An Antique Dealer's Blog: Looking at English Furniture

One of the difficulties in discussing taste derives in part from the necessity of making judgments. Who gets to say whether one person's love for pink and green is in bad taste and should be outlawed as their paints of choice on their suburban bungalow? It is THE question because the reality of what taste represents is so ambiguous. I know it is THE question because the town that I had my first shop in mandated that all the buildings in the commercial zone be earth colored. Huh?

Taste, good taste that is, does exist. I have nothing against pink and green, but I might not want to see it as the two primary colors on my next door neighbor's house. The harmony of things that are well thought out and placed is undeniable and I would say that the dissonance of things thrown together with insufficient thought is equally undeniable. Are dissonance and harmony the same for everyone. In music they are, but is the same true for the visual?

The fact is that good taste, as non-definable as it may be, reveals itself to people that are looking for it and, more importantly, thinking about it. The understanding of good and bad taste precludes nothing, not even pink and green as they may be fine on a Miami bungalow and appaling on one in Bangor, Maine.

The cumulative thought and the visual library that both our conscious and unconscious minds creates are, at least for those people with aesthetic ability (a concept that I would say is similar to athletic ability) that which allows for judgment. I will listen to such an aesthete all day long. Their judgment has value for me and they are for me true arbiters of taste. Unfortunately, there aren't that many of them.

5/13/2009

Three people used the word taste one morning last week so I thought I would try to define it. It isn't that easy. It is an ambiguous term that doesn't mean much and yet when certain people talk about taste, I listen. Herewith are just a few of the things I have thought about regarding taste.

1.Understanding what is good taste comes from a cumulative absorption of knowledge.

2.Some people are quicker to understand taste than others.

3.Taste is not democratic, not everyone gets it.

4.There is no mathematical model for taste.

5.Taste is not in the eye of the beholder.

6.Being stylish and having taste are not necessarily related.

7.Bad taste may be stylish, but it will never be good taste.

8.Agreeing on what is bad taste is easier than agreeing on what is good taste.

9.Committees don't have and never will have taste.

10.Venerated things might not be tasteful. 

I could go on with this list. I am reminded of the first line of "A Tale of Two Cities" when I think about taste. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Substitute taste for the word times and the oxymoron works just as well/badly. I guess there really is no accounting for taste.
 

It is hard to imagine not making judgments. They are a part of our hard wiring, a remnant of man's struggle to survive in nature when the wrong judgment could mean death.

Newspaper reporters are supposedly delivering nothing but facts, but we know that newspapers are biased. Magazines are biased in favor of their advertisers even though they claim that there is a wall between editorial and advertising.

In the English antique furniture business, it is often the decorator that will make a choice for a client. This is an awesome responsibility. How can one assume that the decorator has no irrelevant biases about buying from certain dealers? And what about the people that like to buy their English furniture in England? It is seldom the product that is being focused on in such cases.

The problem with bias is how unsupportable it usually is. If there were good reasons for not liking something, that would be fine, but more often than not we dislike something because our thinking has been influenced. This is very clear in how "viral" marketing is done. We will do something because we see others doing it.

Judgment is supposed to come from experience. But if we get sick on broccoli the first time we eat it  when we already had a stomach bug, is that judgment fair? Judgment, and hence bias, at least for us in the twenty-first century, are not reflexes that are necessarily protecting us from doing the wrong thing. We do that without thinking.

In a nod to David Foster Wallace's title for a group of essays called, "Consider the Lobster", I decided not to title this piece an ode, despite what may be the storied history of the barcalounger. Mr. Wallace's keen and incisive understanding of the world in general has led me to want to better understand the barcalounger, albeit aesthetically not historically, and in as few words as possible.

But first, David Foster Wallace's untimely death (an oxymoron, I know since he was a suicide, but his death would have been untimely if he had lived to 104) was a blow to American arts and letters. His thoughts are like cluster bombs that explode from paragraph to footnote to footnote on footnote (to a size that requires either great eyesight or great spectacles). My appreciation for his relentless nailing down of idea is boundless. I wish I had such an intellect, but greatly appreciate not having the depression which ultimately led to his suicide. I am an instant fan.  

