He and his brother are now among the most sought-after antique furniture restorers in the Madison area, but at age 9, Mark Mahon could often be found at the local dump in Union Grove, scrounging around for hidden treasures.
Digging through the mess might yield coins, a broken baseball bat or, on one particular occasion, a rusty bike frame. With some sandpaper, a can of forest green spray paint and the determined innovation of an adolescent, Mark transformed the castoff into a renewed vehicle with which to race his brother John, 13. Despite the older brother's instinct for competition, he suggested they both add pinstripes to make the bike faster. So, together, they did.
\ An occupation evolves
"We were always looking for scraps of lumber for tree forts, Styrofoam to carve little boats out of - anything we could use to build something," says Mark, now 46. "Our childhood definitely set the course for a livelihood of finding value in things that others might dismiss as unusable."
A boyhood hobby became more refined when John, at 15, elected to attend a small boarding school in La Crosse where pupils developed trades as a way to offset the cost of room and board. John learned basic woodworking and crafted doll furniture and other miniatures.
"I was passionate about making things by hand," says John. "Later I bought a carving set and tools and really became a self-taught woodworker."
Directly after high school, he got a job working for an antique car renovation shop catering to high-end vehicles including Bugatti, Ferrari and Porsche, and eventually found himself sanding and finishing for modern furniture designer Carl Gromoll in Eagle River.
A move to Washington, D.C., propelled John into the occupation that now serves him and brother Mark at Mahon Antique Restoration in Madison. "I answered an ad that read, 'Wanted: Antique Restorer,'" says John. "I went in for an interview, looked around the place and saw all these pieces marked 'White House.' I didn't think I qualified for the job."
But his talent proved otherwise, and after several years of restoring antiques and furnishings for the White House and the Blair House (the President's guest house) as well as various foreign embassies, a return to northern Wisconsin brought John back to once again work alongside his younger sibling. Pin-striping was replaced with gold-leafing, however.
"I had a cabinet-making business in St. Germain and one day I got a call from Mark asking me if I wanted to open up a restoration shop in Madison," recalls John. "I came down, we drove around the neighborhoods and I thought, 'Yeah, we could do this.'"
The two set up shop in an industrial area off Fish Hatchery Road in 1986 and have been there ever since.The Mahons have seen and worked on thousands of pieces of varying provenance, age, and historical as well as monetary value. From commercial repairs for WPS Health Insurance, the UW-Madison and Monona Terrace to pieces on display at the Smithsonian Institution to a broken chair found curbside, the stories behind each piece are often as complex and interesting as the repairs themselves.
\ Inherently green
"We're the original green organization," Majorie Davenport, a retired antique dealer from Madison, says of her colleagues in the antiquing business. "We've recycled for years!"
Davenport, along with her husband, Gordon, dealt in fine 18th-century American furnishings for more than 30 years in Madison and employed the services of Mahon Antique Restoration when the brothers were first starting out.
"Restorers are really conservationists," says Davenport, and although she refers to the art of conserving an antique's integrity by doing as little as possible to deviate from the original structure, "conservation" takes on additional meaning in a world where eco-minded consumers are concerned about where, how and out of what materials products are made.
Mark, who learned restoration skills as an apprentice to his brother, underscores the inherent environmental friendliness of salvaging furniture.
"Wood has become scarcer and much of the new furniture available today is outsourced from China," he says. "If you have an heirloom or even a piece you found on the side of the road or bought at an estate sale - if it has good bones, it's worth restoring. It won't end up in a landfill."
As eco-catchphrases like "product miles" (the amount of energy it takes to get a product to market) and "cradle to cradle" (examining a product's life cycle as having no grave, feasibly the garbage dump) become a part of the savvy shopper's vocabulary, looking to what one already owns and how it might be restored to newfound glory is about as carbon neutral as it gets.
"It's more often than not that people are restoring pieces for nostalgic value," says Mark. "And maybe they don't realize the environmental statement, but we do."
"Mark is working on two more pieces that were mygrandparents'," said Mark Patronsky of Madison, a client of the Mahons. "One is a Windsor chair that I remember from growing up;as a matter of fact, it was called 'Mark's chair' because I sat in it so much, but several of the spindles are wobbly and some are broken clear through. I love the piece and I want it to be in working condition so that I can actually use it and enjoy it.
"The other is a dining table that's close to 200 years old. I think of my grandparents every time I sit down to eat and I think about mygrandparents having their friends over for dinner . . . These pieces have been in our family for over 100 years."
