Master craftsman's furniture shows that quality never goes out of style
By Victoria Fei
DOWN a nondescript lane in Pujiang Town in the Minhang District sits a plain workshop that is easy to miss. There's no signboard or fancy décor to catch the eye.
But inside, mundane turns to magnificent. The workshop is home to one of the most respected furniture makers in Shanghai.
It is the domain of Yu Zhigang, 57, chairman of Shanghai Silan Furniture Co and guardian of the fine tradition of handcrafted rosewood furniture.
"We don't do 'fashion' furniture," he explained. "We are working hard to preserve traditional craft art."
Trends come and go, but Yu's furniture remains a bedrock of enduring style and quality.
"So much furniture that was all the fashion 10 years ago is out of date today," he said. "But a design like the old-fashioned square table, or baxian zhuo, that seats eight people will endure the test of time."
It takes Yu, working alone, two or three months to finish a piece of furniture. It is a labor of love and solitude.
The secret of fine rosewood furniture lies in the polishing. Yu's workshop practices the traditional art of "separate burnishing," a craft that has been abandoned by most of the furniture industry today.
Every component of a furniture piece is polished to perfection before being assembled. This ensures a tight structure and solid connections.
Some experts in the field see a parallel between Yu's craftsmanship and that practiced in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) under the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799).
Walking into his workshop, one indeed feels a step back in time.
Absent is a lot of heavy, modern machinery. Instead, there is an array of hand tools used in carving, assembling and polishing.
Yu started his training as a carpenter at age 13, in an era when masters weren't very willing to share the secrets of their skills with apprentices who might usurp them.
"As an apprentice, I was relegated to nothing but chores - making tea and meals for my master and boiling his footbath water," Yu recalled. "It was my diligence that finally won him over and led him to teach me his skills."
Several years later, Yu befriended several old masters of the ancient art of rosewood furniture, and they also shared their knowledge and skills with him.
Once trained, Yu never left the art nor abandoned the aesthetic purity of design. He is now devoting himself to replicating delicate antique furniture.
In 2010, he held a solo exhibition at the Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts, the first of its kind in the furniture industry.
Included in the exhibition was a rosewood stand that won Yu a "Chinese Gold Metal of Crafts and Arts" and a "Shanghai Fine Crafts and Arts" award.
The piece has an interesting story behind it.
Ten years ago at the Shanghai Museum, Yu said he saw a royal stand designed by Giuseppe Castiglione, an 18th century Jesuit priest, architect and artist who came to China and was a favorite in the Qing Dynasty court. His royal stand is a national treasure and was once displayed at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.
Yu was smitten with the elegance of the piece, but he was forbidden from taking photos of it at the museum. So he used his own eye lens to record its shape, delicate carving and graceful lines.
Yu said his stand is not a duplicate of the original because he added a few flourishes of his own to the pattern.
Unfortunately, Yu said, so many of China's treasures have been pilfered and lost abroad. "What is lost cannot be retrieved," he said. "So it's important to make as many replicas as we can to save the past for future generations."
Who will carry Yu's skills into the future?
The rosewood industry has abandoned traditional handcrafts in favor of machine-made furniture.
The assembly line stuff lacks the precision and delicacy of the hand carvings that adorn authentic pieces. Those are the skills at risk of being lost.
"I hope to find a successor in Pujiang Town who will be diligent enough to learn the skills and contained enough to endure the loneliness of the work," Yu said.
"The ideal candidate needs to be like a blank sheet, without any former experience in the industry," he added. "It is much easier to build talent from a fresh start."
For the time being, Yu is carrying the banner proudly by himself. Almost 20 pieces made in the Silan workshop have been awarded national or province-level prizes.
Several international luxury brands have approached Yu about buying his workshop's creations.
It's flattering and no doubt profitable, but Yu brushed all that aside and said his only interest is the aesthetic pursuit of art and heritage preservation.