Of their own making
For Anne and Martin Pierce, life is all about going against the grain. Not loudly or flamboyantly, but quietly and diligently, in a way you probably wouldn’t even notice. Unless, of course, you happened upon their three-story Spanish house, high in the hills of Beachwood Canyon.
It’s here that a hunch turns to conviction. Something is different. And suddenly you realize what. It’s the furniture, all of which looks as if it has sprouted from the floors: the walnut base of the dining table, growing toadstool-like out of the oak planks; the entertainment armoire, with its soaring shoots of carved ash that extend like a tree toward the ceiling. Even the chunky coffee-table legs seem to have roots penetrating the floor.
Together the effect is like highly refined Biedermeier furniture after a few drinks, loosened up, a few pounds heavier in the legs and tattooed in 22-karat gold leaf.
Together Anne and Martin have designed, carved, sanded, chiseled and sculpted every last piece, from the branch-backed dining chairs to the Gaudi-curving vanity in the bathroom. But the furniture is not just the product of an unleashed imagination. It’s also their livelihood. Their company, Martin Pierce Furnishings, has produced these pieces for more than a decade and has emerged as one of Los Angeles’ quirkiest success stories in the survival-of-the-fittest world of high-end, handmade furniture.
Not that Anne and Martin necessarily thought they’d end up woodworking for clients like the Four Seasons, which recently ordered 120 dining chairs for its Jackson Hole, Wyo., resort. Rather, the British couple, a pair of self-described nature-loving hippies, were simply looking to get away from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the rain during the early ‘80s. L.A. gave them sunshine -- and a chance to carve their dreams into reality.
“L.A. back then was so much more of an open market,” says Anne, sitting at home amid empty teacups on a Sunday afternoon, their only day away from the workshop. “I had given up in England, but I was able to place one of our pieces at the Pacific Design Center within weeks of arriving here.”
For Martin, who trained as a carver in England but was “mostly making things like carousel horses and cigar shop Indians,” it was a chance to step out of the apprentice’s shadow and let his imagination dictate the design.
Two decades later, the couple live in a world of their own making, a kind of Middle-earth suspended in space and time, accessed by a vertiginous flight of stairs that leads to the 2,600-square-foot home. “This is our time warp,” says Anne, with Hollywood Boulevard bustling below and the Hollywood sign a few acres above. Nearby, the rulers of planet Pierce, two amber-colored vizsla dogs, Brie and Morbier, lie sprawled on sofas and chairs with privileged abandon while jacaranda and olive trees peek in from picture windows.
But while Anne and Martin insist that home is nothing more than “a comfortable place to live that is aesthetically pleasing to us,” they are clearly a pair of home DIY wizards. The gorgeous wall colors -- spicy pumpkin in the living room, rich gold in the dining area, cool muted mint upstairs -- come from paints they mixed themselves. And silk bolster pillows they designed are in the master bedroom, which showcases one of their more recent creations, an Asian-inspired walnut bed with tusk-shaped posts and a woven reed headboard.
Room after sunlit room is filled with the fruits of their imagination, rendered in the highest grade wood, from the Japanese ash armoire that houses their plasma TV to the lighting sconce above their bed. But even though these are museum-quality pieces -- Martin signs and numbers much of his work -- there is no museum stuffiness. Rather, the 1924 home is a place where books and photos are scattered without premeditated precision and where Martin has built a sunroom for his struggling orchids.
“It’s easier to create things than find them,” says Martin of items like the walnut phone ledge under a stained glass window that is carved to complement the dining set. “We just keep making things to fit the house.”
Just as their home hangs above the smog line, away from traffic and noise, Anne and Martin also seem to exist above the fray. Unlike many in the home design business, whose definition of work includes hobnobbing over tapas, they live in a world that is generally insulated from furniture fairs and West Hollywood cocktail shindigs. After long days in the workshop, amid shrieking saws and layers of dust, the couple spend most evenings at home, practicing duets by Bach or Telemann -- Anne is learning the viola; Martin plays the cello -- or entertaining expat friends who have little to do with the design world.
Through the years, they’ve ridden recessions and stood firm against fickle trends, creating a niche all their own somewhere between renegade woodcarvers who inhabit the fringe of swap meets and furniture makers who reinvent their look with every passing fad.
“We’re difficult to peg,” says Martin. “For your average person, it’s hard for them to accept this in their home because they haven’t seen it in a setting.” Designers and clients struggle to describe the work’s organic elegance. “Rustic sophistication” and “Asian meets Craftsman” are two attempts.
“People either love the furniture right away or they don’t,” says Martin. “And if they love it, it’s immediate.” Clients of interior decorator Patrick Lynch loved it so much that they bought 17 pieces for their house, including chairs, desks, an armoire and a dining table for their condo, all of which, according to Lynch, ended up costing more than the property itself. “So much handmade furniture looks like rehashes of something that’s been done before, but Martin’s are totally unique,” says Lynch.
