Bernacki & Associates, Inc.

Conserving Form and Function
The Treatment of Antique Klismos Chairs

There are times when antiques require the attention of conservators. An interior designer or architect are often asked for a resource of whom they would feel best qualified for a particular piece.  

The striking set of antique klismos chairs were part of a collection belonging to a client of Denise Antonucci, ASID, of ASI Interiors.  She contacted Bernacki & Associates to care for the chairs. The chairs were not only beautiful to look at, but were also regularly used in her client’s home.

Mother-of-pearl is a beautiful naturally forming material that has been used as a decorative inlay for centuries. More properly known as nacre, it is a calcium and protein composite substance that is only produced by certain mollusks as an inner shell layer and is the outer layer of pearls. It is very strong and resilient due to its structure which consists of overlapping sheets of brittle aragonite separated by more elastic biopolymers. The thickness of the aragonite leads to the beautiful iridescence and structural colors that seem to change and flow as your viewing angle shifts. It has been used in the design of jewelry, decorative objects such as furniture and musical instruments, and architecture. In furniture, mother-of-pearl has mostly been applied in graceful, distinctive inlays to contrast with surrounding wood or other surrounding surfaces or as a complete overlay to add beauty to a less distinctive substrate.

The chairs are abundantly covered with organic floral forms made up of curved stems and leaves that are rendered in mother-of-pearl inlaid in a high gloss black material. Beautifully shaped three-dimensional ram heads extend downward from each end of the top seat rails. The rams heads are completely covered with intricately laid octagonal, rectangular, and rounded pieces of mother-of-pearl that form the details of the ram’s faces, including the curvy muzzles and lips. Different materials formed other features such as the nostrils, ears, eyes, and spiral shell horns.

After years of use, the chairs sustained multiple condition issues from wear and tear.

One ram’s head was completely detached compromising the surrounding decorative surface (photo below). There were missing ears, one ram horn was crushed, and there were numerous missing pieces of mother-of-pearl inlay with additional surrounding areas of de-lamination.

Detached ram's head with related damage to mother-of-pearl

Damage adjacent to the break at the ram's head attachment

After treatment

In addition to the detached head on the one chair, all four chairs had underlying structural joinery problems. Many of the joints in the underlying wood frame had become unstable and the consequent movement had caused areas of the outer decorative layer to crack and de-laminate. There were very evident previous attempts to fix the failing joinery by applying screws and nails. The caned seats had multiple breaks in the caning.

In order for the chairs to be returned to use, it was imperative that the underlying joinery be stabilized. Accessing and treating the joints with minimal damage to the decorative inlays presented a special challenge. The only way to stabilize the joints was the insertion of new dowels. It was necessary to insert the dowels in from underneath the seat rails which were not covered with mother-of-pearl and precisely angle them up into the back uprights. As the joints were filled with various previous repairs of nails and screws it was necessary to remove any that were accessible and drill through the rest. All accessible damaged or missing wood substrate was in-filled with matching wood. New dowels were inserted with water soluble protein based glue and clamped.

Unstable joinery with related loss before treatment

After treatment of compromised area

The detached rams head was reattached with a new dowel and the same glue. The missing ears and horn were recreated using sourced horn to match existing elements on the other chairs. Any de-laminating inlay on all four chairs was consolidated. Missing inlay was replaced with comparable species of mother-of- pearl. The caning on the seats was replaced. 

The treatment of utilitarian objects requires both attention to the decorative surface as well as stabilization of what lies beneath. If a piece is to be used, one must always consider the functionality of the item and ensure it is safe to do so. If only the decorative elements of a chair were stabilized, and the chair then used, further damage could be done to compromise or even cause failure of weak joints, which could lead to potential injury to the sitter. The completed treatment returned these chairs back to their original beauty, but more importantly, back to their owner to use and enjoy.