Story and photos by Martin Burgoyne
My wife and I have always admired The Kiss, arguably Gustav Klimt’s greatest masterpiece. It was painted by the Austrian artist in 1907–8 and is thought to depict him with his life-long lover Emile Floge.
On holiday in Japan in 2014, I came across a small three dimension sculpture of The Kiss in the shop of the Open Air sculpture park in Hakone. While looking at the small sculpture I had the idea that with so many straight lines, rectangles and circles, all-be-it small, it might just be possible to do a marquetry version. The seed of an idea was sown.
Back home I looked at a book on Klimt’s work that I had bought my wife several years earlier, and yes I decide a marquetry version of The Kiss was possible. Never one for just doing a marquetry picture, I needed something to put it on. The idea of a special box was born.
While The Kiss could go on the lid of the box, the marquetry panel had to be big enough so that the scaled down fine detail it included could actually be made! This dictated the size of the box. So with The Kiss on the lid, what about the sides?
In my wife’s book I found pictures of Klimt’s working drawings for another of his famous works, The Fulfilment mosaic of the Stoclet Palace frieze. The frieze was commissioned by a wealthy Belgian Banker, Adolphe Stoclet, and was to adorn the walls of the dining room in his ‘Palace’. The actual frieze is 14 meters long, and around 2 meters tall and was done in collaboration with the Vienna Workshop of the Viennese Secessionists movement around 1905/6. The full size frieze is made of marble and inlaid with copper, silver, corals, and semi-precious stones.
Always enjoying a challenge it looked just possible, with some modifications to take account of the reduction in size, to turn his drawings into marquetry panels for the sides of the box.
The main marquetry problem I could foresee was cutting out the Tree of Life which forms the back ground for most of the frieze. I certainly couldn’t contemplate cutting the tree out by hand. It would take a very long continuous saw cut and would be too fragile to handle. But could it be cut using laser technology? Discussions with my friend, Len Starkie, who had a CNC laser cutter/engraver suggested it could be done.
I painstakingly traced the Tree of Life into the computer to provide Len with a Microsoft Word drawing file, that he could convert with Coral Draw into a vector file for his laser machine. With Lens help it worked first time, and with the hole in the back ground veneer cut, we re-calibrated the laser to cut the actual tree slightly larger to take up the kerf of the laser. So I had the basic two parts of the Tree of Life for the front and sides of the box. I must add at this point that the basic tree were the only parts cut with the laser, everything else - all the flowers, buds, leaves, rose bushes, figures, birds, and butterflies were cut out entirely by hand!
The main elements of the frieze represented on the box are: The Tree of life which wraps around the front and sides of the box, with Rose bushes on each side panel. The Dancing Girl, representing Waiting, left front. The Embrace representing Fulfilment, right front.
The Knight, an abstract design taken from the back wall of the Stoclet’s dining room, is on the rear of the box. The Dancing Girl and The Embrace motifs are repeated on the interior of the box. The outside of the box with its marquetry designs and use of light coloured veneers is a change from the usual dark figured burl veneers often found on boxes. The marquetry is built from 0.7mm veneer and was done with a mix of fret saw stack cutting, knife cut window method, and finally some inlaying once the panels had been glued to the marine ply substrate.
The usually natural and coloured veneers have been enhanced with the addition of very small oyster veneers, note The Embrace, abalone shell, brass beads, and jewellery findings inlayed into the panels.
The complex interior design concept, and the way it opens was inspired by Victorian dressing boxes made in the 1880’s. George Betjemann & Sons, patented a complex mechanical design that allowed their boxes of similar style to open automatically as the lid was raised, with the compartmented sections cantilevering out. This was a step too far for me, so mine requires you to open the different sections manually!!
Interestingly George Betjemann was the great grandfather of Sir John Betjemann who was poet Laureate from 1972 to 1984. Betjemann workshop was in Islington London and they retailed there boxes through the luxury shops in the fashionable West End.
In my box lifting the lid reveals a 50 note, Sankyo three tune musical movement. Either side of this are two small removable treasure chest. In front are the usual lift out earing and ring trays. Lowering the front of the box enables the two top compartments to be rotated out at 90 degrees. Underneath these are secret tray compartments hidden underneath their false bases.
Opening the catch on the two lower sections, enables these to be rotated out at right angles as well. The top two trays can then be rotate a further 90 degrees. These are locked in place via small brass catches engaging with screw heads on the sides of the main box. Access to the drawers in these lower sections is achieved by raising the knob on the sliders at the back of their trays. This brings rare-earth magnets into opposition with others in the back of the drawers, which ‘pushes’ the drawers out.
With the box is fully open, five rear drawers are exposed and a tray in the floor. Knobs to open these interior drawers was a problem! With everything folding up, normal small knobs would get in the way. So I used a variety of mini dolls house knobs, and then my own ‘drop knobs’ made from glass beads and drop earrings.
Removing the floor tray reveals a false floor, under which are two gold sovereign - well actually $2 coin trays! With these trays removed and the false bottom supports, access is gained to three small secret drawers hidden in the back of the box.
To give a flat side to the main box, free from the usual hinge knuckles, I used barrel hinges, for the four swing out compartments. These were difficult to fit and align, and could have done with being larger, but gave the clean flat exterior that I wanted.
The whole box is made from veneered marine ply, with solid jarrah drawers, and trays. The four swing out compartments were made separately and then screwed to the sides of the box.
While I wanted to have a light colored interior, once made, I decided it was too light and a bit boring. So I inlayed small version of the main images from the outside, onto the largest plain interior surfaces.
I then developed a square motif of abalone shell and yellow and blue veneer, to enhance the drawer fronts and the rest of the interior. These complement the handmade yellow and blue bandings around the edges of the box.
The velvet inside the lid has a ‘textured’ pattern, similar to the Victorian boxes. This was an idea I had been wanting to try for a few years. It was achieved using ‘Magic fabric’.
This ‘Magic Fabric’ material is first sewn onto the back of an oversized piece of velvet, and then the pattern required is sewn through the velvet and ‘Magic Fabric’. This was squares in my case, but you could do diamonds, triangles or whatever. Once the sewing was done the velvet was ironed with a hot iron, which causes the ‘Magic Fabric’ to shrink and so form the pattern – neat!!
My wife sometimes complains that we have nowhere to put my creations, hence I generally make small things and often given them to relatives or friends. When I started Klimt on a Box she suggested that I sell it! However once finished she decided that it was her's and that she would find room for it!
Having been inspired by Klimts work, my next project, another music box, will have his other famous work on the lid - Woman in Gold.
Martin Burgoyne lives in Jarrahdale, WA. He taught woodwork and design technology for over 20 years in the UK, before retiring. In AWR#85 he wrote about the making of his curiosity cabinet, Ancient and Modern.