Martin admires the technical prowess of Craftsman architects Greene and Greene, but as for direct influences, there’s only one: nature. “We lived in a city with a wood in it,” he says of his native Worcester, a rural town about 100 miles northwest of London. “I spent more time there looking at birds than I did studying. It’s probably why I didn’t do well in school.”
All manner of creatures and plant life find their way onto the furniture, from scarab-shaped bronze drawer pulls that Martin designs to curling ferns that he paints onto screens. “I like to portray nature as realistically as possible,” says Martin, who often photographs trees and leaves, then later uses the images to guide him in gilding pieces. “Nature is imperfect, so I try to mimic it.”
Re-creating such imperfections is some of the most time-consuming work. A dining table, with its hand-carved base and precision cut detail work, takes more than two weeks to complete and sells for $12,000 in contemporary showrooms around the country.
But the couple didn’t start out selling walnut chairs for $3,000.
Martin’s first work in Los Angeles involved elaborate cabinetry jobs, and Anne, who had trained as a solicitor in England, worked by turns as a legal assistant and a real estate agent. During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Martin created highly technical, Art Nouveau-style carving for people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Herb Alpert. According to Martin, the common thread among his clients was that “they all had money.” Anne counters with, “They all had a passion for Art Nouveau.”
But during the recession of the early ‘90s, they went from having a staff of six permanent employees to none. People suddenly didn’t have the money for $50,000 worth of carved cabinets, and when things did rebound, Anne and Martin found themselves competing with run-of-the-mill craftspeople instead of European-trained woodcarvers.
The effect was a full retrenchment and a rethinking of values. It was at this point that Anne decided to pick up the chisel herself. “I was cheap labor,” she says. Martin decided that he’d no longer carve within a tradition but would create a look all his own. Together, in 1994, they decided to take a leap and see what the world would make of Martin’s designs, which, according to Anne, “he’d been mentally creating for years.”
It was also during this time that they purchased their home. Although housing prices had yet to fall, Anne says they had a “devil-may-care attitude,” ending one business, starting another and investing in real estate all at the same time. But the move did more than simply give them an address in a tony canyon. It put the Pierces back in touch with nature. “I didn’t think there’d be much wildlife in L.A.,” says Martin. “But now I tell my family in England about the coyotes and the ravens nesting in the trees.”
Today, Anne and Martin’s daily life is oriented around their craft. Six mornings a week, they load the dogs into their Toyota Camry, drive down the hill and across town to the workshop, and spend all day, with two assistants, creating pieces for the Martin Pierce collection. After years of working together, they have developed a symbiotic professional relationship: Anne devotes most of her time to the business side of the company, and Martin focuses mainly on new designs and hand-painting the furniture, although he’s quick to point out that Anne is also his mentor. “I run every new design by her,” he says. “She has a lot of influence on me.” That influence, according to Anne, is mostly to “tame his designs when they get too flamboyant.”
At home, after 10 years of remodeling and making their own furniture, Anne and Martin are almost finished. The only untouched room is the kitchen, which this year they plan to rip out. Martin is currently designing the layout, cabinets and furniture. They’re not necessarily opposed to looking at something from a catalog, or maybe even a shop, but both say their forays into buying furniture usually end in arguments.
“We can never agree on what we want,” says Martin. “The only way to please both of us is if we make it ourselves.”
To see other Pierce designs, go to www.martinpierce.com.
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From wood, a highboy
Anne and Martin Pierce’s one-of-a-kind pieces require a surgeon’s attention to detail. Here is a checklist of sorts for their highboy, which took 10 days to complete:
1. Select English brown oak for veneer, and walnut for drawers and frame.
2. Construct drawers and cabinet frame.
3. Finely sand everything.
4. Apply natural Danish oil to begin to seal the wood and to accentuate its natural color.
5. Lacquer the piece with no more than five coats of synthetic lacquer that is easy to apply and dries quickly.
6. Draw the outline of the vine and leaf motif onto wood with a pencil.
7. Using a paintbrush, fill in the lines with three or four coats of gesso to build a raised surface.
8. Sand the raised surface so that it’s smooth, and then apply gold “size,” a clear glue to which gold leaf will adhere.
9. Apply 22-karat antique gold leaf to the size. 10. Take a soft cloth and gently rub away the gold from all areas where there isn’t size.
11. With different color glazes, paint detailing on leaves for added color and depth.
12. Lacquer the painted areas.
13. Shade under parts of the leaves to give them a three-dimensional feel and to create shadow.
14. Lacquer the painted areas.
15. Flick darkly pigmented glaze to make the piece appear naturally aged.
16. Sign and number the piece.
17. Attach bronze drawer pulls.
-- Alexandria Abramian-Mott