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The Best Framers in the World

by Philip Greenspun

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I was schmoozing with Gil Ghitelman over the oak counter of his camera shop when the cardboard tube I'd been carrying clunked to the floor.

"What's that?" Gil asked.

"A couple photos I want to have framed. Know a good shop?"

"Let's see them. I know you can talk the talk, but let's see if you can walk the walk." Gil prides himself on not selling cameras to riffraff. You can't even find his 3rd floor shop if you don't know.

I spread the owl and the Moeraki boulders out on the counter.

"Pretty nice," Gil and his assistant Les whistled. "If you don't mind spending a lot, take them over to Goldfeder-something on 20th and 6th."

Spending money on framing is the best kind of self-indulgence for a photographer, so I figured I was worth it. After all, I'd had these pieces framed in Boston for about $130 each by one of the best shops in town (Stanhope) so I figured it couldn't cost that much more. (I probably should have reflected that a man who sells $8000 Linhofs regularly is someone to be taken seriously when he says something is pricey.)

I walked the long avenue block, past Duggal's seven stories of 24-hour/day photolab, past Baboo's 24-hour/day competition, and found Goldfeder/Kahan at 37 W. 20th.

I walked into a quiet carpeted room lined with unusual and expensive looking frames. I spread the owl out on a table. Elizabeth Goldfeder greeted me from behind a pair of eyeglasses the choosing of which obviously required more taste and effort than I'd spent choosing my entire wardrobe.

As soon as she found out that I was a nerd, she said "you have to meet my husband, Eric."

Eric, a photographer and computer programmer, gleefully took me downstairs to show me the robotic mat cutter he'd built. It was a huge x-y arm mechanism over some precision aluminum, all controlled by a PC-clone.

"Most of the automatic mat cutters are designed for cheap paperboard mats that go into ready-made frames. There are a lot of quirks to cutting rag mats that only we've figured out."

Eric walked me over to a stack of mounted and matted lithographs. They were all sealed in Mylar. This is the kind of moisture barrier I'd read about in books on museum conservation but had never seen anyone use. The idea is to not to build a 100% moisture-tight seal but slow the change in humidity seen by the artwork. (It works especially well for work displayed in bathrooms where the humidity is temporarily very high after a shower.)

"We humidity control the whole work area to 40-60% relative humidity. We know that most of our customers will display the work here in Manhattan where the humidity goes from 10% in winter to nearly 100% in summer and we don't keep work for very long, but we feel that we have an obligation to treat others' work better than they would treat it themselves."

Eric could tell that my attention was being distracted by a person in a bunny suit in a white room behind some glass doors.

"Oh, that's the clean room we bought surplus from National Semiconductor," Eric explained. "They shut down one of their fabs in Connecticut so we brought it down here."

Now I understand why I can never get that last speck of dust or hair out of the pictures I frame at home.

Back upstairs in the showroom, Elizabeth and her willowly assistant Kimberly had selected a few frames from hidden drawers. I knew exactly how I'd had these done in Boston but the supremacy of their taste was obvious and I didn't want to prejudice their aesthetic thinking.

"We like 8-ply mats because it really sets off the work off better," Elizabeth began. "Let's work on the owl first. I think you're going to want a tiger-stripe maple with a light blue stain. It is a traditional image so you don't want a profile that is too non-traditional. I don't think you want the Very White, which is a little too cool. Let's pick up the slight pink cast of the owl with Bright White. We don't dry mount to Fome-Core. I know they say it is acid-free but that's just the paper. The foam behind it crumbles and we get a smoother finish by dry mounting to mat board. Of course, you'll want Denglas."

All I knew about Denglas was that it was anti-glare and that I couldn't afford it. Nobody had ever been able to explain to me how it worked. Until Elizabeth.

"It has the same anti-reflective coating on it that you get on eyeglasses."

Aha! Which is the same stuff they put on camera lens elements. A coating one-quarter wavelength thick so that a second reflection destructively interferes with the first reflection and paradoxically results in more transmission of light.

We moved on to the Moeraki Boulders, which have always looked a little to me like dinosaur eggs. One of the hidden drawers had contained a frame covered with the same embossed reticulations.

"An artist makes these for us," Elizabeth explained. "I'll have her make samples in slightly darker shades and make sure it is exactly right for the rocks. Of course, we don't want to match the shade exactly."

"Of course," I mumbled, thinking that the bill would be staggering.

While Kimberly wrote up work orders for the pieces, I asked Elizabeth what had possessed her to go into such a competitive business.

