted with his hands. “I didn’t inherit any of that, but I do appreciate it,” Moyer said.

If Braverman’s clientele seems limited to the rich and famous, it is because each of his pieces is one of a kind that takes months to complete and is, therefore, expensive.

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“I did an intricately carved wine cellar door in Japanese white oak for the president of Bechtel Corporation,” Braverman said, tilting back in a chair in the almost all-wood office sanctuary at one end of his vast workshop.

“The door took four months to execute--from the beginning of the commission to delivery and installation of the completed work. It was full of swashbuckling swirls and decorative pieces. Very Renaissance Spanish. Ornate,” Braverman said.

The door cost $18,000, which the client could well afford for a unique piece of handcrafted art that will last the life of the house, Braverman said. But it is not something that just anyone could consider commissioning.

The exclusivity of Braverman’s commissioners is both a source of pride and sorrow to the man who is chiseling his way into woodworking history.

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“When you feel you have an artistic gift, you want to share it, to have it seen. The work of fine artists is in museums for people to see. The work of musicians is on tapes and discs for people to hear. Some people who are creating fine furniture in the country today are working under commission to create things for their city or state. I would like to create furniture or doors or gates for public buildings for the people of Los Angeles or California since the work that I do echoes our California heritage,” he said.

Although Braverman can create a fine dining room table in the manner popular in 18th-Century England or a 19th-Century French armoire, he is partial to Hispanic styles. “I learned my skills in Spain. I love the Spanish and Mexican idiom. It is so culturally rich and vibrant. It suits my feeling for my work,” he said.

It is work that, in spite of its creator’s fear of obscurity, has been seen by the masses much more frequently as of late.

In the 20 or so years that Braverman, 50, has been carving out a name for himself in his scenic curve in the canyon, the trendy art publications and stylized living magazines have begun beating a path to his door. First it was smaller, esoteric and limited-circulation publications, but in the past few years his doors, gates and furniture have been shown in the ultra-glossies such as Architectural Digest and Angeles.

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Braverman, who is soft-spoken and studiously courtly in his speaking-to-the-press persona, admits he is temperamental about his work.

He was displeased when one art and design magazine refused to credit a table of his that it pictured in a spread on the Robert Day house in Los Angeles. Braverman said, in disgust, that he was told it was because he didn’t advertise in the publication.

He is equally unhappy with people he considers artistic Philistines.

“There are some people who come to my workshop who do not understand what I do. What I do is not make formula doors or tables or gates with doodads,” Braverman said. “What they get when they come to me is an original piece of art, created on commission for them personally. They are buying my life and my talent and a lot of my time. If they don’t understand about that--that I want to create something of lasting beauty for them--there is no reason to talk.”

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Palevsky said Braverman’s attitude is not bravado or bad temper. “This is a very serious person. He has studied his craft and is a serious artisan. There is a touch of melancholy about Tomas, although he does get more cheerful with a drink,” Palevsky said, remembering trips to the studio.

Braverman has made more than 100 pieces of work for Palevsky, including two giant, hand-carved gates for his Malibu home. “The gates are magnificent and are aging beautifully,” Palevsky said. “I also have doors and tables and beds that Tomas has made.”

Braverman values Palevsky as a patron of his work and as a person. “He has an appreciation for what I do that is satisfying,” the craftsman said.

Moyer also appreciates what Braverman does.

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“You see this table?” the artist asked, moving his hands along the gleaming expanse of a huge refectory table of gleaming walnut on traditional English pedestals that he uses as a desk. The table is 13 feet long by 42 inches wide and is, amazingly, all of one piece.

“Paul Moyer asked me how much it would cost to build him a table like mine, and I told him between $10,500 and $15,000 depending on how much time would be involved in the styling. Later, out of curiosity, he asked me how much it would cost to build a similar table that was not all of a piece. I told him he would save $5,000, and then I began to explain why the table made of one piece was so much more valuable. He just smiled and stopped me. He knew,” Braverman said. “You see, he knew.”