The inherent contradiction that lies in all furniture is that of function and aesthetics, that is if you are going to actually use the furniture and not stare at it like a piece of sculpture. Like emotion and intellect, function and aesthetics have a hard time lying together on the same couch. The barcalounger, easily among the most comfortable of, I can't say chair because it isn't, recliners, has no aesthetic quality. I mean, when you get down to it, why not a hospital bed?

The tradition from which the barcalounger comes is 19th century patented furniture. This furniture was rife as furniture makers endeavored to create fortunes by making a piece that every household in America would need. A few were successful, but aethetics were never a strong point in this race. Indeed, you might say they were altogether sacrificed.

The lineage of the barcalounger is obscure to me and I am not certain that I wish to discover it, as worthy a story as it may be. Let it be said, however, that this recliner, as stated earlier, is not a chair. It is a heavy object, it is a place in which the remote can disappear and it is often the most coveted parking space in a room in a great many households. But for me, I'd rather have the hospital bed, albeit in the bedroom. The rest of the house is for sitting.  

4/27/2009

At the end of Charlotte Bronte's novel, "Jane Eyre", Jane is talking about the ward, a young French girl under the charge of Mr. Rochester named Adele who has benefitted by "...a sound English education [that] corrected in great measure her French defects;" The chauvinism in that sentence is amusing given the French/English tussle that has gone on since the Norman Conquest. Score one for the Brits by Ms. Bronte.

It is new things, however that interest me. Newness is something not all of us are easy with for a host of reasons. Familiarity allows us to relax, new things, essential as they are, can vex us. When I think of how furniture design was roiled in England by the French (Et tu, Ms. Bronte?) with the introduction of rococo (readily adapted by the English but with less gusto) not to mention a home grown Gothick style as well as a touch of chinoiserie, the British of the 1740's and 50's, at least the young turks of that era, must have been looked upon as heretical in their tastes.

The judgment of the furniture design of that era has never really ended, however. As comfortable as it may make some people to have a nice rococo mirror, there are still ugly rococo mirrors from the 1750's out there. There are also some pretty spectacular ones as well. Shift to 2009 and try to imagine just how much of the contemporary art which was, up until recently, so very hot and try to think where it will be in 250 years.

New things and new ideas are like bread to humanity. But all things are judged from the moment they exist to the moment they cease to exist. Ideas that are overly intellectual without emotional impact (or vice-versa) will sooner or later lose their foothold on our imaginations. And some things that die prematurely will be reborn so there is hope for just about everything. English furniture, I might add, has a very nice track record thusfar and will continue to do so because when it works, it is among the most comfortable and beautiful furniture of all time.

 

My brother and I used to stay up late for any movies with Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and the great duo, William Powell and Myrna Loy who starred in the Thin Man movies. All of these people embodied elegance and style and yet it was always with a certain amount of tongue in cheek, as if their elegance was so second nature that they were just deigning to be in the movie for a lark. It was almost like watching a movie within a movie to see how effortlessly the plot would unravel while the actors slipped through their roles.

Beau Brummel (1778-1840) was the first dandy. He dared to wash and shave every day besides dressing elegantly. He was a favorite of the Prince Regent whose stylish excesses were largely architectural including Carlton House (since razed) on the Mall not far from Buckingham House (now Palace). Once the prince was the official Regent and cast off his former alliances, he chose to snub Brummell by staring through him without speaking to him. Brummell chose a riposte that earned him permanent dudgeon by observing to his friend Alvanley, "Alvaney, who's your fat friend?" (I found this on Wikipedia and it isn't footnoted to a source.)

The NPR program, "Soundcheck" with John Schaefer had guests Rhys Chatham and Robert Longo to talk about their avant-garde band yesterday. Only one clip of their music was played so my judgment of their music is based less on what I heard them play and more on what I heard them say which was to say Philip Glass and the Velvet Underground were among their inspirations. I like the Velvet Underground, but I find Philip Glass too random for my structured sense of music. Mea culpa, but I will dare to say that none of these performers are particularly elegant to listen to, a weakness that I am certain avant-gardists everywhere bemoan in people like myself. 

