ÁRPÁD ROSTÁS – Carpenter

Árpád Rostás, cabinetmaker and restorer, has worked in 200 castles and restored 1000 pieces of furniture both home and abroad, over 36 years spent working. He refers to himself as a travelling carpenter who, following the example of medieval masters, goes around looking for ever newer challenges and opportunities to learn and accordingly travels from one job to the next, settling down for longer or shorter periods depending on how much time the current piece takes to finish. As well as Hungary, he has also roamed all over the countries of Western Europe in this manner, receiving orders from as far as France, England and Germany. Currently he is mostly interested in the traditional carpentry profession of India and he is thinking about about developing his knowledge there in the near future. The outstanding achievements of his life’s work are the repairs and restoration work carried out in the Louvre, Versailles, in the Hungarian Parliament or at the Academy of Science, but there are also many other building components that were in a hopelessly dangerous state and judged well beyond recovery by a series of previous restorers, that have been returned to their original condition specifically because of his personal contribution to the project just as happened with the staircase of the hospital of Marcali or with the ceiling of the Mirror Room at the Andrássy University in Budapest.

He holds a number of Commendations and Awards, amongst which he received the Hungarian Heritage Award in 2011 as an acknowledgement of his work carried out 10 years previously when he restored the Neo-Renaissance timber cladding of the Hungarian Academy of Science. The honorary citizenship of Kaposvár is another outstanding achievement, as this is the town where he was born and studied, while growing up in the charity-school of Nágocs. He was also nominated for the privately organised Prima Primissima Award, which is the greatest honour in Hungary that an artist can receive during his lifetime, after the state-given Kossuth Prize. However he stepped down after receiving insults, probably due to jealousy from within the trade, as the comments were all negative. His withdrawal was considered a missed opportunity by many people, especially because Rostás’s story is an outstanding example of the progess that can be achieved despite the poverty and hopelessness that comes from being an outcast, since he grew from an orphaned gypsy child to be an acknowledged expert and artist.

Rostás claims that one can only learn effectively through practical training, and therefore after finishing vocational school, he extended his education for many years by applying for jobs with master after master in carpentry, trying to learn all the master-strokes from his hosts. As he remembers it, this was not always an easy task as his ‘teachers’ often kept their most valuable tricks and techniques as their most prized possessions, so as a youngster he also had to be expedient to be able to gather such precious knowledge. The secret was to never spend too much time at any one of the masters: he was so thirsty for knowledge that as soon as he learnt all that was possible he would ask the master to recommend him to another carpenter. Most of the time he only asked for food and accommodation as a salary, but if he had the opportunity he would even pay for training. Even when he was an expert craftsman he was not ashamed to be a ‘novice’ and later on too, if he had the chance he worked for some older and more experienced professionals.

The Restorer without a Degree

Rostás has gained the highest respect as a restorer, despite having no qualifications or papers, as he never earned a degree. He believes that there is nothing usual about this though as carpenters in olden times worked in exactly the same way: they constructed furniture as well as  timber structures and they were also the ones who repaired them. Later the profession split into separate occupations: carpenter and cabinetmaker, whilst the restoration profession emerged with its higher level of academic knowledge. In his opinion however, restorers should not be allowed to operate without real practical carpentry knowledge and that even today it would be the most ideal if it were carpenters who performed this type of work. Another alternative that could happen even today, would be for master carpenters and restorers to collaborate so that they could rely on each other’s knowledge: on the restorer’s deeper academic, historic knowledge and the craftsman’s greater practical and technical skills. In cases where a certain practical skill disappears, sooner or later the academic knowledge about it will follow on. This is a situation that Árpád Rostás has come across many times as part of his practice, whenever his name came up as the last ray of hope for a piece of furniture or a structure to be restored. He never turned down a single request, instead he always accepted the challenge to use his self-acquired knowledge, confirming many times over that the craftsman’s skill is still in existence, and that the knowledge that can save valuable timber or work created from it from destruction, has not completely disappeared.

Restoring the main staircase at the church of Marcali was an important turning point in his life. This project was also recorded in the Hungarian Film Festival winning documentary titled ‘Stair’ (directed by Livia Gyarmathy, 1994), though filming started without the knowledge of the ‘main character’. Although his extreme efforts made it possible to rescue the ornate wooden stair situated in the foyer of the building – despite the original architectural plans and the views of expert restorers – the struggle was not a success story.  This is hardly surprising as the ‘gypsy carpenter’ would have needed to become an entrepreneur to meet the impossible expectations of the heritage office while wandering in the labyrinth of bureaucracy. He was not even paid for the work he did and the project was finally carried out by another much bigger firm for several times the amount that his payment would have been. This period took its toll on his personal life as well and his wife divorced him soon after, taking their children with her. Although the situation arising from work was tough, it pushed his life in a certain direction. He started to get commissions from abroad, assisted by those people who stood by him, and soon he was restoring in the Louvre, and from there he moved on to Versailles, where he repaired and restored the Sun King’s parquet floor. And from this came further assignments and he went as far as castles in England and Germany.

