Hartford Courant Friday November 24 2006

Furniture That’s True To Its Day, Canton Craftsmen Makes Reproduction Masterpieces

By Anne Farrow

When he was 16 and growing up on a small farm in Cheshire, Peter Aleksa and his father built a barn together. His dad, “a suit-and-tie kind a guy,” was handy and always doing projects, and although Peter went on to study environmental science and marine biology, his current career probably began with that post-and-beam barn.

In the fragrant, wood-scented workshop next to his home in Canton, Aleksa crafts furniture of such quality and fidelity to history that his most recent commission is from Gracie Mansion, the New York museum that also serves as the official residence of the mayor of New York.

The commission for 24 handmade square-back Federal-style chairs, which Aleksa says he will have finished by Christmas, came through New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decorator, Jamie Drake. Drake saw two Federal mahogany chairs-one two centuries old and the other a 2 year old copy by Aleksa, and he was convinced.

“Peter’s reproduction was perfect,” says Diana M. Carroll, curator and assistant director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy. “These chairs will be located in the dinning room of Gracie Mansion, which is part of the original 1799 house.”

Aleksa, who is 34 and started his business, Cherry Brook Woodworks, just a few years ago, is low-key, and because it surprises him still, he mentions that the whole commission was sealed quickly, ”with just two phone conversations!”

If you saw the two chairs, though, you wouldn’t be surprised.

They are identical in shape, color, stress marks and style- two chairs made by hand, two centuries apart, and indistinguishable.

It is almost eerie. Aleksa looks at them and smiles, before resting his hand on the back of the chair he made.

Though he works in every furniture period and does repair and restoration work for antique dealers and collectors, his love is making ornate furniture of the Federal period.

“It is a challenge to make. I think it’s pretty,” he says.

One of these very pretty challenges sits on a dolly in his workshop. Modeled on a Federal dressing table made by Boston furniture maker Thomas Seymour between 1805-1810, the piece is fashioned from mahogany and bird’s-eye maple.

Aleksa used ebony, holly and an African mahogany called sapelle for the extensive wooden inlay on the dressing table.

It took him hundreds of hours to make, and he is asking $20,000.

Because he understands the technology of furniture making, he is able to work from photographs.

After college and a few years in a marine lab run by Cornell, Aleksa says he knew he wanted to do something trade-related and “was making a whole lot of dust in my basement making reproduction furniture.”

He studied cabinet and furniture-making at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, a prestigious craft school founded 125 years ago, and in 2002, he and his wife, Maile, a speech therapist in the West Hartford schools, bought a small farm house in Canton. A cinderblock structure in complete disrepair stood just a few steps from the back door, and Aleksa began overhauling it right away. Though three walls are still cinderblock, the rest of the structure is a red barn, brightly lit and filled with the tools of Aleksa’s trade, shelves of books on antique furniture, and lengths of wood.

He uses a lot of mahogany because furniture makers of the 18th and 19th century did as well. He hand-selects this wood from a supplier in Enfield and buys other woods online and from New England sources.

“All the work that I do is traditional mortise-and –tenon,” Aleksa explains, pulling out from the bins various pieces of the Gracie Mansion chairs and showing how they fit together. For every project, he first makes a full-scale drawing of the object, then builds a full-size wooden template.

“When you are making 24, you don’t make a mistake.”

Curator Carroll says Aleksa’s chairs are part of ongoing preservation and maintenance efforts at the mansion, one of the oldest surviving wood structures in Manhattan.

In his workshop, Aleksa keeps a notebook of large color photographs of his projects, including an 18th century Connecticut cherry dressing table, a 20th century armoire in maple and bird’s-eye maple with an ebony inlay, and a ball-and-claw foot Chippendale canopy bed.

There’s a picture in the book of the Newport block-front tall case clock he made as a thank-you gift to his parents for sending him to the North Bennet Street School. He had asked them what they would like as a gift, and he made them something that keeps time, and is timeless.