He pauses for a moment, staring out a window.

“Some pieces of wood are magnificent. They are heroic,” he said, continuing. “When you begin to make something of them you must realize that you are working with material that took nature 200 or more years to create. If you are going to cut down a tree like this in order to make something out of it, what you make had better be of a value and beauty, and the person who receives the object should understand the gift.”

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Braverman is a man of simple tastes and grounded values.

“I like to work with my hands to create beauty. I like working with my wife, who does all the finish work on my pieces. I like the fact that my assistant, Ed Koda, has turned into a master furniture builder and woodworker himself during the years he has worked with me. I like living close to the land,” Braverman said.

“I feel sorry for the majority of people today who lead such alienated, compartmentalized lives. They put themselves in ecologically disastrous cars and drive to work in isolation. They spend their days on the phone talking to disembodied someones. They are alienated from the very processes that allow them to live, like farming or building their own shelter, so they have no real respect for the Earth. They buy things, like furniture, that has been mass-produced and that has no lasting value. The things they buy are disposable. Their lives become disposable. They are rootless and adrift,” Braverman said.

Abruptly, leaning forward in his chair and totally focused, Braverman’s voice took on the sound of a fist striking the table. “The poorest peasants in Spain used to have a richer life than we do because they lived closer to the land and their clothing and furniture was handmade with love.”

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The philosophy may be ingenuous, but it is not lacking in passion.

Tomas Braverman began life as Thomas, or Tom, in Los Angeles. He attended Black-Fox Military Academy, Pomona College and UCLA, before beginning a quest for artistic enlightenment that took him to Japan, where he studied pottery, and Spain, where he apprenticed with a master furniture craftsman. He adopted the Spanish version of his name, Tomas, in honor of his teacher, Antonio Rodriguez Garcia.

The fact that Braverman had never been formally introduced to either country’s language did not hold him up for long, although he said his Spanish became much more fluent than his Japanese. His Spanish fluency helped him court his wife, Kiyo Kamitono, after they met at UCLA in 1971.

Japanese was her native tongue, but her English was not well developed. But Kiyo was also fluent in Spanish because she had worked for the Brazilian airline Varig. So the young American man and Japanese woman--with nothing really in common but a foreign language and their mutual attraction--began living together shortly after meeting.

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This cohabitation shocked her relatives, she said. “They were so relieved when we quickly married,” she added. The couple now are the parents of daughter Mia, 6, and son Antonio, 5 months.

Although Braverman has evolved into a thoughtful and respected craftsman, he is not above telling stories on himself. A favorite is about his first meeting with Larry Hagman’s wife, Maj.

“She came to the workshop and we had a long discussion, many years ago. We talked about the work and designs and different periods of furniture. She knows design. She knows periods and styles. It was a good beginning, and they have ordered at least 15 pieces from me,” Braverman said, warming to his story.

“Then, when we were touring my workshop that first time, she looked at me critically and said in her Swedish accent, ‘You look very strong. I am very strong too,’ and with that she grabbed me around the middle and lifted me up.”

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As she had advised, Maj Hagman was strong.

“She broke my sternum,” Braverman said, laughing in delight. “I had to go get taped up.”

Broken bones aside, Braverman knows he leads a good life, one that’s right for him.

“I have clients who are important and famous,” the craftsman said, “and some of them have said they envy me. They see me living and working in the canyon, making things with my hands. They think it is romantic, but it is not such an easy life.

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“Some clients are not so nice, although most are. I spend a lot of time and mental energy creating pieces. The pay is not great for the hours put in. There are times I wish I did not have to work so hard,” he said.

“But, I know that I have made the right choice with my life,” Braverman said, looking out at the sun-dappled canyon. “Sometimes I wish things could be a little different. But not the work. Nothing else would have been right for me to do.”


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