A Peek Inside ‘Top Drawer’

Staff Writer 

Douglas Riddle and Laura Frazier.

Douglas Riddle and Laura Frazier.

“Preserve the spirit and minimize the shape. I believe the spirit of an object resides in its simplicity.”

It’s this Chinese philosophy which Douglas Riddle, president of Bittners, reiterates to himself time and again, and which echoes through the brilliant work found inside Louisville’s leading interior design firm.

“When I say it over and over, it always makes me think of Bittners, because I think we do have this reputation that we have to uphold,” Riddle said. “People expect the best, they want the best, and they come to us for that. They hold us in high regard, and we have to always maintain that. One of the ways that we’ve always done that is in our simplicity. We have always been a little quiet and under the radar about a lot of things.”

Though Bittners’ presence may be humble, its significance is mighty not only in the U.S., but throughout the entire world. For this reason, to honor the visionary and creative genius of Bittners and its 150-year existence, the Frazier History Museum chose to unveil a new exhibit: “Top Drawer: 150 Years of Bittners,” open Nov. 17 through Jan. 1.

The 4,000-square-foot exhibition explores the old world craftsmanship of handmade furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries, featuring exquisite American, English and Continental furniture inspired by influential monarchs, such as King George III of England, and makers, including Thomas Chippendale.

“Kentucky furniture-making is some of the most important and elegant in the country, and Bittners, to a great extent, exemplifies that tradition,” said Madeleine Burnside, executive director of the Frazier History Museum. “They’ve been around for 150 years, so they truly are a historic company and (the ‘Top Drawer’ exhibit is) part of (the Frazier History Museum’s) commitment to local history.”

Beginning with a video by Blair Dog owner Josh Minogue and continuing with a tour of furniture vignettes, “Top Drawer” exposes how the political, cultural and social forces of the Empire, Regency, Biedermeier and Victorian periods inspired the aesthetic of furniture-making and interior design of homes. Large artwork is also placed alongside the various styles of furniture to show how certain pieces were utilized and fit into the scenery of homes in each period.

Wesley Spencer, curator of “Top Drawer,” and Andrew Kelly, associate curator, helped depict the Bittners timeline revealed throughout the exhibit, beginning in 1854, when German immigrant Gustav Bittner founded a custom cabinet shop, beginning the Bittners tradition of timeless, innovative design with a casual, elegant and comfortable style.

“Top Drawer” aspires to excite an appreciation for the only design firm that has master craftsmen on site to build and create beautiful custom-made dining room tables, chairs, headboards, cabinets and much more. Museum attendees have the opportunity to examine master-crafted furniture produced by the Bittners custom shop, from beds to desks, secretaries, chairs, sideboards, high boys and tables, as well as fine antiques from around the world.

“I think we’ve always stayed true to who we are and it has always been about quality from the beginning, and it still is about the quality of the design and of the furniture and everything that we do,” Riddle said of what he attributes most to Bittners’ long-lasting success. “I think that has been the secret of all of it.”

Several pieces in the exhibit are on loan from the private collections of notable Louisvillians and faithful Bittners clients, including Laura Frazier, Catherine Joy, Jonathan and Tracy Blue, Milton Cooper, Mary Nash and the late Owsley Brown Frazier, plus Cave Hill Cemetery and many private collectors.

Whether glancing at the Empire Pier table of Mr. Frazier or the Blues’ collection of Art Deco furniture, you’ll gain a glimpse into the personal design choices of each individual and how Bittners has been capable of pleasing myriad of lifestyles, fulfilling the firm’s vision and quest to “design for the way you live.”

“The exhibit, ‘Top Drawer,’ captures the essence of Bittners, our passion for the highest quality craftsmanship,” Riddle said. “Bittners’ value of American craftsmanship, quality and creativity is on display at this exciting exhibit. We keep the bar high for ourselves so we produce at a high level for our clients. I am most proud of how our clients have a respect for the craftsmanship and cultural heritage that Bittners has stood for over these past 150 years. I feel very honored to be fulfilling Owsley Brown Frazier and Laura Frazier’s dream for Bittners into our exciting future.”

The exhibition aptly culminates with a special room built just for the exhibition and exudes the heart of Bittners, along with the Chinese philosophy so endearing to Riddle. With American traditional to chic styles represented, urban furniture, lighting and accessories, towering bookshelves, plush couches and the classic 351 chair, the final element is a stunning tribute to the firm. Placed in the middle of the back wall is also a piece from the Speed Art Museum on loan, as part of the museum’s outreach endeavor, “Speed About Town.”

“When you end the exhibit into this lifestyle room of Bittners you can see the different styles of furniture that’s mixed into this room and how they play off of each other to make it more interesting,” Riddle said.

From beginning to end, the exhibit exemplifies Bittners’ uncompromising commitment to quality, in all the company and its talented, award-wining design team offer, from its full-service, “in-house” residential and commercial design to the area’s largest design resource room and designer showroom, on-site master craftsmen and cabinetmakers, as well as hand-crafted furniture, accessories and fine antiques.

It’s by preserving the spirit of simplicity and humility that Bittners has reached international fame and importance over the last 150 years. And, “Top Drawer” is a true testament to the diligence, elegance and dedication of this timeless Louisville treasure.

“‘Top Drawer’ represents the vision my father, Owsley Brown Frazier, had for showcasing and preserving his love of old world craftsmanship and the history of Bittners,” said Laura Frazier, chairman of Bittners. “The master craftsmen in our custom shop have been creating handmade furniture for over 150 years. I am very proud of their work, and I am committed to Bittners’ next 150 years as Louisville’s leading design firm.”

“Top Drawer” at the Frazier History Museum, 829 W. Main St., is included in regular museum admission, which is $10.50 for adults (15-59), $9.50 for military, $8.50 for seniors, $6 for children (5-14) and free for children 4 and under. For an additional fee, guests may also see “Diana: A Celebration.” Museum operating hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours on Wednesday until 8 p.m. For more information, visit FrazierMuseum.org or call 502.753.5663. 

Contact writer Ashley Anderson at aanderson@voice-tribune.com, 502.498.2051.

Photos By ROBERT BURGE | Contributing Photographer