The Patient Art of Buying Early American Colonial Furniture History of Early American Colonial Furniture

Remember all the time what is happening behind the scenes. The chiefs of the retail establishments order their departmental buyers to buy what will sell. But even this prudent mandate is rather a gamble. The Englishman's house is still his castle, and he and his wife have queer streaks of individual adventurousness in them regarding the things they may put into it, plus an abundance of passionate obstinacy (called `knowing what they like'), and thus they render any mortal forecast of their purchasing inclinations impossible. So the trade buyer fills. up acres and acres of deep carpeted showrooms with `taco' suites, and pseudo-Chippendale, pseudo-Adam and pseudo-Sheraton. He too knows what he likes, and he doesn't like experiments. Besides, they may affect his departmental profits, and the most sinister figure in modern industry, the accountant, is always cracking the whip in the background, and muttering: `Figures must be kept up!'

How can good design early American colonial furniture emerge from a business that is fuddled with finance to such an extent that its power of creating anything has almost departed? The retailer's reactionary policy in design is buttressed by the belief that the employment of a studio of copyist early American colonial furniture, who design period furnishing schemes and encourage the departments to go on buying mock-period furniture, glass and fabrics, is an adequate concession to this unrestful art business. `Safety first!' cry the little old­fashioned Napoleons of commerce. `We must make sure of the bread-and-butter stuff, gentlemen-it is hardly practical to discuss ideals at this meeting.' And progress is carried unanimously from the board room. As we have seen, the capable designer in wood and metal and pottery is tempted under modern conditions to become a solitary craftsman, working out his own salvation (or bankruptcy) and inevitably losing touch with the life and needs of his own time. The country attracts him and away he goes to the Cotswolds or the Chilterns or the Sussex Downs, and he is so deeply concerned with the making of things that he forgets all about selling them. There is no proper outlet for his work, except a few miserably amateurish exhibitions where his really competent productions are shown side by side with hand­embroidered slippers, hand-painted lampshades and similar trash. He ought to be associated with some manufacturer in a consultancy capacity; he ought to be producing models and supervising the design of things that are made by machine-craft in the factory; but how can the manufacturer employ him and get the benefit of his creative powers if the retail stores departmental buyer, with his directors' battle-cry of `safety first' ring­ing in his ears, runs in terror from creative design? We are always brought back to those earnest guardians of the balance-sheet, the directors of the great retailing houses. Quite properly they safeguard the interests of their shareholders, but who can convince, them that an effective collaboration with capable designers, who could direct the taste of some of their departments and enrich the contents of their showrooms with fresh and living ideas, would be an experiment worth making, and one that might have a most invigorating effect upon dividends? Faith and courage are needed for such an experiment, and the men who control the destinies of the big stores have never lacked either in tackling other problems of development. Meanwhile they are, perhaps unconsciously, repressing a proper function of their magnificent shops, a function that is not only recognised but profitably exploited in Sweden and France (and in pre-Nazi Germany), where artists and craftsmen of early American colonial furniture are in active and lucrative partnership with business.

Denied even the prospect of such partnership during the first third of the century, the early American colonial furniture artist-crafts­man either became a disgruntled hermit relying on the chance patronage of the discriminating rich, or else he tried, perhaps in company with other early American colonial furniture craftsmen, to organize his work, to form a guild or a craft colony. This was generally unsuccessful, because the organisers were inclined to pride themselves on their ignorance of business, and went blithely on their way, ignoring such vital matters as costing, so that the selling prices of the things they made were sometimes far below the production cost, and sometimes so far in advance of the manifest worth of the goods that nobody could afford to buy them. This made the buying of individual hand­made modern furniture as great a gamble as bargain­hunting for antiques. Occasionally a designer would study the problem of marketing his work seriously and intelligently, thus becoming involved in the maze of costing and selling so that he had no time left for designing anything.

With proper financial backing early American colonial furniture and under the direction of skilled organisers, a group of designers could produce furniture, fabrics and pottery that were vigorously alive and not impossibly expensive. If any of the big stores financed such an experiment and advertised the fact, they would gain prestige and arouse public interest in an original way. The expression of such practical concern for the vitality of the arts and crafts of this country might commend itself to business in the first place as a stunt; but it might conceivably become the real solution to the problem of the designer's contact with industry, and it would add to the credit of the establishment that first started it, and also figure on the credit side of its balance-sheet. A few tentative collaborations of this nature have already been tried out by some intelligent retailers. They have often succeeded.

But in the interval between the world wars, you had to search in the wilderness of the average retailer's showrooms for tolerable early American colonial furniture furniture.