"The Brother Gardeners" by Andrea Wulf is a delightful new bookon the history of gardening in England. She begins the narrative in 1733 with the correspondence between John Bartram, a farmer  near Philadelphia, and Peter Collinson, a London merchant obsessed with plants. Collinson and Bartram began the explosion that was the importation of American plants to London which would permanently affect the palate and, in so doing, the design of the English garden.

Like English gardens, English furniture in 1733 was stylistically derivative. Continental furniture was the template and English furniture evolved therefrom. But the English baroque style was about to flower and before long, English furniture designers and makers would be seen as competing with the best furniture makers on the continent in such innovative styles as Gothick, rococo, chinoiserie and neo-classical. The assertion of the English style marked a nation growing in confidence in more ways than one.

The transformation of England into a mature self confident and self reliant society is visible on a number of fronts within England at this time. That garden and furniture design would seemingly evolve almost simultaneously into such English strengths is not such an odd story when you think of what is at the root of England's Age of Enlightenment and that is scientific observation. The Royal Society, established in 1660, made its cause the determination of natural laws. In so doing, experimentation revealed truths that were constants. Knowing things, instead of thinking you know things, makes a difference. It was no where more evident than in 18th century England.
 

4/20/2009

The SOFA Show (Sculpture Objects & Functional Art) at the 69th St. Armory on Park Avenue proved to be more than interesting. There were some exceptional exhibitions. It made me wonder just how an artist becomes famous. Is it by getting a piece in a museum or is it by having a book done on you? Perhaps it is just living large and having other people talking large about you. The stars of today such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst certainly know how it is done, but could they do it again if they had to? In other words, do they even know how they got so big?

In the 18th century, artists were either amateur or paid on commission. They were famous if they made a good likeness. One of the more famous 18th century artists was a mediocre painter, William Kent. Kent's patron, Lord Burlington, got him appointed to be court painter at the expense of James Thornhill, William Hogarth's father-in-law. Hogarth was outraged and whenever he got the chance ridiculed the importation of foreign ideas for architecture and decoration, something Lord Burlington, the preeminent Palladian in England was dedicated to. Kent, of course, was the intended butt of the joke, but Kent went on to become one of the greatest of English gardeners and decorators. His Etruscan room at Kensington Palace is a triumph as is the trompe l'oeil painting in the stairwell.

Art, like beauty, is allegedly in the eye of the beholder. If that is true and millions of people swoon over something that is mediocre at best, does it make that object art? No, that is nothing but taste, good, bad or indifferent. Art isn't elected art. Popularity or high prices for things has nothing to do with art either. Art is............, well, I might suggest a visit to a SOFA show, or perhaps any old art show, a museum, an antique shop, a gallery. I think you get the idea--keep on looking.

The Kips Bay Show House opened this week in New York. I found it revealing that the reporter for the NY Times talked more about the house, its former owner and its current owner, than the decorating. I would liken the work of the designers to a six year old's birthday party, chaotic with a tantrum or two for attention with a couple of really lovely kids who know how to behave. I am certain that almost all the designers are capable of doing great work, but there was little of it on display.

Art in 18th century England was something that was purchased abroad. The Grand Tour was one of the vehicles by which a gentleman became such and en route, he purchased art. One of the better dealers on this tour was the Ambassador to the Court of Two Sicilies, William Hamilton, who was married to the irrepressible Emma, destined to become the mistress to Horatio Nelson, England's greatest maritime hero. Nelson's imprint is indelible on England, but Hamilton's is as well as anyone who has seen the multitude of Greek vases he sold to English tourists, let alone the extraordinary Portland vase that he sold in auction in London, can attest. 

The NY Times today has a review of the SOFA (Sculpture Objects & Functional Art) Show at the Armory. The reporter, Roberta Smith, focuses on the word, "craft", of which she is an admirer. So am I, because art can derive from craft but art cannot derive without craft. Indeed, the exploration of craft is not dissimilar to the observation of the natural world. Would that interior decorators be so moved to the exploration of craft or even the observation of the natural world rather than expressing a sociological convention of the moment. It would be a breath of fresh air.  

