“I think we are getting somewhere,” my chair suggested to me as I entered my gallery this morning.

”Do you mean the construction in my shop here at 150 East 72nd St., or something else,” I asked? It has been a mess for ten months and only seems to be getting worse.

“Our understanding of industrial design as opposed to furniture design,” the chair replied.

“Don’t you ever think there might be a cross over from time to time,” I asked? “I mean there is some sublime 20th century furniture out there. And it is just as true for the 19th century as well.”

“I don’t disagree with you in the slightest. What I am talking about is the nature of why things are made and how it affects the look of them. The furniture industry in the 18th century was, after the building trade, one of the engines of the economy. Hence, the focus on furniture was intense and designers and craftsmen were continually pushed to make things that were not only finer, but better. The furniture business in the 18thcentury was at its apogee and was unlike any that we will ever see again.”

“I am in complete agreement with you, but times change and people express themselves differently. No one wears the clothes that were worn in the 18th century. We have heat and plumbing so the buildings are different. When things change, there has to be a move in design as well. Hence, what you call industrial design is a tangible product of a society’s preferences. The Barcelona chair therefore, represents an aesthetic borne of practicality. I will agree that it doesn’t approach a piece of 18th century furniture in lots of ways that are subtle and learned through intense trial and error. But that the design of modern furniture can be dismissed as industrial isn’t quite fair.”

“I am not dismissing it. If you can classify plants and animals, why can’t you classify furniture, or anything else for that matter? And the dismissal is in your head. I admire good design and I agree that different eras create different needs and demands resulting in products that are either slightly or completely different from what went before. Listen, if you were to say that an oak tree and a pine tree both give shade and are alike because they are trees, I would agree with you, but if you went on to say that they are similar in any other fashion, I would have to disagree.”

“In my opinion,” I explained, “the essence of an era weights the value of design. And in so doing, it elevates certain pieces to an almost iconic status. That does not always happen with chairs such as you, even if you are the best of the best.”

“Yes, but you must see that I am rare and getting rarer. Barcelona chairs and their ilk will be made ad infinitum and will grab and then lose the attention of future generations as designers keep trying to find yet another chair that will become iconic. I, and my kind, will just remain great.”

Truer words were never spoken.


“What is so wrong with industrial design?” I asked my chair the other morning.

“Nothing at all and I sensed you would take my observation incorrectly. Industrial design refers to a style of designing, not to whether it is good or bad. What it means is that the designer solves a problem in an efficacious way, where function certainly trumps decoration and can also trump form. To reiterate, there is nothing wrong with industrial design which is often elegant and even sublime.”

“You refer to it in what some might say is a snide tone,” I countered.

“You are hearing things. But let me see if I can give you an analogy that you can understand. Take Thomas Jefferson’s house, Monticello, and compare it to the house of any major 20th century architect, such as work by Le Corbusier.”

“The aesthetic is entirely different,” I stated, “they are chalk and cheese.”

“That is what I am driving at. Le Corbusier’s goal was to solve a housing problem for the masses. Monticello, on the other hand, is a standard Palladian style home where the emphasis is not only to create a home, but to create an aesthetically inspiring home. The belief behind Palladianism, at least in the 18th century, was that it represented in a physical sense, the highest plane that cultured man could achieve.”

“To be the devil’s advocate here, do you actually believe that to be true?”

“Not really, but the emphasis on proportion, material and craftsmanship were paramount and redolent in most if not all 18th century English, French and continental decorative arts. The ideal of beauty as written in John Keats ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, was that truth and beauty were synonymous. The symbiosis of cause and effect here is unique for the era and is pretty much abandoned by the end of the 19th century, although the Arts and Crafts period aroused similar beliefs. Industrial design is focused on function and has a different beauty based on sublime functionality.”

“So, do you have a preference?” I asked.

“Look at me, for goodness sake. I am a chair made in 1745. The son of a French Huguenot with forty years of experience carved me and his entire life was dedicated to proportion and beauty. How could I abandon my essential being? Of course, I believe 18th century furniture, particularly from around 1745, to be among the most beautiful and significant ever made.”

I could not argue and not just because it is my business, but because the chair was right. What went into creating it was something that time has lost. Such rarities should be cherished as the world would be a poorer place without them.


“I do, but I will let you to try and remember. It is good exercise for your memory.”

Just what I needed, I thought. To be preoccupied by a disintegrating memory from forty years ago. My chair was back on form.

You could bowl me over with a feather sometimes with the way the world works. Forty odd years ago, I was in the Canadian plains, perhaps Moose Jaw or possibly Regina, with two friends driving back towards New York via the Trans Canada Highway. After a night on the plains, we decided to eschew the usual granola and yoghurt for a hearty breakfast of steak and eggs. So we went to a truck stop and were people watching when an odd threesome emerged from an old gray Chevy. Odd because there was a short, older, white haired but balding man with a shiny rumpled suit, a tall skinny young man with long hair, beads, a leather vest and jeans, and finally a voluptuous and attractive young lady with a halter top and cut offs. The three of us were perplexed by this threesome, but absolutely flabbergasted when the young woman walked into the diner, headed right to me and said, “Aren’t you Clint Howell?”

So when I walked into my shop this morning and the chair started talking to me, after a two week hiatus, about not being in New York for Hurricane Sandy. I was relieved to know that we were again conversing. But when it went on to suggest that I might have a sixth sense for catastrophe seeing as I had missed both Sandy and 9/11 by being in Thailand, I was more than a little nonplussed. I thought of my experience in Canada, as I often do when such odd things happen. How did it know where I had been on 9/11?

“Well, I know things that you wouldn’t imagine that I know. For example, I know all the English furniture dealers in New York City. And I know most of the dealers in London and quite a few in England. None, I might add, would ever mention a Barcelona chair as good furniture design.”

“But it is,” I insisted.

“No, it is good industrial design, because that is what most furniture has become in the 20th and 21stcenturies. We, the top echelon of 18th century furniture, are designed. I mean, one of the great innovations of your ilk was the three legged stool. But it is hardly a designed piece of furniture. It is a great functional object as is your Barcelona chair whether it is chromed, blue steel or gold plated with sable cushions. I know them, and I know how they act and think. They are an industrial product.”

“What’s wrong with that,” I asked?

“Nothing at all, but it is industrial design. A problem is posed and it is solved in a nice mechanical fashion with pencils, rulers, graph paper and compasses. In the 18th century, there was a design vocabulary with rules that were established by the Greeks and worked and re-worked through the centuries with little additions from other cultures here and there. Even though every piece of 18th century furniture has a similitude to its overall style, it is the details and how they were deployed that makes a piece of furniture distinct and designed. It is as different from industrial design as night is to day. And, I might add, I don’t begrudge it for a second. People who understand us get this. You should as well.”

“I guess I stand corrected,” I said.

“Oh, and by the way, as long as you are referencing your past, do you remember the name of the girl that walked up to you in that diner just outside of Regina?”

“No,” I said, “I don’t.”