DAVID Linker stands over a Louis XIV bureau Mazarin like a surgeon over a car-wreck victim. The pine body, once fit for a monseigneur's dressing room, is chipped and lusterless. The legs, detached and lying on a nearby table, suffer gouges where someone tried to remove whole panels of marquetry. That marquetry -- tortoiseshell inlaid with engraved brass, once ornate and as reflective as a mirror -- is cracked and peeling; in places it is missing altogether.
Linker shakes his head. "The restorer the owner took it to nearly butchered this thing. This is terrible; he never should have touched it. He should have said, 'This is not what I know.'"
It is what Linker knows. He is an ébéniste, a French-trained descendant-by-profession of the furniture makers for the Kings of France. Linker, though, generally doesn't build new furniture but rather specializes in restoring antique pieces. An American, he has taken on the estimable challenge of practicing ébénisterie in an era when mass production has rendered it anachronistic and in a city, New York, whose language has no word for it.
arose in the middle of the seventeenth century. It was named for ebony, an important element in the art of marquetry, in which decorative patterns are created with various materials and inlaid on a veneer of ebony or other wood. The ébénistes, who at first handled only marquetry but later acquired other skills as well, made French craftsmen the toast of Europe. Their ilk survived the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the assembly line, but at the end of the twentieth century not many of them ply their trade in Paris, much less on West 18th Street. There are other furniture restorers, of course, many of them highly skilled, but few trained for years in Paris to take their places in an ancient guild. As far as Linker knows, in fact, he is the only French-trained ébéniste in New York.
In his eighth-floor Chelsea workshop he and his assistant restore to their glory artifacts of other eras. There is a 1920s Belgian gold-and-tortoiseshell cabinet that was handed down through a Dutch Jewish family, hidden during the Second World War, and shipped to America several years ago; an 1840s Italian table that Linker found, underappreciated, at a Connecticut antique sale; and a nineteenth-century Spanish Renaissance table rescued from an Upper East Side Dumpster. There is also the bureau Mazarin (named for a seventeenth-century French cardinal), which was shipped to Linker by a client in Houston.
Linker's clients range from wealthy collectors to families with prized heirlooms, and he has restored pieces at New York's Gracie Mansion and Trinity Church. Yet in Linker's business word of mouth travels slowly. Few people realize that this kind of work is still being done, and fewer still are willing to pay for the hundreds of hours typically needed to restore a piece with the fastidious perfectionism of the ébéniste. "People today have an industrial-era mentality," Linker says. "What we do in this shop is from another era. When people hear about this, they just don't believe we exist."
WHEN Linker muses, "A created object discloses itself to us, and our workshop master taught us to read that object as we read a book," he sounds like a dubbed French film. His accent is vintage Far Rockaway, from the Queens neighborhood where he grew up in the late 1940s and 1950s. (When he speaks on the phone to Parisian friends and colleagues, as he does several times a day, he sounds simply like a French actor.) He spent much of his childhood working in his family's extensive vegetable garden and, with his brother, taking things apart and putting them back together. But his father, a Jewish immigrant from Chernovtsy, in what is now Ukraine, who owned a grocery store and later drove a taxi for twenty-five years, made it clear that the boys should become professionals. Accordingly, Linker studied French literature at City College and then headed for Paris to continue his studies at the Sorbonne. Linker had every intention of becoming a professor, but, he says, "I had a whole change of spirit when I got to France." He was struck by the skill and attitude of tradesmen of all sorts. A waiter in a café, for instance, "was not a waiter studying to be an actor, he was a waiter in a café," he says. "And he was proud of it, and he was happy." When student protests disrupted the university in 1968, Linker traveled to England, where he found housing on the Portobello Road, London's enormous outdoor antiques center. He repaired furniture to make ends meet, and after a Dutch friend introduced him to the master of a well-known furniture-making school in Holland, he began a four-year training course there. It was in Amsterdam, in the back of the school's workshop, that Linker first met people who were studying to become furniture restorers -- a line of work he had never even considered. "I knew the light had finally gone on in my brain," he says. "I saw what I had been trying to arrive at, what I somehow innately wanted to do."
Although Linker didn't know it at that time, his grandfather had been a furniture maker in Chernovtsy; indeed, the trade probably went back generations in the family. Oblivious of this heritage, Linker finished his schooling in furniture making while also completing an apprenticeship with a billiard-table maker. He then returned to Paris, where he joined the famed Cour de Varenne, a workshop specializing in the restoration of France's royal furniture. There he evolved from journeyman to ébéniste.
Content in his calling, in a country where he felt more at home than he did in Queens, Linker eventually came to run the restoration workshop of the Parisian decorator Henri Samuel. "I never wanted to come back to America," he says. But with the election of the Mitterrand government in 1981 he was unable to renew his work permit. Reluctantly he returned to New York, and established his own workshop in Brooklyn. By the late 1980s the business was flourishing under the patronage of several major clients, including John T. Dorrance Jr., who had been the chairman of the Campbell Soup Company from 1962 to 1984. Linker became the official restorer of Dorrance's estate in Pennsylvania, and last year he moved his workshop to a sunny 2,500-square-foot loft in Manhattan.