A Chester County Artisan
Tucked away in one of West Chester’s narrow alleys, Rose Valley Restorations has become a destination for antique furniture in need of a new lease on life. Trained in Italy, owner John Hutchinson uses centuries-old techniques to restore the period pieces brought to his workshop.
Hutchinson is passionate about his work. “Restoration to me is a good blend of working with the brain and your hands,” he says. He feels fortunate to be working in a regional antiques center like Chester County where there’s a need and appreciation for what he does.
“We can do almost anything, but what we pride ourselves on is our finish work. We are specialists in re-creating the right finish for the right piece,” says Hutchinson, who employs one other full-time restorer. “We only use natural materials–shellac, oil and wax. Everything we do is by hand.
Hutchinson gained his appreciation for art and antiques from his father, but he learned his craft from a master furniture finisher in Florence, Italy. After graduating from Dickinson College with a degree in economics and business, he traveled to Italy where he had done a year abroad while in college. In Florence he studied at the Palazzo Spinelli Institute for Art and Restoration and then landed an apprenticeship in a finish workshop.
Hutchinson not only learned to speak Italian but also the Florentine dialect spoken by his Maestro, Piero Cianferoni. He worked on everything from Renaissance furniture to Art Deco pieces. “It was rare for an American to be an apprentice. It was a very closed trade,” he says.
As he earned his teacher’s trust, trade secrets were revealed. Hutchinson recalls: “He’d say: ‘I want you to write this down. And don’t tell anybody.’ I still have my little black book of what I learned over there and we’ve learned and modified things here.”
After three years as an apprentice, he came back to his Delaware County home in 1997 and started Rose Valley Restorations. He set up shop in a small carriage house in West Chester. Two years ago he bought a brick industrial building on Mechanics Alley and refurbished it for his growing business. The 3,000-square-foot building, which dates to 1873, has the wood shop on the ground floor and a finish room and showroom upstairs.
Rose Valley’s main focus is 18th- and 19th-century American furniture. But clients also have brought in items such as English period pieces, a carved Welsh chest or a 16th-century Spanish vestry table riddled with buckshot. Some pieces require painstaking restoration of veneer, inlay, or gold leaf. Many projects are done on-site in private homes and for historic houses such as Primitive Hall.
“Here [in the U.S.] most people don’t think of restoration until it’s truly broken,” Hutchinson says, “whereas in Europe you still have the idea of conservation. People bring their furniture in for a tune-up every five years or so.”
What is remarkable about Chester County, Hutchinson says, is how many people have managed to keep museum-quality antique furniture in their families generation after generation. He points to a set of 10 Hepplewhite chairs in the workshop that were custom built in the early 1800s and are still in use by the descendants of the original owner.
West Chester antiques collector Alan Burke says Hutchinson has earned his confidence through his work. “He not only has a great command of American furniture but he’s also very familiar with European furniture,” says Burke who, with his wife, Sarah, will chair the 2013 Chester County Antiques Show. “He’s obviously doing what he really loves. The care that he gives the work he does is very evident,” he adds.
At the Chester County Show, Hutchinson does on-the-spot repairs for dealers. Show manager Wesley Sessa says dealers indicate on the tag if there has been a problem that was repaired.
A dealer himself, Sessa says dealers in early American period furniture share a collective guideline. “We have a tolerance for imperfections from normal wear and use of the object–a chair, a desk or table–you would expect to see wear. If there’s an accident and something wonderful has a fracture, it must be restored,” he says.
Similarly, if the sun beached out one side of a chest, Sessa says, it would be appropriate to refinish that one side to match the other two sides. “It would be considered aggressive to remove the whole finish and completely refinish it. To me, that would hurt the integrity of the piece,” he says.
Sessa points out that Hutchinson is part of a uniquely skilled and talented group of local craftsmen spawned by Chester County’s furniture heritage. “John has got a skill set that he can pretty much do almost anything,” Sessa says.
When he came home from Italy, Hutchinson brought back more than just his black book of finish formulas. He had also internalized the daily rituals of the Italian culture.
“I still take time to have a nice lunch every day. I think the European lifestyle is important for sanity,” says Hutchinson, who lives in the West Chester borough with his wife, photographer Chris Staley Hutchinson, and their 9-year-old daughter, Althea.
He also shares the Italian craftsman’s approach to his work. “It’s not about punching a clock. It’s about doing the job right,” he says. “The most important thing is when it walks out that door, it’s the highest quality it can be.”
Rose Valley Restorations
219 Mechanics Alley, West Chester, Pa. 19382