Although Rostás carried out more and more new works at home, which far exceeded his original qualification level, he could not undertake a restoration job on his own as a restorer without a paper qualification. He could only work as a carpentry subcontractor without requiring the contribution and supervision of another restorer. This is a real sore point for him since he was not able to undertake a number of restoration jobs because of this. Furthermore his great accumulation of special knowledge really annoyed the Company of Restorers as this type of knowledge goes against the trade’s actual and general principles. As he says, he has never experienced these kind of issues abroad, getting on there was much easier, as it was never the paper (degree) that was important but rather the references and whether he had the professional knowledge and skills that were required to obtain the expected quality and result. Although there were restorers involved with the work in other countries as well, the relationship was appropriately co-operative however, and did not lack respect towards him.

Natural Solutions – instead of Chemicals

One of the keys to success in his work is the home-made recipes, made from natural materials, that he uses for the treatment of wood to control the pests, to strengthen the timber and to restore the original colour and tone. The materials used are always specifically tailored to the given piece of furniture or timber construction, and the various ingredients are based on the characteristics and scale of the problem. Every recipe comes from the disappearing, but in places still surviving, traditions and historic descriptions from for example, the books of Vitruvius, so some techniques can even be traced back to Ancient Egypt. The exact methodologies and experiments with the proportions took decades to perfect, and are professional secrets now. The group of characteristic materials used are well known, but some of them may sound strange like juice from garlic, apple and potato peels, distilled fruit spirit (palinka) or even dung water or urine. In using these materials he often has serious arguments with timber preservation experts because in their profession they are accustomed to using chemically produced materials and solutions, while his own recipes sound a bit like quackery these days. In spite of that, he goes against the trend much of the time and has gained more and more results that give legitimacy and meaning to these efforts, as lately he has started to be invited to university conferences where he can express his own views and show his solutions.

Rescuing and restoring the ceiling of the Mirror Room at Andrássy University is a very good example of the success of his techniques. In 2003, when the University was refurbished, the ceiling of the room fell down and work stopped for 6 months as there was no restorer who would accept the challenge of its restoration, until it popped into someone’s mind that there was a travelling carpenter in Marcali. He was able to use his own methods to demonstrate quite quickly that there was dry rot (fungus) present, a diagnosis which equalled a death sentence and this was later confirmed by a timber preservation expert. In the end, Rostás restored the structure instead of the complete demolition that seemed unavoidable before he arrived on the scene: he got rid of the disease from the structure and substituted the missing timber material thereby strengthening the structure.

Ambassador for Traditional Carpentry

In recent years Árpád Rostás has paid great attention to making furniture that he has designed himself, as he plans to work mainly as a cabinetmaker in the future. Only the greatest masters match his ideals in these lofty ambitions, such as Michelangelo, … or …. Some of his completed custom-made pieces have attracted the interest of the media as well as they were donated as gifts to well known people. The first such pieces of furniture were the cradles made as gifts for the children of the British royal couple, William and Kate, for George, Prince of Cambridge in 2013 and later in 2015, for Princess Charlotte (Charlotte Elizabeth Diana). The unique, Neogothic style cradles are made of oak and nut-wood are richly ornamented and decorated with inlay-work. Both handovers were preceded by church benedictions of the cradles. In the case of Charlotte’s cradle, this took place in St Peter’s Basilica (the main church in Budapest) the Sunday before its departure, and the handover took place on 19th November 2015 in Kensington Palace.

With these donated pieces of furniture, Rostás’s main aim was to represent some important issues at home as well as abroad, to attract people’s attention to the real values of traditional carpentry, to his rescuing of traditions and teaching activities and also to the importance of appropriate vocational training to tackle poverty and reduce the social vulnerability of Roma people. In this vein, the handover of a throne made for Pope Francis is planned for 2016 as part of a Vatican ‘pilgrimage’ organised for 100 children who have grown up in a boarding school, giving them the experience of a lifetime. The highly decorated chair’s central design is a glass case in the shape of Hungary, in which he plans to put Hungarian mother earth (soil). The back-rest of the throne is decorated with the coats of arms of the Vatican, Hungary, Argentina and Marcali (Rostás’s birthplace) while a quadrilingual inscription asks for the blessing of Roma people of the world in English, Latin, Hungarian and the Roma language.

Árpád Rostás’s School and Textbook

Over and above the execution of his projects with humility to achieve the best possible results, Árpád’s career has some further important goals, namely to ensure the survival of centuries-old handicraft traditions, carpentry and cabinet-making techniques for future generations. To achieve this, he is currently working on putting together a comprehensive textbook which summarises all the knowledge which he has gathered over his lifetime through his work and will put teaching of the profession on a new level.

He truly believes that his career can be a example to follow for those young people whose fate is similar to his own childhood. He therefore organises a summer school and creative workshops every year for orphan children, where he gets them involved in restoration and building activities. It is one thing to teach them practical skills, but more importantly he can show that learning a trade is worth sacrifice and effort to be able to produce work of  a good quality. Finally he teaches that belief is indispensable for any creative activity or art and he also promotes a vocational lifestyle that is closely connected to the work carried out. The best result to come from the summer schools is a joint project to restore the furniture of the castle in Somogyvár (Somogy County, Hungary), where Dr. András Morgó, Professor of Restoration provided the required professional background. Among Rostás’s long-term plans lie the development of a vocational training centre in Marcali (Somogy County, Hungary) and on top of that, a timber-framed cathedral which is to be built together with the trainees.

Most important works:

Hungarian Parliament, the timber panelling in the main session-hall and stair railings (1989-90)
(tbc)

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