An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 163

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 10, 2022 - Issue 163
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Greatness in the applied arts is, to my way of thinking, quite different than greatness in the fine arts. Making something that is going to be used, a building, a teapot, a chair all require that function be not just a part, but the goal, of the process. This creates a stricture within which the creator has to work. When I saw Frank Gehry's first art gallery commission in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota, it was clear that he wanted to  break down a barrier that consisted of straight or smoothly curved lines and make the art of the building correspond (potentially) with the art on the walls. At the University of Minnesota, the sheets of curling metal are bolted onto the walls of a concrete building. With the advent of computer programming allowing for complex joints to be made and cut by computers, Gehry was free to make the building itself a series of, for lack of a better word, squiggles, without any right angles or repetitive feature. He was not the first to want to get away from the strictures of the simpler geometric shapes. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Danish architect of the Sydney Opera House, Jern Utzon are just a few of the architects that come to mind who wanted to break that (supposed) barrier. But the barrier that none of these architects could break was the one that required their work to be of use.

Like fine art, great architecture reveals itself over time. I would say the same for almost all the applied arts. A superb ceramic pattern remains superb no matter how often it is copied and yet the design can, at the same time, seem trite, overused and even boring. Much of the work that came out of the Tiffany studios is now recognized to be brilliant, but my grandmother's generation thought some of Tiffany's work to be dark and heavy, particularly as they had lived with it their entire lives. And so by the 1950's, and the first taste of modernism, a great part of the Tiffany oeuvre just did not fit in. And yet the work that came out of those studios, some of it beyond belief in craftsmanship and artistry, ranks with some of the most innovative decorative art of the time. In a similar fashion, just the other day, on a visit to the Cooper Hewitt Museum with my daughter, I was just blown away by an exhibition of  the fabric designer, Susie Zuzek, who did over fifteen hundred fabric designs for Lili Pulitzer. I am not a fan of the Lili Pulitzer look, but when you look at the Zuzek fabrics, you see an artist working within the constraints of silk screening in an extraordinary manner. Her work is original and stimulating.

This brings me to furniture, the subject that is of endless fascination for me. The 18th century, in my opinion, was the starting point for the study of ergonomics. Strictly speaking, ergonomics is about the efficiency of a working environment, but that environment must have the furniture that enables proper efficiency. To wit, chairs that are too low will cause fatigue, tables that are too low will cause back pain, etc. In other words, a standardization was taking place without specific awareness of efficiency. Standardization did not, however, prevent furniture designers from being artistic, to essentially obscure function through decoration. There was varying success at doing this as successive styles popped up and disappeared during the century--in England, those styles included English baroque, Gothick, rococo, chinoiserie and several iterations of classicism. The power of 18th century creativity regarding furniture design has echoed through to the present day with revivalist movements again and again. Reiterations will always suffer in comparison and is likely why every furniture designer, often architects, will experiment with creating something new and different. That search for greatness is ongoing, but it is as elusive as quicksilver.