An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 260

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 13, 2017 - Issue 260

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

What is old and what of the old is worth saving? It is an awkward question, one that touches on how we view and value the past let alone how we then choose what to save? On reading about how Cairo is modernizing at the expense of razing decades, if not millenia, of neighborhoods, that question jumps to the fore. Clearly, the city planners in Cairo have answers for doing what they are doing--not much is worth saving. Istanbul was confronted with multiple eras of archaeological finds when digging the Eurasia Tunnel under the Bosphorus that held up construction for many years as archaeologists went digging, again and again, finding layer on layer of civilizations. It is the curse and the blessing of the Ancient World (and parts of the modern one as well) that there is still so much to uncover. The same holds true in London when a dig of any sort uncovers material from earlier civilizations. But there are plenty of instances, such as what is happening in Cairo, where care is not being taken. So, what should we be taking care of now?

In a world where "the new thing" is promoted by the masses through the internet and not by the knowledge or the taste of those who have devoted their lives to either aesthetics or the knowledge of the past, the answer isn't so simple. Furthermore, today, the artistic focus of the public sphere is, in a broad sense, mostly focused on livable spaces (towns and cities) and even more particularly on architecture. The destruction of Penn Station in New York City in the 1960's was designed to usher in a sleek new era and to sweep away the mustiness of classicism that was adorned with classical and baroque frills and conceits. To that end, it took a great deal of effort to stave off the destruction of Grand Central Station. These two instances speak volumes about the last forty years of the twentieth century--how public opinion was torn by the romance of a sleek and uncomplicated future and a romance with what was a substantial effort from the Gilded Age in the past. And the verdict? Grand Central Station is now revered and the loss of Penn Station is still mourned. 

The question lingers uncomfortably, however, in that there are few major public works projects being undertaken, at least that I am aware of, that are of the kind that make a stylistic statement--private projects are in full flower, but show me a Statue of Liberty, an Eiffel Tower or a Familia Sagrada or even a St. Louis Arch. These projects all faced contemporary backlash for all sorts of what were considered valid reasons at the time. What we do have in this day and age are some amazing feats of engineering including the channel tunnel from Britain to France, tunnels through mountains, bridges of great beauty, extraordinary roads in inhospitable places, tall buildings of course--not many of which are what you would call beautiful. Engineering is, of course, subject to design and I would posit that design, or possibly design improvement, is booming in many areas of our daily lives, particularly with the things we use in daily life.

Living accommodations, particularly in small spaces, requires clever use of space. Household products such as vacuum cleaners, kitchen implements, air conditioners have all been able to downsize and yet be both appealing and functional. Items that fold neatly away into walls, floors and ceilings also maximize the use of small spaces. But, cars, too, have have maximized functionality with sleekness that is fairly standard among most brands. Telephones, the obsession of our age, are also designed and packaged with precision. What design doesn't focus on, however, is in areas where competition doesn't exist and so there is no cause for making an older design work better--muting leaf blowers, for example. I also fault planned obsolescence, as few new designs are made that are easily repairable. Be that as it may, it is always interesting to go to the Museum of Modern Art to see design as art. They had a VW on display (circa 1960?) not so long ago that wasn't as old as the VW that I learned to drive on which dated to circa 1952. That can give you pause for thought, I can assure you.

In essence, not everything can or should be saved. But when I think of all the great English country houses that have been torn down, I worry that the mania for the new and/or the inability or lack of desire to maintain the old will eventually undo many great objects, places, etc. I can't help but wonder at the attitude that doesn't take a moment to think of how long it took to make something, and perhaps, give the opportunity for someone to save it somehow? I am, of course talking from my own, the antiquarian, point of view, but what about someone who loves the story of the emergence of the computer age--the hardware, I mean, not the content. I held onto my Vector computers which cost an arm and a leg by 1979 standards for years and years until my wife made the executive decision to dump them. The stuff we create all has a value of a sort and time, because of age and rarity, ends up skewing that value--mostly upwards, but not necessarily. So, everything ends up being a toss up as to what to save and what to toss or to raze. If we're lucky, we save some great things and if we aren't we may save some mediocre things and if we're really not very aware, we won't save anything.