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August Schlaak’s Exquisite Marquetry Table

Marquetry table made by August Schlaak as a Christmas present for his daughter, 1923-1929.
(Museum object #2003.78.1)

Highly-skilled craftsman August Schlaak created this intricate bureau table, a combination writing and dressing table, over a seven-year period before giving it as a Christmas present to his daughter, Ruth Fae, in 1929 when she was 14 years old. Before Schlaak gave the table to Ruth, he counted and recorded the number of pieces of wood in the table's surface decoration. He then challenged Ruth to count them as a way to keep her busy during her long recovery from spinal meningitis. Schlaak documented the total number of pieces on the underside of one of the drawers - 17,625 by his count.

As a testament to his workmanship, Schlaak's table was featured in an article in The Furniture Manufacturer in May 1930. The primary design elements include a faux table scarf and a border of faux three-dimensional cubes running across the tabletop and down each of the leaves. The faux drop leaves at each side are affixed, not hinged. All exterior surfaces are covered with geometric patterns of marquetry for which Schlaak incorporated thousands of pieces of wood from 25 different species, including birch, cherry, gum, Japanese dyewood, mahogany, maple, pecan, persimmon, and walnut.

Schlaak had always enjoyed a passion for wood and managed to turn his interest into a career. For many years he worked in a wood-planing mill and, in 1918, he joined the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin as a cabinetmaker in the wood-gluing department. According to family history, Schlaak used wood scraps from the Lab for the marquetry and his own varnish formula for the finish. He did not work from formal drawings or other reference materials.

In addition to this table, Schlaak created a number of other curious wooden artifacts including a bowling pin lamp and magazine rack, also done in marquetry. Schlaak’s complex creations reveal remarkable ability, ingenuity, and patience. He once recreated his hometown of Token Creek, Wisconsin by fashioning miniature wooden versions of the town’s buildings in the German “putz” tradition.

Posted on September 29, 2005

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