MIKE TALKS ABOUT…
Restoring A George Nelson Desk With Respect (With a Twist)
Tell Us About This Piece
The diminutive size is the first thing you notice in this desk, which is not a child’s desk but is often mistaken as such. In everything from cars to household items, our mind is ready for classic mid-century goods to be bigger than today’s version, not smaller. It holds true here too, if you know the whole design story. This desk was created by George Nelson to be part of a “desk system” manufactured by Herman Miller. It is a smaller companion desk (to hold a typewriter or steno machine) that can roll right under the main (appropriately gigantic) desk, hence the smaller size and side wheels.
What Made It Worthy?
Anything George Nelson designed is generally worth saving, and this is a rare desk to find in any condition. Plus, being in New York City, I appreciate small footprint furniture that is sophisticated.
But right after noticing the size, the next thing you see is the fact that the top is…well, not wood. The good lines and impressive pedigree of the desk, and in fact all the other components (wood body, iconic metal drawer pulls), were juxtaposed with the dingy laminate top. It is a disappointing contrast.
Why a Laminate Top on a Designer Desk?
Today a laminate top on a George Nelson desk is a confusing mash-up of “high” and “low”, but many mid-century designers used laminates in their designs. They were exploring the world of new materials that technology was making available to them. From bending plywood to capitalizing on the strengths of steel and the versatility of resin, the possibilities were exciting, and long-entrenched paradigms of furniture building were being upended by the use of man-made materials that were affordable and "hearty."
Their innovations were mainly successful, and in certain ways these new materials certainly changed the way we live. But with the distance of a few decades, we have a more keen awareness of the limitations of (particularly) synthetic laminates. We now know that in many cases they actually aren't as durable as wood, especially from an aesthetic standpoint, as these designers hoped they would be. And it reads to our current eye like a cheap substitute for the real thing (especially when made to look like wood, as it was here).
What Did You Do First?
Honestly, this desk was in my “Projects for Later” stash for some time, partly because I hadn't decided which approach I wanted to employ in restoring the top.
To honor the original, did I need to replace the old (woefully un-renewable) laminate with a new laminate? Early on, I had begun to chip it away, which quickly revealed this to be a very tedious and labor intensive proposition. The brittle top layer of laminate came off in small jagged pieces, leaving an uneven substrate unsuitable for reapplying a new laminate, or for that matter, any new surface.
And even if I did forge through all that work, would anyone really want a Formica top on a newly restored desk? It was not an inspiring plan. Back into the “Later” cue it went.
A Good Match & A New Plan
On a recent Saturday, a woman came in to I Like Mike’s in search of a small desk. After speaking to her about her desk needs and space limitations, I realized I may have piece for her, if she was on board with waiting for my restoration.
In the time that had passed since I acquired the desk, experience had made me less inclined to get hung up on a false sense of duty to an original. I had learned that misplaced reverence for a designer piece can stop you from thinking freely about restoration solutions. I know now that (in certain cases) my duty is to bring the piece back to its best usable and aesthetic state, and not to over-sentimentalize the exact way it was in its original state. It's a good chance that George Nelson would be the first to agree that we should not hold the past in more regard than the present, at least where furniture is concerned.
It was now clear to me that the best way to restore the top was to get rid of it, and replace it with a slab of reclaimed mid-century walnut that matched the body of the desk.
I shared this idea with my customer and she was instantly enthused. Her excitement about owning this mid-century classic, but with a gorgeous vintage wood top, was exactly the inspiration I needed to move the desk into the “Projects for Now” category.
Easier Said Than Done: A Journey of Problem Solving
Separating a vintage desk top from the body is generally a matter of unscrewing some hardware. In this case, the metal legs unscrewed, but to my dismay the small solid wooden cabinet (for the 4 drawers) did not. Because of the small size and lack of any room for external brackets or hardware, the manufacturer had elected to (SOLIDLY!) glue the top to the cabinet instead.
This was a formidable snag to say the least. The only path forward required literally cutting off the top. Easier said than done since basic bench saws cold not navigate the tight turns required to effectively extricate the good from the bad. Sounds like a Seal team mission. I'm of course kidding but the best tool for the job certainly looks like something with which any verifiable 'tough guy' would like to pose: The Sawzall! Usually reserved for rough larger-scale demolition work, it was just what I needed to perform this unusually 'rough' furniture cutting task.
So, I took the desk outside and slaughtered it (going with the fore-started violent theme) in order to restore it. The laminate top and substrate had to be removed in separate pieces to 'effectively extricate' just the cabinet, which could then be further cleaned up on the table saw.
Once on the table saw, I was able to cut off the remaining u-shaped section of the top that had not yet been removed by the Sawzall, leaving a 16th of an inch (to make sure I didn’t cut into the cabinet).
At this point I was pleasantly surprised to find that this remaining layer could be chiseled and/or peeled off without any of the cabinet being removed. This was good, because if any of the cabinet was inadvertently cut away, I knew the drawers would no longer fit as they should.
The leftover nubs of dowels that had been used to secure the top to the cabinet would be helpful in lining up the new ones. But there were still some problems to be solved...
I had a piece of walnut from a larger damaged mid-century table that I had saved for this project (before I knew about this project ;). Being the same wood from the same era, it was a perfect match. It needed refinishing, but so did the drawers and cabinet, and being refinished together would make them meld even more seamlessly. Because this was being restored as a custom job, the new owner asked if the top could be a little bigger, so I cut the top to her measurements (giving the new desk a slight ((and pleasing!)) overhang the original did not have).
I opted to completely reconstruct the desk before the refinishing, because gluing requires clamping, and clamping can be rough on a finish. And I knew I wanted to utilize the same construction technique (dowels plus glue) that they had used to build the desk in the first place.
To do so, I put a spot of green paint on the top of each dowel nub then carefully and precisely placed the cabinet upside down exactly where I wanted to make the new connection, thusly marking the underside of the new top for the location to drill holes for the new dowels. Then I drilled out the nubs from the old dowels on the cabinet with a dowel jig and replaced them with new longer ones.
I first chemically stripped all the wood, and followed with a stripper removal wash (very important!). After this, I hand-sanded the wood with graduating levels of grit, starting with 150, then 180, then 220 grit, in the direction of the wood grain (not against), until I had a clean, smooth and fresh surface.
The three front edges of the cabinet had a fair amount of damage. I could have filled them with wood filler, and touched them up visually—something that I did in fact do on other areas of the cabinet and drawers—but because of the extent of damage here I made the choice to remove the battered veneer and reapply new walnut veneer (purchasable in rolls). This veneer is applied with a household iron that activates the pre-applied, heat-activated glue.
I also used this veneer to finish the four edges of the cut walnut top.
Lastly, I finished the wood with a tongue oil finish—four coats that each dried for 24 hours before the next coat was applied. I allowed the final layer to cure for 7 days before hand-rubbing it out with lemon oil, progressing from 0000 steel wool and patiently working my way up to a 4000 grit emery paper. The result is a pleasingly refined satin sheen, completely unattainable by any machine-applied finish.
Happily, the classic George Nelson hook pulls were all there and in tact, and simply needed some cleaning and polishing.
It was a pleasure to deliver this small but sophisticated George Nelson desk to its new home, firmly out of the "Projects for Later" category and into the "Gorgeous Restored Iconic Mid-Century Desks for Now" realm. With its beautiful reclaimed walnut top integrated into the rest of the impressive design, this restored desk embodies all I love about my work. In short, it's not new, it's better than new.
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