Thoreau's, "Walden", is an American literary tour de force with environmental writing that is green even by today's standards. He comes across as an enfant terrible, idiot savant and contrarian all wrapped in one package. I wasn't phased a bit when a friend told he cheated and did not stay the whole time at Walden. In fact, it made perfect sense that he was imperfect in his cause. It is his observations of nature, however, that make Thoreau so interesting, not his philosophical or sociological diatribes, his great erudition notwithstanding. He sees harmony in the illogical battle of red and black ants and debunks the superstition of the alleged limitless bottom of Walden Pond--these moments are his raison d'etre, his key to the understanding of the cosmos.

The Lunar Society (1765-1813) was a group of men who met in order to improve their own and ultimately man's better understanding of the natural world. They were one of the many keys that helped accelerate the Industrial Revolution. Some of their members such as James Watt whose perfection of the steam engine allowing its adaptation to industry and Matthew Boulton who helped build those engines (along with incredibly fine gilded candelabra purchased by the King) had a direct hand in the process. These men were observers of the natural world and, in a way, direct forebears to Henry David Thoreau.

The ability to see patterns in nature and to identify detail are intrinsic to the development of civilization allowing for the domestication of plants and animals. But as it is clear that the self described "lunaticks" used their knowledge to better man's lot, it is equally clear that Thoreau saw man losing sight of the lessons of the natural world to man's detriment. Both Thoreau and the lunaticks saw that the focus on nature would help dispel superstition and supercilious conventions to the benefit of man. It is the essential starting point for making dreams into reality. Creativity doesn't have a better starting point.
 

The presumption that regulation strangles creativity can be true. Everyone knows that committees are the perfect way to create snafus. The word, snafu, in fact was coined in the army, a regulatory nightmare in the eyes of many. But the military also recognizes the need for hierarchy, boundaries, and, of course, regulations. In the broader context of our society, it is clear that unfettering capitalism from regulations can lead to growth but at what price? The absence of regulations result in businesses that are too big to fail.

In the first quarter of the 18th century, there was a financial scandal called the South Sea Bubble which was hinged to the rights of trading in South America. The venture was agreed upon by Britain and Spain and was never successful even though the British government guaranteed returns on the money invested in the venture. Basically, it was an ill thought out venture that turned into a sort of Ponzi scheme. There was a huge fallout with many government ministers resigning and the econmy going into a nose dive. It became a matter of who knew what when as members of the government saved themselves and their friends first by divesting themselves of their shares at the height of the market.

There are people that may argue that our current economic malaise wasn't allowed to develop and that if it had, it would have created a better financial system. That is sort of like saying the best way to lose weight is not to eat. Of course it is, but there is a sensible way and a foolish way. The greed factor that enabled huge and illusory profits demonstrates a bent moral compass. The bible, not a place that I usually look to for guidance, inveighs against greed making it clear that man, ignoble as he is, needs guidance in all things. Creativity, I believe, can still find a place despite those strictures.  

A recent critique in the NY Times noted that Obama's jaunt to Europe was unsatisfactory as he failed to get the Europeans to enact a stimulus package, failed to get troop support in Afghanistan and acceded to the idea of regulatory agencies that might affect the sovereignty of the U.S. The sovereignty issue was huge in 1917 and still pretty large in 1950, but in 2009, it just isn't. After all, it was America's toxic assets in the form of sub-prime mortgages and insurance derivatives that helped spark the current economic meltdown. In truth, our system, capitalism per se, is enhanced by being a good global citizen. And besides, when has America not done exactly what it pleased?

The balkanization of the English cabinetmaking trade began around 1770. The burgeoning English middle class needed furniture and there were capitalists ready to supply it, people who flouted the rules of the Cabinetmakers Guild and used untrained people to make, for the most part, second rate furniture. Clearly, the lack of regulation affected these shops and the larger shops, realizing that there was a huge demand, started making various levels of furniture to compensate for this huge demand. It was the bandits, however, who broke all the rules using substandard quality materials to make second rate furniture. This trade began to be known as the "dishonorable" furniture trade and this is the furniture that is either shunned today or used as "breakers" for their old pieces.

