If you find yourself walking along San Francisco’s Sacramento Street, on the block between Lyon Street and Presidio Avenue, your eyes will undoubtedly be drawn to the gold frames in the windows of Aedicule Fine Framemaking and Bespoke Gilding. Step inside, and you will see the work of master framer and craftsman Peter Werkhoven, who named his atelier Aedicule as a nod to the origin of the centuries-old art of frame making.
The shop has been around since 2003 and, in many ways, resonates of a different era. The craft of hand-making custom frames that both protect and complement works of art is dwindling. “There’s not a lot of us left,” notes Werkhoven, whose own journey began in the Netherlands, his home country, in his 20s. What started out as a stint helping a friend at the generations-old frame shop Gehring & Heijdenrijk in Amsterdam turned into a passion. Under the tutelage of Paul Gehring, a third-generation frame maker, Werkhoven spent 10 years mastering the craft of gilding and antique restoration. The apprenticeship prepared him for his move at age 35 to San Francisco, the American city “that felt the most European,” he says.
Not only can Werkhoven discern a frame’s origin, but he also innately understands the provenance and the process behind it. “It takes years and years of studying. To make something look old, that is the hard part,” he says. What’s more, he notes, “A frame from Italy is different than one from France. Every country has their own specific clay. In France, the clay is more orange. [It’s] dark-red clay in Italy and gray-blue clay in the U.S. It changes a little bit per century.”
Werkhoven recounts a 2005 visit to Las Vegas, where he toured Steve Wynn’s Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. There, he discovered a Rembrandt that was in a frame that he had made in Amsterdam. “Next to it,” Werkhoven recalls, “was a Vermeer that was in the wrong frame from a French period.” He offered to make Wynn a replacement frame appropriate to the era of the painting, noting, “If he liked it, then he could buy it. If not, there would be no charge.” Wynn bought the frame.
Depending on the size, complexity and the labor involved, Werkhoven’s frames can range from $300 to thousands. “We’re working on a frame for a Picasso now that’s so complex that the carving alone takes a few months itself,” he says. To date, his most expensive frame commanded $85,000. “Peter not only has an extraordinary depth of historical knowledge that he can apply to a 16th century painting as well as modern pieces, but he also has a profound passion for his craft,” says Suzanne Tucker, founder of the design firm Tucker & Marks and a longtime customer. “It’s rare to find someone who is a true master at his trade achieving the most beautiful gilding and specialty finishes from the simple to the elaborate.”
It takes years and years of studying. To make something look old, that is the hard part. Peter Werkhoven
Werkhoven estimates that restoration work accounts for a quarter of his business. In 2013, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco brought him in to fully restore the pair of bergères that long ago survived a fire and now sit in the Legion of Honor’s Salon Doré, a room originally designed during the reign of Louis XVI.
To demonstrate the gilding process, Werkhoven brings out a frame to illustrate the six stages of framing. First, a rough drawing goes on the wood. Then it is carved out, and gesso, a mixture of rabbit-skin glue and chalk, is applied to seal the grains of the wood, followed by bole (a fine clay mixed with rabbit-skin glue). Gold leaf, usually ranging from 8 to 24 karats, is burnished and applied to create a shiny surface. And finally, and most importantly: the patina.
“The patina is where the craftsmanship is. This is the hardest part,” says Werkhoven. “It will show the difference between a master framemaker or an average framemaker.”