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Carving a Niche : Pair’s Greene & Greene Reproductions Gaining Renown

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

James Ipekjian eschews the label of artist, insisting instead that he is a simple craftsman. But before the 42-year-old Pasadena woodworker can turn a piece of Honduran mahogany into a chair or table, he also assumes the role of scholar.

Ipekjian must scan archives, study photographs and drawings and, if he is lucky, find an original piece of furniture by architects Charles and Henry Greene from which to obtain precise measurements. Then Ipekjian reproduces their intricate designs.

“He has studied the Greenes enough that he has a sixth sense about their work,” says Randell Makinson, a professor of architecture at USC and curator and director of Pasadena’s Gamble House, built by the Greenes in 1908. About five years ago, Makinson teamed up with Ipekjian to create the James-Randell line of furniture, which features Greene & Greene reproductions.

“I am the academic and scholar, and he is the craftsman,” adds Makinson, who has written two books on the works of Greene & Greene. “But Jim is growing quickly to be a scholar as well. He has gotten very good at understanding their furniture. In many ways he has surpassed me.”

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The Ohio-born architects built a majority of their houses--and the custom-designed furniture that went with them--in Pasadena. Of the 180 or so homes they designed, about 80% were built in the city.

During the Greenes’ heyday, between 1902 and 1916, only the wealthiest people could afford their custom work.

For example, Pasadena’s Gamble House, considered one of the preeminent examples of the Craftsman style of architecture, was commissioned by David B. Gamble, an heir to the Procter & Gamble Co. fortune.

Today, similarly, Ipekjian’s clients include the rich and famous. At his vast workshop on North Fair Oaks Avenue, he recently made a few tables and a night-stand for actors Bruce Willis and Demi Moore.

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“Jim’s work is fabulous, it’s gorgeous,” says Linda Marder, the couple’s interior decorator. “I love the design of Greene & Greene furniture, but the originals are hard to find and they’re expensive.”

Indeed, the original dining room table, sideboard and chairs from the Greene & Greene-designed Robert Blacker House in Pasadena are on sale for $1.85 million at the Arts and Craft Shop in Sausalito.

In fact, all around the country, the type of furniture epitomized by the Greenes’ work is hot right now.

A sideboard that Gustav Stickley, a contemporary of the Greenes, built for himself was recently purchased by Barbra Streisand for a much-publicized $363,000. Actress Lynn Whitfield and her husband, British film director Brian Gibson, furnished their Los Angeles home with reproductions of Stickley furniture.

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Known generally as “Craftsman-style furniture,” these simple pieces are a product of the Arts and Crafts Movement, an aesthetic and philosophical reaction to the massive industrial buildup of the 19th Century.

But of all the pieces of the era, the Greenes are considered the most sophisticated in design and craftsmanship. With ebony and silver inlays and complex shapes, they are also considered the most difficult to build.

Ipekjian also designs his own furniture, and occasionally he will reproduce the works of masters besides the Greenes. Last year, for instance, Ipekjian crafted the living-room furniture--from photographs alone--for the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in Los Angeles.

But his specialty, clearly, is Greene & Greene. Ipekjian sells some small items, such as picture frames inspired by the brothers, for a couple of hundred dollars. His least expensive chair goes for about $2,000 and takes between 60 and 70 hours to make. A dining-room table can run as much as $15,000.

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Still, Ipekjian says his work is so painstaking, he could actually “make more money building cabinets” on a mass-production basis. But by matching Greene & Greene, Ipekjian says, “I get to do something that is beautiful and something that challenges me every day.”

Ipekjian first worked on a Greene & Greene residence when a friend bought the Duncan-Irwin House on Arroyo Terrace in the early 1980s. Ipekjian helped restore the home, and fell in love with the Greenes’ style.

“The more involved I am with it, the more I realize the genius of their work,” he says.

For an exhibit at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Ipekjian created an exact replica of a room that Greene & Greene had built in Pasadena for financier and banker Henry M. Robinson 86 years ago. The room contains the original dining-room furniture and chandelier built by the Greenes.

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Ipekjian and a small crew made the cabinets, wall sconces, molding, trim, doors and windows for the exhibit.

“For modern craftsmanship, his work on the design for the Robinson Room comes as close to the refined finishing and understanding of balance and form that is possible in terms of matching the work of Greene & Greene,” says Amy Meyers, the Huntington’s curator of American art. “He is a marvelous craftsman.”

Part of his inspiration comes from being in the heart of Greene & Greene territory.

“Because I live and work in Pasadena, I’ve had access to original pieces that other craftsmen have not had,” says Ipekjian, a lifelong resident of the city.

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On a recent day, covered in red sawdust from his dark brown hair to his once-white sneakers, Ipekjian gently guided a piece of wood through a band saw, showing how the machine is used to cut the curved legs of a typical Greene & Greene-style chair.

“The work the Greenes created is as good as anything that has ever been produced,” says Ipekjian, surrounded by planks of cedar, cherry, mahogany, oak and teak.

“The only way you can really learn about their work is to handle it, to see it, to touch it.”


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