Looking at Furniture – Power Corrupts

Power Corrupts

The 18th century was the platform from which the Industrial Revolution took off. The impetus was the wealth of knowledge that was found about the natural world by “philosophers” whose intense interest in everything including meteorology, botany, physics or mechanics and every other natural science that you can think of was like a crusade for understanding just why the world was the way it is. Jenny Uglow’s book, “The Lunar Men”, is about a small group of these philosophers in the Midlands of England and it details some of the spectacular achievements this one group had. Their group was known as the Lunar Club and included such notables, at least in the decorative arts world, as Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton. These men would meet once a month, preferably when the moon was out–hence the name—so that their journey home after dark was less perilous than in pitch dark. Their efforts were tireless and many of their discoveries without reward.

Boulton in particular understood that power would be the essential ingredient to make many tasks both simpler and more effective. He helped to design an engine with Joseph Watt for a brewery that would grind wheat at a faster rate than the horse powered grinding wheels could. He had to come up with an equivalence between the two and in turn came up with the term horsepower to determine the capacity of an engine.

What was the furniture like at this time? Inevitably, as power became more attainable, custom furniture became more costly as manufacturing techniques adapted to a ready power source. Custom furniture could only become more expensive given competition that understood how to use cheap power making custom work ever more expensive. The correlation is that progress in one world does not necessarily make for progress in another.

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