An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 203

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 17, 22 - Issue 203

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

There are five aspects regarding a piece of furniture that are worth noting--design, color, condition, craftsmanship and history. I am going to explore each aspect for the next five blogs.

The first aspect, design, is hands down the most important because it is the first impression we have of an item. And what we see for the first time will usually evoke an emotional response. It sounds pretty simple (and it is) until we start to put value judgments on an item, meaning whether we think something is well or poorly designed. The actual judgment of what is good or bad is what interests me the most, but I want to make clear that we can't help ourselves from our reactions which are due to the way something, not a concept on a piece of paper or even a photograph, looks in real life. As a test, try not responding to design or, on the other hand, notice how many times a day you are positive about some design you may have seen--design, good and bad is with us all the time. 

My early exposure to design as regards antique furniture was through books and the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. The V&A had a significant amount of space for furniture. Because it was chronologically ordered, it was pretty easy to make judgments about which period and which furniture you preferred. This may seem obvious, but it really isn't. The context you see something in matters enormously and yet has nothing to do with the design of a specific piece of furniture. Hence, on a visit I made to Christie's to view the Getty sale--Ann Getty was a major force in buying English furniture from around 1979-2000--Christie's was busy creating room settings and putting pieces on pedestals. And that is why I try to divorce the surrounding environment from the object. 

The last word about design is that few designs are completely novel. Whether you are talking clothes, architecture, automobiles or furniture, etc., most design has a precedent. Precedents can be altered, however, usually be changing proportions and minor decorative details. Our automatic response to design is, therefore, something to re-examine if a design we are familiar with is altered and has a few new bells and whistles. In other words, our first impressions, trustworthy as they may be, need to be constantly re-assessed. I might add that this is what is great about design--first impression, emotional reaction, close examination and then judgment. You may be surprised by what you learn to like.