It has been said of the ultra-modern young couples of today that if you drag a chromium-plated steel chair in front of them they'll follow it for miles. For some centuries now `the devils of fashion', to borrow Mr. Frank Pick's winged phrase, have been beguiling people along odd paths, and the passionate willingness of the modish to be eccentric has at all times encouraged queer experiments in the form of the things they were prepared to live with. Are the clustering amorini on the cresting of a Charles II chair, or the designs Thomas Chippendale produced in some of his worst moments and which disfigure so many pages of The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, better or sillier than the `quaint' style of the 'nineties?
No age has had the monopoly of good or bad taste in design of early American colonial furniture. We are just emerging from a period of bad taste, a period in which original ideas were numbed or smothered. Because copyism flourished under the rule of the antique dealers, we have ignored the character of contemporary materials. Nearly every other age has thankfully used good materials, when they came to hand. Walnut was welcomed. Mahogany was welcomed and immediately employed. Upholsterers triumphantly commandeered every material, device and trick of stuff'ing and springing that could make upholstered furniture more and more comfortable. But for the first quarter of this century we accepted without enquiry, and with a depressing unadventurousness, the materials that had been used for the previous three centuries without trying any of the bold experiments that were possible, and which are now being tried. At the moment chromium-plated tubular steel furniture is supposed to represent the last word in modernism. Perhaps, even now, as the chromium tends to flake or chip off, it is losing its appeal for earnestly modern people.' But chairs of this design, as we have seen earlier, may represent an ancient structural principle. And in France in the 'seventies and 'eighties chairs of metal rods, with X-shaped under-frames, and with backs and seats made of wire netting, were allowing frock-coated gentlemen and very frilly ladies to recline upon their gossamer fabric and be supported by their ductile frames. That was an early use of new and unusual materials. English manufacturers in the nineteenth century, leaving the designer out of the business of course, were active in the production of cage-like bedsteads made of brass and enamelled iron rods, garnished with knobs and bosses and sickly reminiscences of acanthus ornament. Not that metal beds and chairs represent a new idea at all, or metal furniture for that matter. The Naples Museum contains many examples of furniture in bronze removed from Pompeii and Herculaneum. But the distinctive thing about the furniture of metal that is made to-day is that it uses the material with ruthless logic. It shakes one out of conventional and accepted beliefs of what it is possible to support. In South Wind Norman Douglas describes the excavation of pumice-stone, and one of the characters in the book comments on the spectacle of men and boys easily carrying aloft huge' masses of this featherweight material. `Light as foam. But who can believe it? The bearers move within a few feet of us, and yet it resembles the most ponderous limestone or granite.... To me, who know the capacity of human bone and muscle, these men are a daily miracle. They mock my notions of what is permissible. How hard it is, sometimes, to trust the evidence of one's senses! How reluctantly the mind consents to reality in design of early American colonial furniture!"
It is just that feeling of outraged scale that the tubular steel chair gives to our eyes, when we see it supporting the weight of a fifteen-stone man. But the new materials for furniture-making keep on disturbing our sense of structural values. As usual this can be traced back to an architectural source, to Paxton's Crystal Palace, in fact; one of the first modern buildings in Europe. There has been a structural revolution in architecture, and it is reflected, as architecture is always reflected, in every other department of design, and particularly in furniture. The structural revolution in architecture has destroyed the importance of the wall. Buildings used to be like crustaceans, with a hard external supporting shell. The wall was strong and thick and upheld the floors and roof. Now buildings have changed into vertebrates; they have a staunch internal skeleton of steel, and the walls support nothing, but clothe the steel skeleton like a skin. Modern patronage for architecture has almost consistently refused to recognise the fact of design of early American colonial furniture this revolution and to acknowledge its aesthetic consequences. In furniture we have copied antique models. In building we have veneered the front of steel skeletons with expensive and wholly insignificant stone facades in the Judaeo-Roman style, maddeningly variegated with touches of Assyrian, Egyptian and badly mutilated Greek ornament. When we frankly acknowledge in architecture that the structural revolution has taken place, we get in Manchester something like the Daily Express building, and in London the store of Peter Jones in Sloane Square, or the Pioneer Health Centre at Peckham. These buildings interrupt the most casual man in the street, and they interrupt him in exactly the same way as a tubular steel chair or a table in some transparent plastic interrupts him. Such buildings and furniture exemplify a ruthlessly logical use of appropriate materials.
At the beginning of the century the new art movement in design of early American colonial furniture produced some abortive experiments in metal furniture. It was all drawing-board stuff, unrelated to the material, and its sinuous, floreated lines could have been expressed equally well in butter. Except for such starkly utilitarian articles as filing cabinets and other office equipment, there were few serious attempts to create metal furniture until in the years immediately following the 1914-18 war this branch of design was revived by the modern movement. Germany, released from the taste of William II, who liked corpulent carving, began to lead Europe in clean, vigorous design. (That was before design had been given political significance in Germany and the `art of the left' was persecuted by sadistic boy-scouts.) Dramatic possibilities in metal were then discovered. Nickelled and chromiumplated steel and polished aluminium came into alliance with yielding upholstery of leather and rubber, and chairs and couches appeared which were strictly metallic in character, and were as efficient as modern sanitary fittings, and, at first, just about as interesting. The crude ruthlessness of these beginnings was gradually modified; tubular metal furniture became more civilised, less insistent upon stark lines: its designers made some acknowledgement to humanity.
