Monday, July 30, 2012

A Taste for Eastlake

QUESTION: I recently discovered two chairs and a settee at my grandmother’s house. Unfortunately, there are no markings of any kind as she apparently planned to refinish them and sanded everything off! What can you tell me about them? After hours and hours of searching on Google, the best I could come up with is that they're possibly Victorian.

ANSWER: You’re half way there as far as your chairs and settee are concerned. Yes, they are Victorian—Eastlake Victorian, as a matter of fact. This style was popular from 1870 to 1885 and is one of seven different furniture styles popular during the Victorian Age.

Charles Locke Eastlake, an English critic of taste, did more to affect a change in American taste in the late 19th Century than anyone before or since. More than any other individual, he was responsible for introducing the principles of the English design reform movement to the American public.

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 work. He published a book, Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details, a runaway bestseller from 1870 and 1890. The book became the decorating bible for upper middle class American housewives.

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 Hints 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.

To relieve the simplicity of rectilinear forms, Eastlake advised using turned legs or spindle supports. When a homeowner desired an "effect of richness,” he suggested restrained, conventionalized carving, inlay, and sometimes even veneer. Ornament, he felt, should be stylized rather than naturalistic, for it’s "this difference between artistic abstraction and pseudo-realism which separates good and noble design from that which is commonplace and bad." A functionalist, Eastlake cautioned that carved decoration should always be shallow and never "inconveniently" located, as were the "knotted lumps" of grapes or roses decorating rococo-revival chairs that often stabbed the sitter between his or her shoulder blades. His book further suggested that furniture be made of such solid, strongly grained woods as oak, walnut, or mahogany. He preferred oil-rubbed finishes to "French-polished" ones, and varnish was taboo.

By 1876, homeowners of the nation's most elegant homes decorated them in subdued "artistic" tones, set off by rectilinear furniture of rich bird's eye maple or elegantly ebonized cherry wood. Critics broadly categorized the new designs as "art furniture," but also called them "modern Gothic," "Queen Anne Revival," or "Eastlake" in honor of the man who brought a sense of taste to America.

To the modern eye, such furniture with its intricately stylized 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 preceding decades, embellished with naturalistic roses and bunches of grapes imposed on the elaborate rococo shapes that we now regard as the embodiment of Victorian design, Eastlake-inspired furniture was remarkably functional and clean-lined.

The Eastlake style was quickly taken up by the manufacturers of cheaper furniture, who until then had given very little attention to artistic form. The furniture produced in these factories ranged from excellent to shoddy, depending on the grade of lumber used, how well it was seasoned in the drying kilns appended to the larger factories, and upon the skill of each machine operator throughout the manufacturing process. At its worst, factory furniture was poorly designed and rickety. However, there was a middle range of
moderately priced but well-constructed factory furniture produced in the Midwest for wholesale shipment to Eastern retail outlets. These chairs and settee fit into this group.

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 chamfered corners. Round legs on chairs also featured ring-like annulets. Quatrefoils were another popular addition, since flat cutouts often graced the more elegant pieces. Lastly, acanthus-leaf designs could be found incised into even the cheapest versions.

Pieces of furniture in this style had low relief carvings, moldings, incised lines, geometric ornaments, and flat surfaces that were easy to keep clean. Also called Cottage Furniture, the mass-produced pieces were much more affordable than the fancy revival 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.

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