An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 264

Clinton Howell Antiques - Dec. 11, 2023 - Issue 264

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

When you realize that a great amount of the best antique furniture was bespoke and made to fit into a certain spot and that the kind of "spots" that were common in the 1740's are not as common today as they were then (lack of space) you can understand why English antique furniture might not be at the top of every decorator's list as furnishings. For example, until the late 1780's, there aren't many bookcases that are not too deep, nor are there many tables that would work as proper bedside tables--they are often not deep enough. There aren't a lot of console tables that are shallow, something that, for example, a smaller city apartment might require. You can go on naming all the antique things that don't come, or seldom come, in appropriate sizes and then add that to how a decorator/designer/homeowner has to fit what they choose to buy into a home. I believe, however, that decorating and designing is not just about spots or finding the appropriate size object for a space, it's also about what any object brings to that space.

This  is the essence of why we look at what we look at--there is, often for an almost inexplicable reason, a kind of ongoing conversation that some objects can evoke. This is particularly true about objects that have been around for some time--notably antiques of all sorts, but also newer things in certain cases. I recently saw a group of articles come up for sale that I knew quite intimately as they were made for a client of mine by a cabinetmaker, Bob Fileti, who I recommended to the person whose estate was being sold at auction. He was a maker who eventually became a conservator--he died maybe twenty years ago, but his work was and still is beautiful. I would have loved to buy one or two of his things, because they mean something to me. (Most of what he made sold quite well.) We all have pieces like that in our lives--they don't have to have two hundred years of history behind them.

The things we choose to live with can make you feel comfortable in some way or another and become an expression of you. One can decorate a home, make it comfortable and snug, somewhere the outside world is resolutely absent from. We all want this--whether that means that our interior is breezy and light or dark and cloistered--it doesn't really matter. What matters is that when we are in that space, it speaks of our personality--although I am not certain how often it does. And, to be honest, that is why decorators have among the most difficult of jobs because that is what they are searching for--the owner to express their taste in some form or another. They have to stretch the owner at the same time to look at things that they may not understand. Aesthetics can be a murky, unclear, subject for many and choices--be it antique or a subsequent style--must be made. For me, antiques have a language that includes history, usage, ownership (provenance) beauty, functionality and more. But I like modern design as well, so I have great enjoyment in the pair of Maison Jansen brass bookcases that I own (that I will never sell) and which I admire every day. Their craft and function are a pleasure to behold.

Decorating for the collector, of course, is chasing another dog altogether design-wise! The "collection", whatever it may be, can dominate the space or be carefully scattered around a home. I appreciate those collectors who wish to use what they have collected--porcelain, silver, furniture, art, carpets--all of these items were not necessarily meant to sit behind glass and any decorator put into the position of having to display a collection is putting themselves into a curatorial position. That position is to try and find those optimal "spots" to place, for example, a ten foot tall bureau bookcase in a house that has ten foot ceilings. (Clients of mine have cut holes into the floor to allow "too tall for the room pieces" to be installed in their homes--you'd think they might contemplate moving if the piece was so important!) And things like great porcelain and silver need displaying which will require purchases of particular kinds of furniture that offer surfaces (table tops and/or glassed in shelves) and opportunities of some form so that the objects can be seen. This is essential--why have a collection that isn't seen? Even carpets, which will develop holes when used in certain areas, should be used on the floor--outlaw shoes if necessary! The decorator's job isn't easy and some clients actually make their jobs impossible. At least all I have to do is sell the piece of furniture to the client--how they use it is not my problem.