Behind the headline

April 14, 2014

Government buying 1,600 pieces of custom wood furniture for 70 MPs new offices

By Don Butler, Ottawa Citizen April 13, 2014

I sent an email to Don Butler and asked if he could give me access to the PDFs containing the sketches of the furniture in the order. He immediately sent the following link:

Once the graphics blew up enough that I could see them, I realized that the pieces of furniture in the illustrations are well designed and should be lasting and durable, but they are more utilitarian than extravagant.

A government spokesperson comments in Butler’s article: “Furnishings should be made of good quality materials so they are durable and they should make the most of the heritage spaces for which they are designed.”

From what I could see in the plans, the bookshelves, tables, desks and coat racks are well proportioned according to classical standards. The predominant motif on the pieces is a simple, ¼” bead cut into the bottoms of legs and added to trim to prevent splintering and resist wear. The ogees on the table edges fulfill a similar function. There is very little ornamentation on the furniture.

From the headline of the article I expected when I looked at a sketch of a large table to see a plan for a 10’ by 4’ slab of 3” black walnut cut from a single log in the manner of a corporate boardroom table, priced at about $50,000. What I found was something more like a nice ping pong table – two sections of walnut-veneer plywood sitting on three boxes underneath to hold A.V. equipment. Mind you, with good veneers, solid walnut for the edge trim and a good finish, the result could look very good. Moreover these pieces would likely remain in service for a long time. There’s no sense in buying something of poor materials and shoddy design which will need replacement when the next occupant of the office comes along. That’s where the waste comes in.

My wife looked at the illustration of the larger bookshelf in the “catalogue” and commented: “That’s just like the cherry one in our upstairs hall.” But I used solid wood throughout. The government plan calls for veneer, and rightly so: good veneer over plywood will outlast solid wood in wide, relatively thin panels where changes of humidity are to be expected, such as in Ottawa in winter.

Butler comments: “When the MPs settle into their new offices in 2016, they will be surrounded by furniture of the highest quality.” Based upon the tender requirements which Mr. Butler forwarded to me, I would disagree. The tender simply calls for an office-full of decently-designed plywood furniture covered in walnut veneer, with solid walnut used for the edge trim. There’s a lot of it in the order, but that is hardly the fault of the designers.

There remain a lot of myths about black walnut after the inflated prices of the 1970’s. In fact in 2007 Eastern Ontario hard maple was worth more than black walnut on the wholesale market. Home decorating guru Martha Stewart had declared that she preferred lighter woods, and that was the end of the demand for black walnut lumber. Even today black cherry, to my mind a much inferior furniture wood, is worth more than black walnut.

“The contract is conditionally limited to companies that can supply at least 80 per cent of the goods and services from Canadian sources. Other bids will only be considered if fewer than three bidders meet the Canadian content requirement.” It’s hard to see a bad side to this.

It’s interesting that prices for black walnut veneer logs recently shot up in Ontario. A veneer buyer told me a couple of months ago that 10,000 board feet of logs sold for $100,000 at an auction. This is a solid price in a chronically depressed market. It may not be enough to turn the hardwood market around in Ontario, but for this black walnut producer, it’s a whole lot better than nothing.

I am no admirer of the Harper Government and I am not at all sure Canada needs 70 more MP’s, but I can’t see anything wrong with this furniture order.


One Response to “Behind the headline”

  1. Brian Parish Says:

    You are a fair man, even if you are a Liberal!!

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