Repair, restore, reconfigure: The gifted artisans in Joe Biunno’s Manhattan workshop could probably put even Humpty Dumpty together again.
If you’re driving behind me, watch out,” Joe Biunno warns me with an affable grin. “I brake for garage sales—I never miss a chance to go foraging.” Like his father and grandfather before him, Biunno is an artisan who has spent his life enhancing furniture. Like them, he loves his work. And so, even after 34 years as a sought-after magician who rescues and repairs precious and pricey (or at least, beloved) furniture, he still gets excited whenever he spots potential bounty for sale on a stranger’s lawn. He is always eager to snap up oddball supplies, wacky stuff, and even less-than-priceless furniture, just for the sake of its hardware—whatever his instinct tells him will someday help salvage a needy armoire or chest of drawers. (An ornate doorknob or period hinge may be stored in his Manhattan workshop for years. Suddenly a bombé chest will appear in his workroom just crying out for that 19th-century brass gewgaw he found upstate.)
Biunno picked up his feel for the profession by osmosis. At 9 years old he began sweeping the floor in his grandfather’s atelier, where the specialty was faux finishes. “What I know, I didn’t read in a book,” he says. “I gained my skills by working in this industry and by learning from talented artists in the field.”
And he is masterly. He will tackle tricky “renovation” jobs that others turn away, like changing the size of an antique bed to accommodate a modern mattress and box spring. He describes a Victorian, English-style mahogany bed that had very intricate rails and an “incredibly veneered” headboard and footboard, all of which had raised panels and moldings. Refitting this bed to queen size ultimately cost $8,000. But “when it was done,” Biunno declares, “you could not even tell that it had been retrofitted.”
He points to a mid- to late-19th-century dresser, also mahogany, that he will soon turn into a bathroom vanity with a bowl-style sink on top. This conversion (which will cost about $3,000) will require (a) lopping off the top drawers to lower the piece, (b) covering the top of the dresser with a new slab of stone, (c) reconfiguring the interior of the second tier of drawers to house the appropriate plumbing, and (d) refinishing and polishing the wood. Given Biunno’s expertise, this vanity is likely to turn out looking as if it had been crafted this way 200 years ago.
Another valuable piece (worth approximately $10,000), now sitting in several sections on the workshop floor, is a 150-year-old American linen press that had toppled over and was subsequently mangled. Now it has a mashed door, broken hinges, fractured wood, and disconnected parts. Still, Biunno predicts, this piece, with its elegant dovetail drawer joints and painstaking workmanship, can be repaired and will be “accident-proof” when he finishes putting it back together.
But alterations are just one type of work the atelier takes on. Customers seeking straightforward repair work also flock to Biunno. “The day after Thanksgiving is like Christmas for us here,” he notes. “The phone does not stop ringing, and all the calls are from people who have had chair mishaps over the Thanksgiving holidays and who all need their chairs fixed in time for Christmas.” The most common repair (comprising as much as 75 percent of the shop’s traditional repair work) is the back rails of chairs. “Look at this exquisite crotch mahogany,” he rhapsodizes, pulling over a graceful Victorian-style, upholstered dining chair with a seriously broken back rail. “It’s so handsomely bookmatched,” he goes on, pointing to the symmetry of the wood on both sides of the center seam. (This repair will be about $300.) “This is bread and butter work for us, but we also love more complicated projects.”
Certainly there’s plenty of challenging work for his 16 craftsmen, most of whom were trained in Europe. These gifted artisans tackle not only the repairs and restorations but also the crafting of extraordinarily perfect period reproduction pieces—made to order for a list of highly prestigious designers, decorators, and architects, who sell them to their clients.
At any given moment, the “holding pen” in Biunno’s antechamber might have, as it did on one day when I visited, pricey period furniture from a Fifth Avenue apartment that had been damaged in a fire; gilded bench frames, crafted by the Biunno artists, waiting for upholstery; and, most noticeably, an eclectic assortment of sad but pedigreed chairs, all of which were sporting a broken leg, a cracked back rail, or collapsed seat.
Because Biunno’s 9,000-plus square feet of space accommodates a 10-foot lathe, the studio can turn long and intricate bedposts and accessories. The workshop has separate areas for French polishing, gilding, metalwork, and woodworking, and there’s so much room that he can take on large-scale projects—like the 30-foot arched curtain rod he has custom-crafted for a house in Jersey, or the massive 12-arm, metal-and-wood chandelier currently in the works. His complete metal shop can do brass inlays in chairs—something many of his competitors cannot do.
In addition to his repair, restoration, and reproduction work, Biunno has also developed a related business—his shop’s line of impressive, graceful finials, tiebacks, rosettes, cartouches, curtain rods, rings, and brackets. Customers will find versions of these artifacts in every style, from stately Biedermeier to angular Art Deco to over-the-top, ormolu-encrusted animal-head—all suitable for a castle in the Rhineland or on Park Avenue. There is so much gold leaf in the finishing workroom that it looks like a fairy-dust factory.
All along the atelier’s corridors are storage bins and drawers for Biunno’s treasures. One wall holds dozens and dozens of narrow drawers, all divided into little cubbyholes for keys, locks, and escutcheons. Biunno estimates that he has the largest collection of antique keys (everything from ivory and ebony to metal and wood) in the area … and as he holds one up, admiring its simplicity, it’s easy to understand why this man, who owns a Harley named Elvis and who sports a long ponytail, brakes for house sales. If he has this degree of respect for the little keys in his collection, imagine the regard he will have for the precious antiques you commit to his care.