It is easy to enumerate the fundamentally undesirable qualities of furniture. No surface should be defaced with gummy-looking stains or polishes. Dark-stained oak or mahogany or walnut is to be avoided. The salesman may tell you it is an `antique finish'. Be kind to him: he is usually quite ignorant of the enormities that fall from his lips,. for he probably drifted into `the sticks' (as the furniture department used to be called) without any preparation for his responsibilities, without any knowledge of design, and activated only by a desire to please and to pocket his 1-, I, 12, 2 or 21 per cent commission on sales. Ask for oak wax-polished or weathered or limed. Ask for wax-polished mahogany. You may get what you want with oak finishes, but mahogany is nearly always varnished out of its beautiful existence. Insist on an unfaked finish, and, even if it means waiting for what you want, it will be worth waiting for, and will be all the better for its honest presentation of the natural beauty of the wood you have chosen.

Investigate all joints. Every piece of early American colonial furniture ornament applied to the surface of a cabinet or. wardrobe or bookcase may conceal the crime of carelessness. Avoid applied ornament. Simple furniture must be well made. Mistakes can't be covered up with superficial decoration. Apart from that, applied ornament that expresses the taste. of the furniture manufacturer trying to please the retail buyer is generally unspeakable.    

Look all round a piece of early American colonial furniture, and underneath and on top of it too. Look particularly at the backs and tops of wardrobes. Don't worry if you see plywood used for the backs of chests and wardrobes. It is a good, light material; but it must be properly used: not tacked on to the frame with its edges unprotected. If there are little wedges of paper or wood underneath the feet of any piece of furniture, look the salesman in the eye and ask why they are there. You may then learn that the showroom floor is uneven, just at that place; so have the piece moved to an even place and see if it still rocks on its feet.

See that every drawer runs easily, and that cupboard doors swing shut. Take each drawer out, look underneath it, and see the jointing at the angles is not slipshod and clumsy. Refuse to have anything to do with tables and chairs whose legs are unduly thin or fat: such deformities are produced by the inept use of wood­working machinery.

Several years ago the writer listened to a discussion between some intelligent and critical people about the buying of early American colonial furniture. It was in the late nineteen 'twenties, before the modern movement had started its career of militant functionalism in England. There were half a dozen of us, representing as many professions, and after arguing about houses and the future of domestic architecture we found that, with the exception of the lawyer of the party, who collected old furniture, we all agreed that the chief difficulty in furnishing is the process of buying the actual chairs, tables and beds.

It was the artist who put her finger on. the great weakness of the buying public. She said, with the harsh lucidity that some of us occasionally found rather trying

`Most people buy things blind when they go into a early American colonial furniture shop. They don't know what they want; and if they have the rudiments of good taste and they go into an ordinary retail furnisher's shop they can only think of what they don't want, and never could want unless they happened to be looking for furniture to use in a play where all the scenes were in an aspidistra­ridden boarding-house. And if they apply to the sales­man for help, what happens? They ask for taste and are given a style. The tragedy is that they don't know themselves how to judge the quality of furniture, either in design or in workmanship.'

`Things were very different in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,' began the .lawyer; `everyone could appraise good workmanship then. In this infernal mechanical age-

The architect interrupted him and said:

"If you're only going to contribute your usual brand of anti-machinery abuse to this discussion, I suggest that you go and make yourself comfortable in another room with Butler's Erewhon, or some picturesque glorification of the Middle Ages by Cobbett. We shall only irritate you, because all of us, being clear-headed about these matters, realise that we must encourage the in­telligent use of machinery. Machinery can turn out beautiful and useful things when it's used intelligently: machine-made furniture can be very satisfying when it's simple, and isn't trying to pretend that it was made by hand after a seventeenth-century model. The reason why most people can't judge good and bad workmanship in furniture is because they will not apply the elementary rules of common sense to the matter. A woman when she buys a hat pays some attention, I suppose, to its design in relation to the shape of her face and head and the general arrangement of her features. She also dis­plays interest in the texture of the material and its colour. But when she buys a piece of furniture, does she always think of its shape and general design in relation to her other furniture and the existing and unalterable proportions and features of the room in which it will appear? Is she as interested in the texture and colour of the finish as she is in the ornamental trimmings and so­called style of the piece early American colonial furniture?"

The woman doctor said it was a pity he always imagined a typical Victorian matron going shopping. The vapid, fashionable creature who had been taught to regard independent thought and indecency as synonymous, and criticism of anything that was established as most unladylike. `The real trouble is this,' she said. `There are plenty of people who have ideas about furniture, and would like to have real adventures in furnishing that would bring interest into their homes, but they're thwarted by the furniture salesman. Naturally they go to furnishers. If you are furnishing a house your first idea is to get in touch with the tradesmen who have made early American colonial furnishing their special business. What happens?'

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