Since the age of 12, Jean-Francois Furieri has been working with plaster, an ancient medium made from a mixture of lime, fine sand and plaster with water. His father was a plasterer, and so was his grandfather, and it was in Cannes that Jean-Francois would first acquire a solid foundation and then, over the next four decades, a wealth of knowledge in an ancient craft. It is a precious heirloom he passes on to the fourth generation of Furieri.
As a 65-year-old, it’s a chance to see where his third act brings him when he limps lightly – an old judo injury – and sends the torch to his daughter Magali; most likely back to his second love, sculpture. “My first love was judo,” Jean-Francois said. “It was a way for me to escape from the plaster business when I was young, and I really threw myself into it. I was a top competitor, I was on my way to the Olympics. Now I am a grandfather, and all my old judo injuries have caught up with me, so it’s the perfect time to get back to sculpting. ”
His full and impressive title is Architectural Master Craftsman and Heritage Plaster Consultant, and he founded Toronto-based company Iconoplast in 1986. Being one of only a handful of artisans with his credentials, his work has led him to venerable old theaters on Broadway and King Street; to old hospitals and banks, museums, hotels and the Prime Minister’s Office; for contemporary projects such as the artful ceilings, arches, moldings and capitals of One King West; across Europe and across North America.
It is a legacy that Magali is learning to live up to.
With her 29 and the youngest of her four daughters, Magali was always creative. She studied art, humanities, and film at the University of Toronto, but it was not until a short stay at Willowbank, a school of cultural heritage in Niagara, Ontario, that she tried stone carving and then found her calling.
“Willowbank was amazing,” Magali recalls. “But after being on the spot with my dad, getting my hands dirty, learning so much, I couldn’t go back to a desk.”
She knew she wanted to work in a creative field, where she leaned toward film editing until her first summer internship with her father at Macdonell-Williamson House, about 1817, in Pointe-Fortune, Ontario. Scheduled for demolition until it was purchased by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, Iconoplast was summoned to restore the plaster details to its former glory.
“After working at Macdonell House,” Magali recalled. “I thought, ‘That’s it!'”
“The house had been abandoned for so long,” Magali said. ‘Squatters had been in there and vandals. The walls were kicked in places, pieces had been stolen; we saw one of the fireplace mantels hanging on someone else’s garage door down the road. ”
Magali got the work done on 200 laborious hours of paint removal, revealing the true lines created by some of the oldest plaster workers in Ontario.
“It was such a slow process,” Magali said. “We used dental tools to gently scrape away the layers and layers of paint that hide the details.”
Slowly and awkwardly as it is, “It’s very rewarding,” Magali said. “I have such a passion for work, and it grows the more I learn. It has also brought my father and I closer.”
“All my girls did their time in the studio,” Jean-Francois said. “They helped, got coffee and so on, but Magali was always the most creative, very skilled, and she decided she really liked it. I never forced it on her; if I had, she would be a baker now! ”
The company’s focus had originally been on production work, making plaster pieces from scratch, which meant Magali saw both sides of the business. “I can run a mold and make new, custom pieces,” Magali said, “but restoration is our niche, and it’s an endangered trade, especially in North America.”
But if the work of restoring historic plaster is an endangered craft, then how does Magali feel about her future? “I believe I get the job because we are such a small group doing this and I hope the next generation will appreciate fine plaster work.”
Cities and towns throughout North America and Europe are still widely populated by 19th-century homes, churches, and public buildings from the 19th century, and inside, the intricate plasterwork is damaged by water, air, and vibrations from car traffic. With a little luck, some of it will be repaired and restored instead of being discarded.
“There is great satisfaction,” Magali said. “When someone comes to us and asks, ‘can you save this?’ and we can say yes to them! “
“In Ontario,” Magali said. “There are other companies that can perform good plaster work, but we are the only ones that specialize in historic restoration. Most people today do not know the traditional method we use to restore and preserve historical plaster work. ”
“Being players in a micro market,” adds Jean-Francois. “You have to be a true expert. We have a lot of fake competitors.”
“We do a lot of work in churches in and around Toronto,” Magali said, “but one of my favorite jobs was to bring an abandoned ballroom at King Eddy back to life.” The great room had been closed off since the 1960s, and Magali and her team brought the dated and crumbling room back to its formerly gilded glory.
“I really have a passion for this and over the last few years it has only gotten stronger,” Magali said. “There’s nothing I would rather do. I feel blessed. I love what I do. You know, once someone came in where I worked and they said, ‘It’s 50 feet up, nobody’s coming. to see it! ‘ But I do it as carefully and as best I can for myself. ”
Jean-Francois made Magali a full partner in the industry in 2018, and soon after took over as project manager on one of the company’s most public tasks to date – the four-year restoration of Toronto’s iconic venue, Massey Hall.
Taking over from such a reputable craftsman as Jean-Francois is hard enough, but for a young woman in a male-dominated industry, it can be a real challenge.
“In the beginning, when I was first on the scene with my dad,” Magali recalls. “The fagots and the customers would treat me like ‘the boss’s daughter’. Some were openly misogynistic and dismissive if they did not like something I asked them to do. They would say, ‘just ask her father’. trying to persuade them to respect me, I had a mantra that I kept telling myself over and over again – ‘kill them with kindness’. “
“So yeah, it’s been a little tricky for me,” Magali admits. “Yet over the years, I would like to believe that I have learned to tackle these situations if I ever find myself in them again, which, let’s be honest, will most likely do so. I treat everyone equally, regardless of authority level. I have learned the hard way that people can misidentify my kindness for weakness, especially because I am a woman. I definitely get glances from artisans when I walk into a workplace and they see my white helmet (white is only worn by managers) and hear my position of authority. But given my past experiences, as soon as I start working and they see the quality of my work, the atmosphere can change and I feel like I have gained their respect as they look in awe of my work. And I have to say that the people and professions I worked with at Massey Hall came to respect me when I came to my court, managing three projects at once. “
But just because Iconoplast is imbued with tradition does not mean that the Furieri are luddites. New technologies and materials interest them.
“We’re both fascinated by 3D printing,” Jean-Francois said. “But it really is just not fast enough yet. And even computer-aided design and print will always need the human hand and the artists ‘creativity. The people who work on the software do not have the artists’ touch, so the craftsman’s hand will always have the last word.”
As for Magali, she’s thinking of a time when she can be even more creative. “I want to play with resin and other media. There is a personal project I have wanted to start – a line of original works of art in clay to cast into plaster. I have to have my own personal creative outlet, that’s important.”
It is also important for Jean-Francois. He looks forward to collaborating with some of his favorite artists. “I’m not so much an artist as I am a technician,” Jean-Francois said. “So I love working with artists on projects, just for fun.” As Magali confidently takes over the family business, he has time.
“I think my dad feels like a lot of weight has been lifted from his shoulders,” Magali said. “Because I can take care of the business side of things, and now I also handle whole tasks on site. He wants to sculpt and travel a little home to Cannes and to Nice, where he and my mother met. ”
“And when I get old,” Magali ponders. “I would love to pass this business on to someone in the family, but I would only do what my father did for me. He invited me in; he did not force it on me, as it was forced on him by his father.”
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