Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Furniture Re-Awakening

QUESTION: I recently purchased a mirror from an antique store in Thomasville, Georgia. The shop owner said the piece belonged to her grandfather, and she thinks the mirror dates back to the 1870's. I bought the mirror because I love the ornate carving on the frame. I'm also curious about the two round "stands" on the sides. Did people place candles on those platforms? What style do you think the mirror is? My best guess is Renaissance Revival.

ANSWER: You’re exactly right. Your mirror is in the Renaissance Revival style that was popular from 1855 to 1875. One of seven different revival styles prevalent during the Victorian Era, Renaissance Revival was an architectural style that easily made the transition from the custom, one-of-a-kind furniture shops in New York and Philadelphia to the mass-production factories of the Midwest.

Introduced in the early 1850's as a counter balance to the flowery Rococo Revival, Renaissance Revival borrowed elements from just about every furniture period since the 1400's. Originating in the French court of Napoleon III, the style soon took on a life of its own.

Furniture makers built pieces that consisted of an eclectic mix of 14th-century Renaissance, Neoclassical and 16th-century French derivation, based on a rectangular form with various embellishments.

While pieces of this style of furniture came in a myriad of shapes and sizes, they generally featured turned and fluted legs, raised or inset burled panels, heavily carved finials and crests, inset marble tops, and cookie-cut corners. On many mass-produced pieces, manufacturers added black and gold incising dn banding, and on finer, one-of-a-kind models, marquetry inlay and bronze or brass mounts. Most pieces of Renaissance Revival furniture were very large—ideal for the Victorian "more is more" philosophy. Makers of finer pieces preferred to use walnut, as it had been in the 16th century. And that was the most accurate thing about this revival style, which also borrowed heavily from the 17th-century Baroque and the earlier Gothic periods.

Prominent Renaissance and Neoclassical motifs such as columns, pediments, cartouches, rosettes, and carved masks, as well as plaques in porcelain, bronze, and mother-of-pearl became common types of decoration. Factory pieces had turned or cutout parts while finer examples featured carving or elaborate inlay of ebony and other exotic woods.

Before 1870 nearly all fine Renaissance Revival furniture came from small cabinetmaker shops in the East that made pieces to order. As the style gained popularity, furniture factories in the Midwest figured out how to mass produce the style for the Middle Class market. While some still used walnut, many chose to use cheaper ash or pine, painting it to look more high-style. The Renaissance Revival styles of the 1860s and 1870s marked the first time furniture makers used fine designs for mass-produced furnishings.

Large Midwestern factories, centered primarily in Grand Rapids, Michigan, manufactured pieces with turned and cut elements that could be produced more readily in volume and at lower cost. A few of the larger companies in Grand Rapids had committed to using the latest technology by the 1870's, among them Berkey & Gay, Nelson Matter and Phoenix. Renaissance Revival became the style of the Centennial Exposition and Grand Rapids was the star, but by that time it was already on its way out. The overpowering bedroom sets presented by Berkey & Gay cemented the reputation of the Grand Rapids factories as the manufacturers of bedroom sets or "chamber suites" as they became known.

New York cabinetmakers, such as Herter Brothers, on the other hand, produced pieces with elegant detail and elaborate inlays. They interpreted 16th- and 17th-century designs. And their motifs ranged from curvilinear and florid early in the period to angular and almost severe by the end of the period. Walnut veneer panels were a real favorite in their 1870s designs. Upholstery, usually of a more generous nature, was also often incorporated into this design style. Ornamentation and high relief carving included flowers, fruits, game, classical busts, acanthus scrolls, strapwork, tassels and masks. Architectural motifs, such as pilasters, columns, pediments, balusters and brackets, were another prominent design feature. Makers usually employed cabriole or substantially turned legs on their pieces.

The inevitable end came when the public desired to return to simplicity, the antithesis of Renaissance Revival, which embodied itself in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th century and the resurgence of interest in American heritage which presaged the coming, and long running, Colonial Revival period.

Renaissance Revival furniture, while not the most favored by many of today's collectors because of its size and obvious statement, nevertheless played a pivotal role in American furniture history.