Monday, September 26, 2011

The Art of Human Hair

QUESTION: My grandmother left me several items, one of which is a little round porcelain bowl that’s about four inches wide with a lid that has a 1½-inch hole in the top. Can you tell me what this might be?

ANSWER: The covered bowl you have is known as a hair receiver. Back in Victorian times, women used to save the hair from their brushes—most had long hair that needed to be brushed at least once a day to keep it clean—and also from trimmings.

Victorian women’s dressing tables often had a hair receiver as part of a dresser set consisting of receiver, powder jar, hatpin holder, brush, comb, nail buffer and tray. Many carried on the tradition into the early 20th century. They would comb the hair from their brushes and push it through the hole in the receiver. Later, they would stuff it into pillows or pincushions. Since women—and men--- didn’t wash their hair but once a week, they would apply oils to add scent and shine to their hair. This oil helped to lubricate straight pins and needles, making them easier to insert into fabric.

These women also used the hair they saved to make “ratts”—a small ball of hair that they inserted into a hairstyle to add volume and fullness. They made this by stuffing a sheer hairnet with the hair from the receiver until it was about the size of a potato, then sewing it shut. Women most likely used tangled hair from their hairbrushes to make these. A Victorian woman considered her hairstyle the epitome of style and took great pains to make it stand out.

But the most well-known uses for hair was to make remembrances of deceased loved ones. And though many people believe this practice originated in the mid 19th century, it actually began in the mid 17th. Even at that time, people wanted to have personal keepsakes of their loved ones, but since photography hadn’t been invented yet, they turned to jewelry made of human hair.

In the 1600s, people created medallions in the form of initials in gold laid on a background of woven hair set under crystal. Women wore these as memorial jewelry, usually in the form of brooches.

After this type of jewelry went out of style in the 18th century because women thought it grotesque, it once again appeared in the mid 19th century during the reign of Queen Victoria. Instead of the gold initials of the deceased, women used seed pearls and watercolors along with enamels to create a more elaborate picture under the glass. Often, they spread the hair out to look like a weeping willow tree.

To make keepsakes for a deceased loved one, women cut the hair from the deceased's head.
Prior to the 1850s, they stored the hair in cloth bags until they had enough to make a piece. Unlike the tangled hair used for making ratts, women preferred using cut hair to make their keepsake pieces. In the last half of the century, porcelain and ceramic manufacturers began to produce storage containers specifically designed to hold hair.

While most of the jewelry made of hair was for mourning purposes, some women made pieces to give to their living loved ones. Some made watch chains woven from their hair to give to their husbands and boyfriends to take into battle during the Civil War.

The popularity of hair jewelry peaked in the 1850s but after the Civil War another trend took hold. Instead of creating keepsake jewelry, women began producing works of art from human hair. They employed different colors of hair to create pictures and mosaics under glass domes or frames. Sometimes these mimicked famous paintings. At other times, they created stilllifes of flowers. They also gave the popular family tree new meaning by making one using the hair from each family member, plus pictures of the family, ribbons, dried flowers, butterflies, and even little stuffed birds.

Primarily made in porcelain and ceramic, manufacturers also made hair receivers of glass, silver, silver plate, wood and celluloid. The glass types often had brass or silver tops. While the round ones seemed to be the most popular, there were oval ones as well. And though some rested on little legs or pedestals, most had flat bottoms. Skilled workers painted many of the porcelain ones with floral or Oriental designs on both the receiver and top. Others had simple gilt borders around the edge of the top. Companies such as Limoges, Noritake, O.& Prussia, R.S. Prussia and Wistoria all made hair receivers.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Charles Eastlake—America’s Harbinger of Taste

QUESTION: I have a three-piece set of furniture that belonged to my grandparents and perhaps to their parents, and I'm trying to identify what it is. Can you tell me if you think it might be Eastlake and if so, what can you tell me about this furniture style?

ANSWER: What you have is an Eastlake parlor set, dating from around 1880. But it wasn’t designed by Charles Locke Eastlake. Instead, he only suggested designs in his book Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details. More than any other person, he was responsible for introducing the principles of the English design reform movement to America.

