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Closeup of double helix staircase

Had M.C. Escher Been a Carpenter…


A collection of model stairs gives inadvertent life to the surrealist spirit and a labyrinthine beauty.

If objects can bear some kind of spirit, those made of wood might have some of the highest. Perhaps this is because they were once part of living beings, magnanimous and silent. Or perhaps it’s because some have been hand-carved, an act which gives them a particular essence, a kind of life of its own. For centuries, French woodworkers, banded together in societies known as compaignons, have produced small wooden stairs as replicas – intended to show all of the promise of real stairs, but never put to any true use beyond an exhibition of their own grace. One of the most extensive collections of these strange models is found at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.

From the Middle Ages on down to today, French artisan and workers’ guilds have been grouped into these brotherhoods, compaignons (from the same root as the English word, “companions”). Originally, the brotherhoods were divided into five areas depending on the material with which they worked: stone, wood, metal, leather and textiles, and foods. The organization has, of course, changed in more modern times, and today there are brotherhoods of electricians, to name but one modern example.

These workmen’s societies were cloaked in mystery and ritual: they celebrated their own festivals, funeral traditions, and even had patron saints. One of their most important customs were nomadic trips to all the schools of France. They traveled and stayed for months to perfect the techniques to be taught by teachers from all the various regions. Once an apprentice became a compaignon (that is, a recognized worker), he had to produce a “masterpiece,” to show the culmination of his studies. Upon completion, the craftsman adopted a name to indicate one of his qualities and his place of origin. This resulted in charming nicknames like “Prudence of  Draguignan,” “Flower of Bagnolet,” and “Liberty of Chateauneuf.”

Woodworkers often finished their studies with models of wooden stairs. For more than 30 years, a collector named Eugene V. Thaw put together a collection of these miniatures. Measuring only a few centimeters in height, they’re made of woods like ebony, walnut and mahogany. They’re sometimes decorated with tiny railings and posts of ivory or metal. The collection includes pieces from the 18th through the 20th-centuries, and is but a sample of the skill and perfection of the master carpenters.

In their impossible delicacy, an observer today might be reminded (in some daring and anachronistic way) of the essence of surrealism or of the 20th-century artist, M.C. Escher. His stairs reached nowhere, but bear a strange resemblance to these treasures of French craftsmanship. Beyond their similarities or differences with other human expressions, or the captivating histories of those who produced them, as objects they still bear a hypnotic,quality which remains, even today, nearly implausible.

Double helix staircase Stair models in glass case


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