It looks like an ordinary table and is often made of solid wood like oak or walnut. These tables are generally many generations old. You will be hard pressed to find a new one. And antiques never come onto the market.
There are many lives laminated in the oil rich wood. The oldest vein, the deepest one can be seen and felt through the fissures and cracks on the surface of the table. Molded by steam and by hand these imperfections have a rounded, warm edge. If you rub your hand on the swirled patina, stand close by and close your eyes, you can hear voices in the wood.
“My father was like that, humble and reserved, almost shy, but behind this façade he concealed an enormous talent and a genius for shirtmaking. In addition to the love for this profession, he also taught me respect for others and humility. So it is that today as I approach 52 years of age, even though I know that he is not there to see it and hear it, I write to him and I say, ‘Thank you, father.’”
Pierre Duboin, Third Generation, Benchmade shirts
The sounds around the table are steady and concentrated, sometimes frantic, sometimes murmured but always tuned to the rhythm of work going on in the background. In the foreground the sounds can be entertaining even funny, requests mingled with hushed plaints and enduring expectations. You can’t hear the pride amongst all the other sounds, but it is omnipresent.
“He loved and had profound respect for the craft that had given him life and had given his family life and had put fish and grain on his table.He loved the ancient craft given to his hands by the old men. The clock ticked slow back then. Easy hours. Quiet. Simple.”
Frank Shattuck, Benchmade tailor
The design of the table is simple, four legs hold up a rectangle. But you can cut fresh wood, shape it, glue it together and still not have it right. It takes time, patience and sacrifice.
“I started at seven years of age in the atelier with my mother and my aunts. My father stayed in the workroom most of the day by his table. I used to sew shirts and buttons trying to please my grandfather. He would shake his head and point to the stitch that was not right. He saw the error before I made it because I used to grab the cloth and hold it wrong out of nervousness. He would smile and place my hands correctly and tell me to start over. It’s been sixty years now and I still remember his lessons.”
An old Sicilian tailor, Third generation Benchmade tailor
One might ask what the value of such an old massive table could be. It’s not an antique or a relic. Museums would not be interested and they will not fit in a kitchen. To pry them out of the small rooms where they are lodged, one would have to knock down a wall. Makes one wonder how they got there in the first place. Maybe they were not hewn at all, maybe they grew there.
“I started my seven years apprenticeship when I was fourteen. I got the chance to work in a local shop and was well looked out for by its owner until one day I landed a job on Savile Row. Well “landed” is a good word, because a few years later the old shop changed hands and all of the young lads were back on the street. For a few days I wondered what good all the work had done me, when a friend took me into the service entrance of the most famous of English tailors, the one that made for the Hollywood types and such. They asked me to work as a coatmaker. “You’re a quick study and quick with your hands” so we’ll give you your chance. I had a reputation for sewing coats faster and better than any of the others. I don’t know why I could do it, but they saw value there. I worked with the best cutter in the firm and together we made 21 suits for the Prince of Wales. I’ve been doing the same for sixty plus years now. I don’t stop working and never will because I don’t know how to do anything else.”
British tailor, Benchmade clothing
It could be tables like these are not owned at all. And things that have no owners have no price. And yet no matter which side of the table you stand behind, there is something magnetic that draws you to it and keeps you coming back to visit. It’s not familiar or particularly comfortable but a man winds up finding his favorite place by it, listening to stories, watching, imagining, dreaming days a way whenever possible.
“At the shop, plug in the iron and turn up the heat.The iron would tik. We didnt really talk. “Here. Look” that was about it. Around noon or so one of their wives would arrive with lunch and begin heating it on the iron. Louie Pisegnia might stop by with home made wine. In the afternoon old customers would start stopping by, most of them friends of both of my grand fathers. All of them old. My great grandfathers full dress pattern still hung in the shop. A photo of the Mayor , in one of their suits, shaking hands with John F. Kennedy, hung on the wall. The radio played old things. The old tailors couldnt pay me. In fact I mowed their lawns and tied up their tomatoes. And I had to thread their needles. The old tailors took so much time to show me. They liked me around. I one time took them snagging salmon up on the salmon river with my friends. Here we are snagging 30 pound salmon up on the Salmon River in the redneck town of Port Ontario NY with two elegant little 87 year old twin tailors in handmade three piece suits yelling at each other in Italian. Even Fellini couldnt come up with this. I will never forget running with them ,as they held on to each other, into the woods when we saw the game wardens comming ’round the bend. They loved it. They never stopped talking about it. Soon after they lost their lease for the shop where they had been since the 1930s . I moved to NYC . These two old tailors are in all of my suits. I remember them most when I am pressing. All, all, all of the old men I learned from are gone.”
Frank Shattuck, Benchmade tailor
Some men like Italian tables, some French and some say English models are the best. You might think you’d need an expert to know the difference and a translator to know what is going on at times. But you don’t really, the feeling for these old tables is instinctive, natural, engrained in all of us. We hate to leave them and tarry by the door a few minutes savoring the odor of the iron, the whirring of hands in motion, the last bon mot while planning the next and “final” visit. Or at least that is what we tell our loved ones.
Our eyes, our hands, all of our senses focus on sights, sounds and smells radiating from a table that is not really a table at all. Because of its capacity to enchant us with glimpses from the past, present and future we do this humble table the special honor of calling it a Bench.
Photos courtesy of Megumi and Frank Shattuck