\ Pieces with a past
The Mahons have seen and worked on thousands of pieces of varying provenance, age, and historical as well as monetary value. From a $100,000 Queen Anne highboy to a broken chair found on the street, the stories behind each piece are often as complex and interesting as the repairs themselves.
When asking yourself whether or not something is worth restoring, Davenport suggests simply taking it to a professional to have it evaluated. But highly skilled, artisan techniques often come with a price tag - the Mahons charge anywhere from just less than a hundred dollars, all the way to several thousand. Davenport, however, stresses the capabilities of restorers who can make repairs that correspond to original construction techniques.
A current project for Mark is an 18th-century dropleaf table a man inherited while a student at UW-Madison in the 1980s. The man's family had given him several fine antiques from their home in the Bahamas, but without a proper place to keep large pieces of furniture, he placed them in cold storage.
"He didn't realize the scope of value the furniture had," says Mark. "And by the time he brought the table to me, it was in really bad shape."
Now porous and brittle, its wood bored by insects and all four legs broken, the antique requires extensive and time-consuming repairs. First, the infested and compromised leg areas needed to be chiseled out and fitted with new pieces of mahogany called splines. Old glue gets carefully removed from mortise-and-tenon joints and the legs are reattached. Finally the finish gets assessed and repaired areas will be matched and blended to the original.
Repairs take anywhere from a few days to a few months. The dropleaf table will take approximately 40-50 hours to repair.
Pieces arrive at the studio of Mahon Antique Restoration ( www.mahonantiquerestoration.com ) in assorted states of disrepair. A 200-year-old tripod table sits in need of wood shims to fill cracks that were shoddily sealed with wood putty. A mid-century modern coffee table base is scuffed and its owner would like a new finish. Someone recently inherited a child's oak high chair that ingeniously converts into a rocker, but an adult took a seat and the spindles broke.
"Potential customers are surprised at what I tell them we can do," says Mark. "Even before I see something - if a person just describes it over the phone, I tell them I can repair it."
The brothers utilize rarely used, old-world techniques such as hand-cut dovetail joinery, inlay, gold-leafing, hand-chiseled molding and French polishing, and according to Davenport, the Mahons' forte is finishing.
"They understand finishes, which is sophisticated work," she states. "It's important to have that knowledge . . . to be able to identify if a finish is original or not and to be able to color match."
When sentimentality is the impetus for restoration, the Mahons recognize they sometimes function as psychotherapists. "A woman came to me with a serving tray she had recently inherited from her deceased mother," John recalls. "It was metal with an obvious haze in the center. The customer told me she had heard many stories from her mother about how the tray had a beautiful depiction of young maidens, but the image had been destroyed long ago when something was spilled on it."
With slow and careful application, John was able to re-amalgamate the finish. He returned the tray to his client, who upon seeing the revived scene of Victorian ladies lounging about, immediately burst into tears.
"It's a connection to the past," says Mark. "People bring things in and we get to hear some amazing anecdotes and memories. Many times someone has inherited a piece as an adult that they grew up with as a child. We ask questions like, 'How did it look?' 'How do you remember it?' 'Do you want it to look the way you remember it?' "These questions are important to ask," he continues. "For instance, a chest of drawers you received from Grandma may be severely sun-faded today. Do you like it now? Or do you want to try to recapture that recollected finish? I've seen cracks in wood that people don't want repaired or even carved initials we're not allowed to touch."
While many pieces pass through the hands of the Mahons that increase in value - sometimes exponentially - when restored, "Most people aren't thinking about the value," says Davenport. "They just want to use it and enjoy it."
"Use" is the motivation here. When you have an item restored that was otherwise sitting in a dingy corner of the basement or hidden in a crawlspace, or you found it for 10 bucks at St. Vinny's or free on the side of a road, suddenly you've catapulted the classification into "reuse." You've found another use for something you might have just thrown away - or someone else might eventually discard.
"I had a client for whom I'd refurbished several pieces, and one day she brought in this antique cranberry picker and asked what she should do with it. For most, it would just be another decorative item - a dust catcher, really, something without a lot of use," says Mark. "But I built a base for it and now she has a totally functional, really unique magazine rack."
Creativity, it seems, is the basis for many environmental quandaries. And for two brothers who used to fashion boats out of castoff Styrofoam, ingenuity is the mother of invention . . . and just possibly a major conduit to saving Mother Earth.