A legacy carved in wood- The New Indian Express

2022-05-13 03:31:20 By : Ms. Elaine Yang

Mani’s & Company is a treasure trove of vintage wooden furniture where each piece has a history hidden in its hinges 

Published: 12th May 2022 06:24 AM   |   Last Updated: 12th May 2022 06:24 AM   |   A+ A  A-

CHENNAI: A handcrafted wooden chest of drawers, showing signs of wear and tear owing to its age patiently awaits to be restored and passed on to its new owner. A careful glance reveals chalk marks of the initials of its ex-owner and a delivery number given at the time of purchase on one of the draws. It’s common to spot similar markings on several other heirloom gems, awaiting a new lease of life, at Mani’s & Company. A visit to the unassuming furniture store, on the Royapettah High Road, reinforced our belief that old-world charm has its way of working magic on people of all generations. And, perhaps, that’s how the store has consistently retained its strong foothold in the price-sensitive yet competitive market since 1969. 

A repository of relics Sharing the worth of the furniture that had our full attention, DF Nathan — the only long-standing employee since the store’s inception — says, “The chest of drawers was purchased by its first owner in 1972 for Rs 140. We are refurbishing and retailing the same piece today for Rs 18,000.” As Nathan walks us around the 10,000-sq-ft space with maze-like passages, he incessantly sings the praise of the founder ST Subramanian. “We used to conduct auctions of household furniture on this premises till 2000. Sir knew the industry inside-out and the latest trends at the back of his hand. I accidentally stepped into this profession for a livelihood with zero knowledge and he thoroughly groomed me in every aspect from finances to marketing. ‘Whether a stool or chair, your job is to show the customer what they want politely and get the deal sealed,’ he would reiterate. I’m indebted to him,” shares the store manager. 

After Subramanian’s demise, the store was taken over by his sons Chandrasekar S and Ashok Kumar S. It’s currently run by Muthukumar N, the third-generation owner. “After my father and grandfather, it’s Nathan Anna who knows the A-Z of the business. I’ve picked up the trade under his watchful eyes and guidance,” he humbly admits. Nathan, meanwhile, shows us some of the prized possessions from their extensive collection. “At first sight, the place might come across as a dump. But, the furniture here is worth many crores. We have sofas, chairs, almirahs, beds, mirror stands, wardrobes, tables, stools, and cupboards of the bygone era. All of them are over 70 years old. But, only those that are over 100 years old are called antique, so we wouldn’t call ourselves an antique store. We retail furniture that our dealers source from Tamil Nadu, and restore and sell them for that date’s price. We are transparent with our customers and adhere to ethical practices,” he says. 

Housed in a building over a century old, every corner of the store has something that catches the eye and evokes a sense of nostalgia. A solid, multi-layered wooden bookshelf with versatile glass panels, a traditional hinged door almirah, a teakwood console table with a smooth finish and well-trimmed legs, a broad sofa-cum-diwan with a hand-painted backrest, a wooden armchair with rusty handrest…name it and surprises come in all shapes and sizes. “The interiors of the store are well-ventilated to ensure the stock lasts a lifetime. A striking architectural feature of our shop is the Kurangu (sloping) roof held by lofty pillars. The space is airy to show the customers around. We’ve not experienced any challenges with maintaining the stock as termites don’t attack rosewood or teakwood. All we do is scrap and polish the furniture once in a while to offer it a new look,” notes Nathan.

Workmanship & worthiness The store boasts many generations of clientele from Tamil Nadu, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru. It serves as a source of inspiration to interior designers and fine art students by giving them innovative ideas to deck up homes with a traditional touch. The place is also frequented by art directors who pick up rare pieces to design the film sets. “Furniture is similar to gold. People continue to purchase them after a touch and feel experience. While that doesn’t compensate for the damage caused by online shopping, it keeps us afloat to an extent. Even with today’s advancements, we may not be able to reproduce the craftsmanship and carpentry skills of those days. For seasoned eyes, it’s easy to spot the difference between the original and the replica because these are not machine-cut furniture and the imperfections are noticeable. As of now, we only sell restored pieces. Customisation is possible to an extent, but we don’t have the manpower to manufacture a piece from scratch,” says Muthukumar. 

The duo tells us that the pandemic has emphasised the timelessness of wooden furniture and spiked its demand. The prices have also spiraled multi-fold compared to what they were decades ago. Nathan gives us a reality check. “A stool that I sold for Rs 3 costs Rs 1,000 today. A cupboard that I sold for Rs 180 costs Rs 6,500 today. And, a table that I sold for Rs 600 is Rs 3,000 today. For all the pieces sold, an entry used to be made with the delivery number and initials of the owners.

People even used to purchase on auspicious dates. Customers today are more educated and informed about their choices. The work-from-home culture has also brought a recent interest in interior designing. We are also observing this trend in restaurants when it comes to the choice of furniture. Instead of giving away their old furniture, they are refurbishing and giving them a second chance. Even youngsters are opting for traditional designs. Those who understand the worth of wood and have experienced it, keep coming back. Unlike your modern options, the furniture of those days was sturdier, did not cause body pain, and lasted lifelong. Like they say, old is gold,” says a hopeful Nathan. 

Since the pandemic, Muthukumar has made small progress with digital interactions and transactions. “We’ve been showing our product catalogue to customers through WhatsApp. The next plan is to set up a website to expand our client base. We’ve been too old-school to embrace the changes instantly. One step at a time,” assures Muthukumar. 

For details, call: 28133078, 9444401898. Address: Old No 17 New No 31, A, Royapettah High Road, Chennai: 600014  

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