Wednesday, May 15, 2013

New Wood For Old

Photo courtesy Flickr

A local broadcast channel repeats a cable show about home makeovers. I truly enjoy the segments I catch now and then, although they have little relevance to my personal circumstances. The narrator/designer is engaging, sensible, and canny.

Yesterday’s episode gave me pause, though, because the makeover displaced what seemed to be solidly constructed, classic hardwood furniture with the stylish tin and cheese of a worldwide chain. There’s an age of furniture that can be described as the dangerous one: too young for antique, too old for fashion, and likely a good buy used. 

The wood that evoked my protective instincts was a double dresser in the style of Thomas Sheraton, a form that in my youth said nothing but “grandmother”. Later I realized that the old girl had had an unerring eye for classic design. The piece in the show had been painted a buttery cream color, almost but not quite the careful white of a Gustavian version of eighteenth century furniture. King Gustav modified the high style of France into a charming and practical Swedish version that is still viable. 

The double dresser of my childhood was a solid hardwood American reproduction of an English classic. The drawers were dovetailed (look for a jigsaw-like pattern at the side of the front), and the thick veneer a beautiful mahogany. A piece for the ages, it lives on with cousins in another state. A neighbor deployed one of these dressers in her remodeled kitchen, and one would make a valuable sideboard in a dining room or changing table in a nursery. The top is a good standing work height.

Well-made old furniture embodies a lavish carbon budget with the forest, petroleum, craftsmanship, steel, and textiles that make it up. We used to take such things for granted and apparently still do. There’s an invisible inflation in furniture prices: $200 that would buy a classic back in the day buys little more than newsprint, glue, and spray paint now. A cabinetmaker of privilege told me in 1981 that he could not truly reproduce a Chippendale side chair for less than $5,000.

Lithuanian cabinetmaker Albert Sack defined the market for American antique furniture as he came to appreciate the forms of the pieces he repaired in the early twentieth century in Boston. Sack’s book is a very good read, and one phrase stays with me. Comparing American to British variants of the same style, he observed that the knee on a piece of American work is not likely to bend.

A small amount of time invested in training one’s eye will yield a good return. Norma Skurka’s “New York Times Book of Interior Design and Decoration” has an introductory survey that amounts to a shorthand dictionary of historical style, and the website behind the photo is rewarding. It’s helpful to know that furniture itself, as we know it, is a recent privilege, and a damned expensive one, too, environmentally speaking. The work that Sack celebrates was a way of storing excess wealth in an early Euro-American culture that had few other outlets for consumption.

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