Eastlake considered simplicity the key to beauty. He thought the objects in people's homes should be attractive and well made by workers who took pride in their hand work or machine work. His influence led to a broad demand for relatively simple, clean-lined "art furniture" between 1870 and 1890.

Written to instruct the average housewife in the principles of tasteful home decoration, Eastlake’s book achieved immediate popularity. Though Eastlake included some of his own sketches among the illustrations of well-designed furniture chosen for his book, he was primarily a critic of taste, not a furniture designer. The furniture illustrated in it had ornamental features including shallow carving, marquetry, incised or pierced geometric designs, rows of turned spindles, chamfered edges, brass strap hinges, bail handles, and keyhole hardware inspired by Gothic forms. Every decorative device, according to Eastlake, also had to fulfill a useful function.

He especially disdained the "shaped" forms of Rococo Revival. He considered the curved forms of this Victorian style rickety and constructively weak. To relieve the simplicity of rectilinear forms, Eastlake advised using turned legs or spindle supports.

For those who wished more richness in their furniture, he suggested restrained, conventionalized carving, inlay, and sometimes even veneer. Eastlake believed ornament should be stylized rather than naturalistic.

His book further suggested that furniture be made of solid, strongly grained woods such as mahogany, walnut, or oak. Most Eastlake-style furniture found today is usually made of the latter.He preferred oil-rubbed finishes to "French-polished" ones, and disliked the shiny look of varnish.

To the modern eye, Eastlake-style furniture, with its intricate marquetry, gilded incised designs, spindled galleries, inset tiles, richly grained woods, and decorative turned elements, hardly seems “simple.” But in contrast to the heavily carved furniture of earlier Victorian decades, embellished with naturalistic roses and bunches of grapes imposed on the elaborate Rococo shapes now regarded as the embodiment of Victorian design, Eastlake-inspired furniture was remarkably functional and clean-lined.

Eastlake-style furniture often featured tables and chests with marble tops, some the traditional white, others in rich Italian pinks and browns. Tables and chairs had aprons and legs incised with horizontal or vertical lines called reeding and camfered corners. Round legs on chairs also featured ring-like annulets. And acanthus leaf designs could be found incised into even the least expensive pieces.

Unfortunately, while Eastlake-style furniture may have looked refined, most chairs and sofas weren’t very comfortable and were meant to be used in formal parlors for guests only.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Accounting for Taste

QUESTION: From what period does this chair originate? The legs look quite modern. Is it a modern interpretation of an antique design?

ANSWER: This chair is a fine example of French Art Deco. As one of six of a set of dining chairs, it would have been placed under an equally simple, but elegant dining table.

Art Deco emerged in Paris just before World War I as a luxurious design style. But it wasn’t until after the war in the 1920s that Modernism appeared throughout Europe. Until the art world coined the name Art Deco later on in the 1960s, designers referred to the style as Arte Moderne which is French for Modern Art.

Art Nouveau furniture became a commercial failure. The intricate inlays and carvings made it too expensive for all except the very rich.  Concerned by competitive advances in design and manufacturing made in Germany and Austria in the early 20th century, French designers realized they could rejuvenate a their French furniture industry by producing luxurious pieces that a greater number of people could afford.

The founding in 1900 of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs (the Society of Artist-Decorators), a professional designers' association, marked the appearance of new standards for French design and production. Each year the association held exhibitions in which their members exhibited their work. In 1912, the French Government decided to sponsor an international exhibition of decorative arts to promote French design. However, they had to postpone the exhibition, originally scheduled for 1915, until after World War I.

Set at the Trocadero in Paris, near the Eiffel Tower, La Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts), held finally in 1925, was a massive trade fair that dazzled more than 16 million visitors during its seven-month run. On exhibit was everything from architecture and interior design to jewelry and perfumes, all intended to promote French luxury items. With such a long name, visitors began referring to the exhibition, and subsequently the design movement, as Art Deco. On display were a wide range of decorative arts, created between the two world wars.