The watchword for quality is regulation, at least for ongoing businesses. New businesses will fail if the idea is no good because a lot of people will dismiss the idea out of hand. But existing businesses that try to add new wrinkles to their old line are ripe for con men, just as the customers who buy those new wrinkles from their trusted advisors are ripe to be taken. Running with an idea is capitalism at its greatest, but running with a bad idea that makes money in the short term but costs in the long term needs oversight. This is why I wonder why anyone cares about sovereignty, at least vis-a-vis regulation. We are all in this together. There is no room for any dishonorable businesses today, even if they supply a short term demand.

 

The NY Times had a wonderful group of three editorials yesterday written by an Englishman, a German and a French woman. They were about President Obama and all, surprisingly, quite positive. The English writer, A.A. Gill, was characteristically snarky about a lot of things including the French, the class system in England, Gordon Brown the Prime Minister, Carla Bruni and English/French history. It was amusing and informative with a few nice jabs ending on a positive note for the American president, which might possibly be a first, or perhaps a first since FDR entered the Second World War.

The German writer, Christoph Peters, uses very long sentences full of polysyllabic words to analyze the current state of European angst. I remember reading Freud's case histories in college which were fascinating until I got to Freud's analysis. Then I would fall asleep. Similarly, the few German philosophers that I tried, Goethe in particular, had a similar affect on me. I would still like to understand him better, but alas...,

The French writer, Amelie Nothomb, finishes with a wonderful little billet doux to Obama. Her understanding is that envy, a great French motive for just about anything, should be eating at the French President Sarkozy. And the reason for this, she asserts, is Obama's dignity, a French raison d'etre if ever there was one. I knew I loved the French. I admit to loving the English and the Germans as well and I only wish an Italian editorialist had been enlisted. I might have learned something about style.

4/3/2009

Whenever it rains like it did today at noon, I remember the camping trip I went on in upper Ontario. It was, I think, twenty-three days long, and I think it rained for three weeks of that trip. Not just a little rain, but a lot of rain and sometimes so hard that you could not see the other canoes. It was a wearying trip.

Weather is an part of an English person's persona. Ride a bus in any city after rush hour and the retirees on the bus will talk about the weather. I left England because of the weather. Five years of it cured me of the charm associated with perpetual late fall. I have often wondered if the weather affected the cabinetmaking trade in the 18th century. It must have in some way that I haven't thought of.

The things I remember on that canoe trip were the two moose we saw, one from about six feet away, the fact that the fish never bit and that the blueberries on blueberry hill were not that sweet. It was extremely miserable and I still remember the look on the customs man at the airport in Montreal when he asked to look in my back pack. He must have lived with that smell in his nostrils for at least a week.  

Carson McCullers' novel, "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter", is about as bleak a picture of American life in the 1930's as could be imagined. Racism, economic uncertainty, adolescent angst, unrequited love and flat out despair are all rolled into one that leaves one with a cold sense of foreboding. "The Grapes of Wrath", Steinbeck's vision of the 1930's migration to California by thousands of share cropping farmers from the Dust Bowl, by contrast, leaves one with a sense of hope.

Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840) was among the first English women novelists.  The daughter of Dr. Charles Burney, a well known musicologist and organist, her life included trials such as near fatal ennui as lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte and near fatal breast cancer where ten male doctors removed a breast without anesthetic. Her novels (the first of which was "Evelina") documented the improbability of romance between those of disparate economic backgrounds. Jane Austen took up where she left off. Her outlook, skepticism of class notwithstanding, is upbeat.

The America of the 1930's, particularly in the south, was a circumscribed place for many. McCullers expands and massages the theme with a relentless morbidity. Contrast that with the celebrated, "Forrest Gump", a movie determined to prove that opportunity was merely a matter of chance that almost anyone could pick up on. The line in between is Fanny's and is the one I prefer to follow.