At the opposite pole of aesthetic aspiration is the metal furniture mass-produced in the United States. Thin sheets of metal are stamped out to form bed heads and ends, and the sides, backs and doors of cupboards. These sheets are `assembled', their edges and joints protected by strips of beading, and the proportions of wooden prototypes are followed. The result is a simple article of furniture which can be turned out by the million. Painted in plain colours, such things would at least earn the description of `blameless', but treated as they frequently are to imitate wood (something richly figured as a rule), they become under the dull hands of their makers just so many more unpleasant objects in a world already overcrowded with rubbish. The hero of Sinclair Lewis's depressing book, The Man who knew Coolidge, is in the office-equipment business, and he sings the song of metal furniture made to look like any real rich wood you fancy with the nauseating conviction that he is singing one of the finest songs in the world. It happens to be a very old song. Style early American colonial furniture in Egyptian Decorative Art, Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie, describing naturalistic decoration in Ancient Egypt, says : `... we may notice the base imitation of nature in copying the grain of wood, which we find done in the earliest times of the IVth dynasty, and continued down to the period of the Empire'.
Tubular steel furniture is part of the modern movement in architectural design and that movement has nothing to, do with the 1925 Paris Exhibition of Decorative Art, an event long regarded as a most inspiring expression of design by many people who ought to have known better. Although the furniture-maker may no longer be directly under the control of the architect, as he was in the eighteenth century, the architect ultimately controls the form, size, capacity and character of all furniture, for he provides the accommodation for it, admits or denies the necessity for its existence. The efficiently equipped rooms of modern Continental flats; their great expanses of glass and metal: their fitted cupboards that have already condemned the wardrobe to extinction even as competent plumbing condemned the washstand: the elimination of needless housework: all these spatial freedoms have come from the modern 'functionalist' movement in architecture, as far in advance of its time, perhaps, as the furniture industry of England is behind its time.
More and more the work of the architect is beginning to affect the character of the influence of early American colonial furniture. Designers whose minds are attuned to the modern movement are working with such materials as plywood, glass, steel, copper, aluminium and its alloys, and the array of chemically produced substances known as plastics. They are tackling problems of comfort, which have been solved so well in the past, but working them out with contemporary materials. The result seems strange to our eyes at first. But strange only because we are accustomed to thinking of the use of materials in accepted ways. H. G. Wells in describing one of his many Utopias has illuminated this reluctance to accept the functional consequences of an intelligent use of materials in dealing with the furnishing details of a room in the ideal civilisation he had created. He wrote : `And the forms of everything were different, simpler and more graceful. On earth, he reflected, art was largely wit. The artist had a certain limited selection of obdurate materials and certain needs, and his work was a clever reconciliation of the obduracy and the necessity and of the idiosyncrasy of the substance to the aesthetic preconceptions of the human mind. How delightful, for example, was the earthly carpenter dealing, cleverly with the grain and character of this wood or that. But here the artist had a limitless control of material, and that element of witty adaptation had gone out of his work. His data were the human mind and body. Everything in this little room was unobtrusively but perfectly convenientand difficult to misuse." The `limitless control of material' is furnished by plastics, by light metals, by plywood.
What are these new materials, and how are they used? What, for example, is plywood? It is sometimes loosely described as three-ply, and is often regarded as a shoddy, cheap material used for putting in the backs of cabinets and wardrobes where solid wood. might be too expensive. Plywood is a cheap material. But plywood represents a method of using wood in an entirely sound and economical way. It employs the principle of the sandwich. A thin sheet of wood is cemented to another sheet that has the grain running in the opposite direction, and then there is a third sheet cemented to that, providing two outer sheets with the grain running in the same direction. This braces all three sheets and reduces the tendency of thin wood to warp and twist. These three sheets form three-ply wood. But there are four-ply and five-ply and six-ply, also a material known as 'laminboard', which consists of thin strips of wood cemented together to form one large sheet, and this sheet, built up of laminations, is faced on either side with thin sheets of wood, so that a very strong and almost un-warpable board is produced. Plywood and laminboard can be veneered with any type of decorative wood, mahogany, oak, walnut, sycaipore and so forth. Plywood can also be faced with thin sheets of metal on either one or both sides, so that a material consisting of five sheets is produced : a metal face, then three sheets of wood, then another metal face. The metal faces are usually of galvanised steel, which can be painted; but they can be of aluminium, stainless steel, copper, bronze or monel metal, so that large sheets of rigid but light metal-faced material are available for furniture-making. Sheets of plastic can also be used for facing plywood.