Monday, August 20, 2012

Ugly Ducklings

QUESTION:  I inherited a couch with a matching chair from my grandparents. I have tried to do research online, but the multitude of antique items is overwhelming. This set appears to resemble the Chippendale style, but not exactly from what I have seen. My grandmother said the set was already over 100 years old when she purchased it in the 1960's to 1970's. I’m trying to gain knowledge about these pieces. Can you help me?

ANSWER: Sorry to say, but someone gave your grandmother misinformation about her living room set. It’s not uncommon for dealers in used furniture to do this because they really don’t know how old the pieces they’re selling are and just want to sell them.

This couch and chair date from the 1920s or 1930s. They’re a great example of pseudo styles that manufacturers created to fill the need in the early to mid-20th century middle and working class markets. At that time, most people were looking forward and didn’t want “old” furniture in their homes. To buy all new furniture was a big deal, especially during the Great Depression. It was a way people impressed their friends and neighbors. If you could afford to buy new furniture, you were definitely going places. So manufacturers produced some truly ugly, ostentatious pieces to fill this need.

There were truly only four officially recognized furniture styles during the early 20th century.  The first was Art Nouveau, a style based on a movement that began in Paris in the late 19th century and lasted into the 1920s. Designers of the time developed this furniture as a revolt to the styles of Victorian times. Heavily influenced by natural forms, it featured stylized images of grasses, irises, snakes, dragonflies, and a myriad of other animal and plant forms.

Another style, Arts and Crafts, or Mission as it became known in America, was a style, originally developed in England, that defied the overly decorative and mass produced pieces of the latter part of the 19th century. Designers went back to the simpler times before the advent of the steam engine when cabinetmakers made furniture by hand. The Mission style became a direct result of the American Arts and Crafts Movement led by such designers as Gustav Stickley.

In 1925, an exposition in Paris showcased modern designs in furniture, jewelry, and architecture. An offshoot of this exposition was the birth of the Art Deco style in which furniture makers employed stainless steel, aluminum, and inlaid woods to fashion sleek, ultra modern pieces with bold geometric patterns and abstract forms.

The roots of the fourth style, Modernism or Arte Moderne, grew out of pre-World War II industrialism. As an outgrowth of Art Deco, this furniture style used little or no ornamentation and a function over form concept. Influenced by Scandinavian, Japanese, and Italian designs, it featured industrial materials such as steel and plastic.

What all of the above styles had in common was that they were mostly produced for those that could afford them. Newly wealthy industrialists, bankers, and merchants wanted furniture that was in fashion and were willing to pay great sums for it. However, the common person couldn’t afford such luxuries and ended up with mass-produced pieces that didn’t cater to any taste in design.

What ordinary people wanted was their own form of luxury—comfortable couches and chairs that they could fall asleep in after a hard days work but that would also impress guests. They wanted just enough decoration to make the pieces seem elegant but not so much as to make them hard to care for. These needs resulted in overstuffed chairs and sofas with springs in their cushions to give added comfort, extremely stylized shallow carving that was easy to clean, and generally little decorative woodwork since using more added to the cost of the piece. Manufacturers could use cheap woods to build the frames which they then covered with upholstery.

Unfortunately, while a few pieces of furniture from this period have some charm, most do not and no amount of restoration or reupholstery will transform these ugly ducklings into beautiful swans.

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