"I got out of school with a communications degree thinking I was going to be on television, but I quickly realized that I wasn't going to get the kind of job I wanted anytime soon. I had a job with a market research firm for a few years just to see if I could stand it."

"New York has a lot of those jobs," I noted.

"My father had always wanted to open a frame shop so I began to spend evenings at a friend's frame shop learning every aspect of the business. It was good training to be a workaholic. I always knew that I wanted to work for myself and now it is great. We have a lot of steady customers, museums, galleries, wholesale business."

Kimberly emerged with the bill. Elizabeth glanced over at my shorts and T-shirt and decided that I wasn't ready for it. She took it back into the office and sliced off a hefty discount.

I looked at the original prices as I walked out; $903 for the boulders, $615 for the owl. I thought of the clean room.

Only in New York.

Goldfeder/Kahan Framing Group, Ltd. is at 169 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10013, (212) 431-0633, www.gkframing.com. They can pack and ship framed artwork anywhere in the world.


Readers' Comments

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Michael Brooks , June 25, 1997; 10:45 A.M.

If you happen to be on the other side of the U.S., perhaps in Central California, the best framer I know would be George Brooks at Brooks Frame and Art Studio in Visalia, CA. I don't have a phone number handy, but you could call information. I may be a little biased due to the fact that he's my grandfather, but he knows what he's doing, he's been doing it for over half a century, and he's the second generation of Brooks framers (my dad and I have gone the engineering route.) His prices are reasonable and fair, and the craftsmanship is second to none.

If you happened to be in the White House during the Reagan years, you might have seen some of his work. He did a lot of work for 'the stars' when his studio was in Westwood, CA in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. You best catch him soon, as he will probably retire in the next five or ten years, but do catch him. He's a stickler for conversation on any subject, and a damn fine photographer to boot.

Phil Bobrow , June 16, 1998; 12:03 A.M.

For shooters with somewhat of a clue about framing, Documounts Framing Service in Eugene, OR is a great place to get reasonably priced mats, both stadard sizes and custom sizes. They are at documnts@documounts.com Getting moulding, glass etc is easy. Mats at a good price is not. I have been using them for over 15 years.

MICHAEL CROMLY , May 20, 1999; 07:33 A.M.

Framing has become very expensive in Ohio and for awhile I stopped because of the expense. Now I'm back at it, framing for occasional sale and gifts. Found the site www.americanframe.com and can purchase most of the framing materials I need at 50%+ off framing shop prices. Now I can frame the way professionals do........

Bob O'Hara , November 28, 2000; 12:00 A.M.

As the ancient Romans used to say, "vita brevis, ars longa." ("Art is cheap, but framing is expensive.")

Andrew Marritt , July 25, 2004; 01:42 P.M.

Great framers in London...

I have been collecting contemporary art for some time and have had some great framing, and some, dare I say, some less than great.

In London there are two that I really rate. The first is John Jones (Finsbury Park, +44 20 7281 5439) I have never used them but I have frames on paintings that I have bought at Sotheby's that have been done there & the quality is superb.

For several years I have been exclusively using Darbyshire on Leather Lane (almost directly opposite Panther Imaging - +44 20 7831 0028, http://www.darbyshire.uk.com/) and they never, ever disappoint. If you have ever seen one of Sam Taylor-Wood's photos in any of the major museums, then the chances are that the framing was by Darbyshire (White Cube, her gallery use Darbyshire as do London's Royal Academy, Saatchi Gallery etc.). They index every single piece of work they do so if you say 'can I have it like the one you did for me on X piece in 2001' then they know all the technical details (materials, sizes etc.) I have also seen some amazing work they have done including a circular frame for one of Damien Hirst's spin paintings.

Darbyshire also have a great mount that really helps getting the frame flat against the wall, or, as they are about 3 cm deep you can stand small ones up on a table, shelf etc.

For the last few years I use their advice on styles etc for the frames. The most beautiful ones yet are a series that they did for some prints by the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay - they floated the images about 5mm off the back of the frame with the box being made of a beautiful waxed oak. They have anti-UV glass to protect from fading.

One thing that you do notice when you use these types of framers is how poor some framing can be - corners not meeting etc. If you use this type of museum-quality, conservation framing you will never turn back.

James Hart , August 15, 2006; 07:30 A.M.

Just a quick note about UV glass since I saw someone mention it. I don't know about photos, but with the mid-19th century & earlier ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) UV glass is worthless. http://www.ukiyoe-gallery.com/sunfade.htm

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