James Ipekjian didn’t set out to become an expert on reproducing the early 20thcentury furniture designed by architects Charles and Henry Greene, and he can’t really explain how he got to be where he is today.
“If there were a contest for the luckiest woodworker on the planet” he says, “I don’t know if I’d win – but I think I’d be one of the finalists.”
Today, he works alone in a comfortably cluttered but remarkably well-equipped shop located near the ultimate bungalows built by the Greenes in Pasadena, Calif. In the 1970s, Ipekjian was working as a model maker in the aerospace industry, and building projects from Popular Mechanics out of plywood in his garage. Bitten by the woodworking bug, he wondered if he could possibly make a living working with wood. A commission for an 18th-century highboy, as well as dissatisfaction with his job, led him to give it a try.
Working first in his garage, and later in a rented storefront, Ipekjian did all the work that came his way: kitchen cabinets, remodeling jobs and the occasional antique repair. His story isn’t that different from a lot of woodworkers – except that some of the remodeling and repair work was on original Greene and Greene houses and furniture. Ipekjian had the drive to get the details exactly right, and the quality and range of his work since then has attracted attention worldwide.
In the early 1980s, Ipekjian purchased property to build a 3,000-square-foot shop. Inflation and rising interest rates kept him from building for a few years, but eventually he built the shop he works in today. He moved out for a few years to a larger shop full of old machinery, but came back to his original location three years ago when the city needed his property. For the last 13 years, Ipekjian has worked almost exclusively on reproducing the work that Peter and John Hall originally made for Greene and Greene.
Some of the vintage, industrial-size machinery made the return trip to his current shop, including an Oliver sliding table saw, one of the widest jointers I’ve ever seen, and an ancient yet efficient mortiser. In a small room at the back of the shop is a fully equipped machine shop. This remnant from Ipekjian’s days as a model maker allows him to fabricate metal parts and hardware when he needs to.
Just inside the front door sit reproductions of two different Greene and Greene chairs, and the Gamble house’s entry table. “That’s my showroom,” says the soft-spoken craftsman. “Nothing fancy; I think the work speaks for itself.” I spent two days looking at original pieces by Greene and Greene before visiting Ipekjian’s shop; to say I was impressed would be a serious understatement. Except for a lack of aged patina, his reproductions were the equal of the originals down to the smallest detail.
As Ipekjian explains the details of how a drawer was made, his enthusiasm and knowledge of his work become apparent. He actually has more years of experience working on this furniture than the original makers did. The pieces he has reconstructed range from tiny jewel-like inlays and intricate light fi xtures to the timber-framed pergola of the Blacker house in Pasadena, Calif.
Ipekjian is self-taught. His earlier career gave him the ability to work precisely, and helped him to develop excellent problemsolving skills. “I enjoy the challenge of fi guring it out,” he says, “and I’m not afraid to try things I haven’t done before.”
Ipekjian has spent so much time working with original pieces and drawings that he has become adept at interpreting the original drawings of Charles Greene. Pointing to one drawing he remarks, “That’s his representation of a cloud; you can see it in other pieces.”
On the day of my visit, Ipekjian was working on a custom table that had been drawn by Greene, but never constructed. Working from a copy of an original sketch, he was carving details in the legs. “I’m not very good at predicting how long it will take to do something. For this table, I fi gured the four legs would take a day, but it’s taking me a day to do each one. This isn’t production work; each piece is a little different,” he explains.
When the Blacker house was built, there was a music cabinet in the living room that the current owners wanted reproduced. Original drawings existed, but didn’t show the details of the exteriors of the upper doors – and the whereabouts of the original was unknown. Ipekjian made his best guess, and constructed the piece. “Unfortunately,” he says matter-offactly, “a photo of the original surfaced shortly after I had this completed, and my guess was wrong. So I get to make a new pair of doors.”