In 2003, the art of Tasos Vardopoulos was honored by the commemorative stamp issue.
TASOS VARDOPOULOS: SCULPTING WOODEN STAIRS by Joanna Werch Takes
Tasos Vardopolous grew up surrounded by the craft of wooden stair making, and began working in the business in 1973. He is the third generation of his family to participate in this craft: Anastasios Vardopolous was the first family member to practice wooden stairmaking in Athens, Grece, beginning in 1905; his son Yiannis and grandson Tasos followed in his footsteps.
Tasos is still using the tools inherited from his ancestors, and “Each and every one of my wooden staircases is completely built using traditional hand tools,” he said.
Tasos currently has a collection of 1,350 classic hand tools – “I am always trying to discover any old hand tool from decommissioned craftsmen in order to enrich my collection and my experience,” he said. “Certainly, discovering new tools is interesting, but I always prefer to use those tools that allow me to remain faithful to tradition.”
Tasos uses those tools (among them: hollow planes, chisels, spokeshaves, marking gauges, and more) to shape and create the stairs. The joint between each stairstep and the spiral string is a key part of the construction.
“The steps are implanted in the helicoidal string one by one,” Tasos explained. “That means that a recess needs to be created into the string, and that must be of the same shape and size as the side face of the step. Therefore, the only way is to patiently carve the string without room for mistakes.”
Hardwood lumber is necessary for the stairs and strings to protect against wear and tear, Tasos says. He finds oak to be the most suitable for this purpose. For the handrails, balustrades and railings, he prefers using what in Europe is called “noble lumber”: exotics and highly figured woods.
Each staircase is completed in his workshop, then moved in pieces to the place where it will be installed. Many of those locations are in private homes, but you can also find one of Tasos’s wooden spiral staircases in the Benaki Museum in downtown Athens.
One of the most challenging projects he has completed, Tasos said, was “a case when I was asked not to put rails between the helicoidal string and the handrail. So the helicoidal string, the handrail and the balustrades were replaced by one solid piece of wood, 1.1 meters tall, which had to be carved and twisted parallel to the direction of the stair. That was a very demanding construction of a staircase that had never before been constructed in Greece. There might be such constructions that give the illusion of a piece of wood twisting around the steps and protect whoever walks the staircase, but they are not made from a solid piece of wood.”
In this project and in others, Tasos said, the art of making handmade wooden stairs is related to sculpture. “For this reason, I am convinced that no technique can bring a staircase to perfection if the craftsman does not possess the feel of a sculptor.
“It is also certain that good taste cannot be taught, but is rather a matter of culture and constant effort. That is why I consider myself to be a constant student that keeps trying day in and day out to do his work in the best possible way.”
In addition to being a student, Tasos also wants to be a teacher. While he loves his craft, he notes that he is unfortunately the last one of his family line to carve wooden stairs. He also cannot find a school or other educational institution in Greece where he can share his knowledge, so he is now turning his efforts abroad.
“The hand arts in Greece and also around the world, as far as I know, are declining, and less and less people are interested to make a living out of them,” Tasos said. “One of my future goals is to teach my art.”
Tuesday, 3 February 2015
As a child I remember walking downstairs in my aunt and uncle’s Victorian house in the north of England and marvelling at the way the profile of the handrail (then at my eye level) flowed around the return between one flight and another. I could see how the straight bits might be made, but that seamlessly integrated return was really, really clever.
In the careful hands of Athenian Tasos Vardopoulos, the craft of the stairmaker is elevated to a sculptural art form. His ability to make a staircase flow like a waterfall, twist like a serpent, or spread into a room like the train of a wedding dress is legendary among the top flite of European architects. To them, his exceptional skills provide a whole extra palette of sculptural forms with which they can express their vision for a space. Each of his architectural confections is completely unique, tailored to enhance the space and the building.
Like so many elite craftsmen, Tasos works entirely with hand tools. This isn’t a faded romantic notion, despite all the technological advancements of the last century, hand and eye is still the most efficient way to make unique and geometrically complex one off pieces like the progressively curved stringer below:
Apprenticeship is the process of supercharging a lifetime of hands on experience with the enriched wisdom of previous generations, it is at the very core of what the crafts do. There are many notable exceptions, but the process of training and apprenticeship often tends to be particularly potent when the individuals involved are related.
Tasos was trained by his father Yiannis Vardopoulos and his grandfather Anastasios, who brought his helicoidal stairmaking skills to Athens from the city of Smyrnos over a century ago. I am sure Anastasios would be immensely proud to see both the depth of his grandson’s mastery of the craft, the artistry with which he employs it, and the pleasure that his elegant creations bring to his clients and their successors.
Perhaps one day, many years from now, another small boy will walk down one of Mr Vardopoulos’ staircases and pause for a moment to reflect upon the skills of the man who made it. I hope that he too will be able to find a living contemporary in whom those skills not only live on, but thrive and grow.
Tassos Vardopoulos’ work is included in the research carried out by Mr. Tadahisha Tahashi, research member of the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan which is subdized by the Imperial House and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science under the general topic “Transformation of the Craftsmen in Balkans”.
…In Athens I visited the workshop of a wooden stair constructor (Tassos J. Vardopoulos) and saw his tools. In Japan there is no a particular craftsman for stairs (usually it is constructed by a master carpenter accοrdιng to the needs). Here, the characteristic is that the spiral stair is made by wood. In the past, there were many stair carpenters, however today, there is only this one left. We may see spiral stairs in buildings in the city but the material havs been replaced by metal. Spiral stairs either from wood or metal can be found in various areas as a building;s interior design. This trend has its origin in Europe.
Report on the changes of craftsmen in Bakans (2006) within the frame of research carried out on behalf of the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan, subsidized by the Imperial House and the Japan Society for the promotion of Sciences cinnected with the work of Tassos Vardopoulos.
Project: Residence in Kifissia
Completion Date: 2008
The 1,300 m2 residence is located in Kifissia, within a 2,800 m2 plot. The house was designed using the neoclassical buildings of Kifissia as inspiration. The design set the central staircase as a focal point, with all the main spaces planned around it. A special aspect of the project was the refurbishment of the existing chapel located within the plot.