UNQUESTIONABLY, American home-makers are taking a more and more intelligent interest in the historic styles in furniture. Rapidly have the so-called modern styles and designs of no particular period given place to these historic styles, or what purport to represent them. In fact, the vogue for this sort of thing has been of almost too rapid a growth; it has led to superficial knowledge and slipshod execution. The American purchaser appears willing to pay good prices for period furniture, while his knowledge of the period styles, as well as that of the salesman, is astonishingly slight. I doubt whether he would buy pictures or phonograph records on such slight information—certainly not books or theater tickets or automobiles.
The way this vogue for the historic styles has caught on is impressive to one who follows art movements and similar tendencies. At the present moment the furniture and department stores of New York are displaying almost nothing but period furniture, and window labels and show cards mention the names of Queen Anne or Thomas Chippendale. It has proved to be "good selling stuff."
All this is something we must take account of. To this increased demand for period furniture the manufacturers have responded readily with an increased output of more or less meritorious reproductions of period furniture. Should there not be an equally ready response from those whose business or pleasure it is to disseminate information and try to correct the prevalent American tendency to go wrong in matters artistic?
As a matter of fact, something ought to be done, not only because education is always better than ignorance, but because, to put it bluntly, good American dollars are being spent for trash.
I said that the New York stores were displaying period furniture. That was a euphemism. Period furniture it is called, and period furniture it looks like to the uninformed shopper. Some of it, indeed, is period furniture, for there are, of course,
English Gothic oak livery cabinet. Fifteenth century
English oak cabinet with linen-fold curving. Fifteenth century
Carved marriage chest or cassone. Sixteenth century
Italian carved walnut bench. Sixteenth century plenty of conscientious, studious, skilful designers, and there are manufacturers who are honest enough and wise enough and possessed of enough of the spirit of craftmanship to impel them to seek for beauty and accuracy in their reproductions, and to tell the truth about them.
The uninformed shopper, alas, has no means of distinguishing between the products of the honest and careful manufacturer and those of the other sort. When I look into New York shop windows and observe, beautifully displayed, the usual sort of reproduction that is two fifths period style and three fifths the joint product of a Grand Rapids draftsman and an automatic turning lathe, the whole thing gracefully termed a William and Mary dining-room suite, I sometimes wonder what the more particular Englishmen or Frenchmen must think of us. For a large portion of the so-called period furniture displayed in our stores is just that—a hybrid, mongrel style, with just enough historic details to produce a sort of off-hand resemblance to the genuine thing, compounded with the most casually designed and executed machine work showing neither taste nor imagination.
Permit me to remark, parenthetically, that my reference to Grand Rapids was not intended as a slur upon the fair name of that city. For Grand Rapids has become not only the greatest furniture producing center in the world, but it is rapidly becoming something very like an art center, so far as applied art is concerned. Time was when the art of Grand Rapids was a joke, but she has outgrown the days of Mission furniture and crude imitations and is probably producing as much fine furniture to-day—true to type, beautifully designed and honestly executed—as any city in the world.
But Grand Rapids and other cities where furniture is made are continually producing so-called period furniture that is just wrong enough to be dangerous. In proportion, workmanship, and finish, it may even be very good furniture, but it is not what it purports to be. It finds a ready customer in the man or woman of fairly good taste who almost knows what the historic styles are, but not quite.
I do not mean to intimate that one should purchase nothing but genuine antiques; there wouldn't be enough to go around, even if we could all afford them. Our homes are the more beautiful because of the reproduction of historic styles by modern manufacturers. Nor must every piece be an exact copy of an authentic antique. The requirements of modern life call for pieces of furniture that were not made in Jacobean or Georgian days. But it is quite possible for a well-equipped designer to fashion a library or bedroom suite, for example, in which every detail is authentic, and which exemplifies the true spirit of the period that it seeks to represent. This, indeed, requires greater skill than mere copying, and not all designers possess that skill. The result is the mass of near-period furniture of which I have been speaking.
Now what shall we do about it, since we cannot hope to reform the manufacturers? Shall we go on buying it, flattering ourselves that we have the real thing? Or shall we learn to discriminate between the true and the not-quite-true? Furniture of this type should last a lifetime. Shall we condemn ourselves to a life-long association with styles that are essentially counterfeit?
This is not an argument for or against the use of period furniture. The fact is that the historic styles are popular, and furniture which claims to be true to type is being constantly bought and sold. If we desire period furniture in our homes, let it be genuine in design.
How can we be sure of what we are getting? We cannot depend on a salesman's say-so. He may be honest, but no better posted than we are. Our only safeguard is a more thorough education along these lines, and the time to get this education is before purchasing, not after. When purchasers are at last able to distinguish for themselves between the true and the false, the manufacturers will be forced into line, and we shall find less of the pseudo-period styles in our shops.
The average American likes a quick and easy path to knowledge, but that is not the way to become familiar with the essentials of the historic styles. One must visit museums and make a study of authentic examples. One must read books on the subject—of which many good ones have been printed. One must study the illustrations in these books until one can recognize at a glance the period of a piece, as one recognizes the make of a motor car by the shape of the hood or the proportions of the body. Then, when one sees a chair or a table in a shop window, one can tell at a glance whether or not it possesses the fundamental characteristics of the style indicated on the label.
It must not be expected that this handbook will supply that education in tabloid form. The chapters which follow are intended rather to serve as a sort of primer to the complete study, or as a guide and ready reference for the refreshment of memory.
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