The French Government invited over 20 countries to participate. All works on display had to be modern, no copying of historical styles of the past would be permitted. The stylistic unity of exhibits at the fair indicated that Art Deco had already become an international style by 1925.The great commercial success of Art Deco ensured that designers and manufacturers throughout Europe would continue to produce furniture in this style until well into the 1930s.

In France, Art Deco combined the traditional quality and luxury of French furniture with the good taste of Classicism and the exoticism of far-off lands. Many designers used sumptuous, expensive materials like exotic hardwoods, ivory, and lacquer combined with geometric forms and luxurious fabrics to provide plush comfort. Motifs like Chinese fretwork, African textile patterns, and Central American ziggurats provided designers with the exotic designs to play with to create a fresh, modern look. They depicted natural motifs as graceful and highly stylized. The use of animal skins, horn, and ivory accents from French colonies in Africa gave pieces exotic appeal.

French Art Deco furniture featured elegant lines and often had ornamentation applied to its surface. It could be utilitarian or purely ornamental, conceived only for its decorative value. It was the look that was important to many French designers, not the use or comfort of the piece. Even today, some pieces look as if their designers intended them to remain on display in a store window and not be used at all. At times it seemed as though the designers and their patrons were trying to escape the dismal reality of daily life at that time.

In 1937, the French government sponsored another trade fair, La Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (The International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life). Less ambitious than the 1925 exhibition, this fair focused more on France's place in the modern world rather than on its production of luxury goods, thus marking the end of the French Art Deco Era.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Going Retro

QUESTION: I recently purchased a one arm chair that has a metal stamp that says The B.L. Marble Chair Co. ,Bedford Ohio. It is a cool mid-century design and is walnut and leather. Do you know anything about this chair like what its purpose was?

ANSWER:  Barzilla L. Marble founded the B.L. Marble Chair Co. in 1894, after working at several other chair companies. His grandfather operated a chair factory in Marbletown, New York, and others in his family likewise made chairs, so it was natural for Marble to do so. He formed a brief partnership with A.L. Shattuck in 1885, but struck out on his own nine years later.

His company produced fine wooden chairs made for comfort and elegance that were made to last. Up until 1910, it produced chairs for the home, but during World War I, Marble added a division to make wooden aircraft propellers for the military.

By 1921. Marble’s company had outgrown its small wooden buildings and construction began on new brick buildings which had more than four acres of floor space. After Marble died in 1932,  A. D. Pettibone became president of the company and part owner. In 1953 Pettibone sold his interest in the Marble Chair Company to a group of local investors. Eventually, another man, also named Pettibone but not related to the first, bought the company, and it became extremely successful.

The company produced one-arm “modern” chairs most likely in the mid-60s under the second Pettibone owner. Furniture makers intended one-arm chairs, both originally in the 1870s and then in the 1960s as chairs to be placed in a corner. Today, most people would refer to these 1960's chairs as “retro” in style.

But exactly what does retro mean? According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary, retro means "imitative of a style from the recent past." Retro is a culturally outdated or aged style, trend, mode, or fashion, most likely from the 1940s through the 1960s. Currently, eBay offers over 468,000 different retro items at auction.

People born between the 1940 and 1950 became teenagers during the 1950s and 1960s. And because those two periods provide memories for many of them, anything retro is in, whether it’s furniture, accessories, clothing, and collectibles, especially those related to the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Life in the 1950s was conservative, but changes were about to take place. Such innovations as Velcro, Tang, frozen foods, transistor radios, Frisbees and the hula-hoop began to appear. Bill Haley and the Comets rocked around the clock while jukeboxes filled every burger joint and ice cream parlor with the new sounds.

Furniture and accessories, especially the ubiquitous pole lamp, featured streamlined styling in avocado and gold. By 1957 there were 47 million T.V. sets in America’s homes, four times the number of just seven years before. Families began to watch T.V. shows like “I Love Lucy” incessantly. They even ate in front of the T.V., thus necessitating the invention of the T.V. tray and comfortable casual furniture without frills.

Later on in the 1960s, the space race captured everyone’s attention as astronauts walked on the Moon and teens danced the twist to the music of Chubby Checker and sang along to Beatles’ tunes. More innovations such as lava lamps and electric knives caught on eventually providing the retro movement with lots of collectibles.