Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Early 20th-Century Laptop

QUESTION: My aunt has an unusual box that opens out into what looks like a sloping writing service. I’d like to find out more information about it for her. Can you tell me anything about it?

ANSWER: Your aunt's box is what's known as a writing box. These date generally from the 19th century. Hers probably is from the last decade or two. Victorians carried these boxes with them on trips so they could write letters and postcards back home. When not traveling, many also used them in place of a desk. Essentially, they were the laptops of their day.

Writing boxes date back to the beginning of writing. Boxes in which writing materials were kept, called scriptoriums, were used by monks in the Middle Ages. Eventually, these were mounted on stands and later legs were added, creating the first desks for doing illuminated manuscripts. The writing box, itself, survived into the early 20th century.

People used traveling desks or writing boxes throughout the 19th century. When opened, they offered a leathered or velvet slope and rested on a table or over compartments for holding stationery. More luxurious versions included a removable pen tray under which spare nibs and holders could be kept, and screw-top inkwells, usually of glass, on each side. Others offered secret drawers or compartments. Though the origin of these remains obscure, they were most likely based on military dispatch boxes.

Towards the middle of the 19th century, manufacturers produced wooden writing boxes in enormous quantities to meet a growing demand. They came in all sizes and varieties of wood, including mahogany, burr walnut, rosewood and the more expensive ones in Coromandel wood. Less expensive ones, usually made of thin pine or fruitwood, were a step above an elaborate school pencil box and often decorated with cheaper decals instead of inlay..

Makers produced each to various specifications, depending on the intended type and amount of use. An army officer posted to the northwest frontier, for example, would want one robustly built, heavily brass bound, with brass mounted corners and edges to withstand rough treatment. A Victorian lady, on the other hand, might have one made in Tunbridgeware (a type of English marquetry decoration from the spa town of Tunbridge Wells, England) or even papier mache. The more expensive ones had serpentine lids, sometimes inlaid with intricate designs in brass or a mother of pearl or a shield for the owner's initials.

Simpler tourist writing cases in Moroccan leather and lined with satin came equipped with different sizes of stationery, pens, pencils, and a paperknife, but not an inkwell.

The utility of an easily portable box to provide storage for writing materials and a surface on which to write eventually led to the continuing usage of a smaller and more compact box that became very popular in the late 18th century. Known as lap desks or writing slopes, these writing boxes were quite portable, so they could be held on a lap or used at a table. They came with lids, hinged at the front, that slanted upwards towards the back, opening to form a writing surface with only one compartment underneath for storage.

Before the days of central heating, members of the family could gather by the fire and each work at his own small desk. A lap desk provided each individual with a private place in which to keep letters, paper and writing materials. In those days, ink, quills, paper, sand, wax wafers, and seals were all necessary equipment to use in writing a letter.

The writing box enjoyed its greatest popularity in days when ladies and gentlemen kept detailed diaries and wrote many letters. Imagine a romantic novelist or poet using just such a box while working in the warmth of a cozy fire. Today, cell phones, laptops, and tablets have made writing boxes and even stationery obsolete. However, as decorative boxes, they're more sought after than ever.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Clock With Balls

QUESTION: When I was growing up in the 1950s, my parents had a colorful clock hanging on our living room wall. It had colored balls for the hours and stood out against the white wall. I had forgotten about it until recently when I discovered it, covered with dust, in the attic of my parents’ house as I was cleaning it out after my mother died. What can you tell me about this clock, and does it have any value or should I just give it the old heave ho?

ANSWER: Believe it or not, that dusty old clock is an icon of 1950s modern design. Often listed as being designed by George Nelson, the clock is shrouded in controversy. Yes, George Nelson did indeed play a part in its creation, but historians now believe that its actual designer was Irving Harper, who worked for George Nelson in his design studio.

The Ball Clock was the first of more than 150 clocks designed by George Nelson Associates for the Howard Miller Clock Company, which sold them from 1949 into the 1980s. Nelson Associates, first launched as a studio by George Nelson in 1947 in New York City, employed some of the most celebrated designers of the time, including Irving Harper, Don Chadwick and John Pile, all of whom contributed to the clocks.

George Nelson Associates, Inc., a leading home furnishings and accessories design studio, made modernism the most important driving force during the 1950s.  From his start in the mid-1940s until the mid-1980s,  George Nelson partnered with most of the modern designers of the time. His skill as a writer helped legitimize and stimulate the field of industrial design by contributing to the creation of Industrial Design Magazine in 1953.

Nelson became the Director of Design for Herman Miller, a leading industrial design firm, in 1947 and held the position until 1972. He used the money he earned in this position to open his own design studio in New York City. On October 26, 1955 he incorporated it into George Nelson Associates, Inc. and moved to 251 Park Avenue South. The studio brought together many of the top designers of the time, who were soon designing for Herman Miller under the George Nelson label. Among the noted designers who worked for George Nelson Associates were Irving Harper, George Mulhauser, designer of the Coconut Chair, Robert Brownjohn, designer of the sets for the James Bond film Goldfinger, Don Chadwick, Bill Renwick, Suzanne Sekey, John Svezia, Ernest Farmer, Tobias O'Mara, George Tscherney, who designed the Herman Miller advertisements, Lance Wyman, and John Pile.

But controversy was to cloud George Nelson’s success. In recent years, it has come out that many of the designs for which Nelson accepted credit were actually the work of other designers employed at his studios. Examples of this include the Marshmallow sofa, designed by Irving Harper, and the Action Office, the forerunner of the office cubicle and for which Nelson won the prestigious Alcoa Award, neglecting to mention that it was Robert Propst who actually created it.

It seems that Nelson believed that it was okay for individual designers to be given credit in trade publications, but for the consumer world, the credit should always be to the firm, not the individual.

Nelson’s company designed many wall and table clocks for the Howard Miller Clock Company, including the Ball, Kite, Eye, Turbine, Spindle, Petal and Spike clocks, as well as a handful of desk clocks. However, Irving Harper designed most of them. Howard Miller assigned numbers to all the original clock designs. The most famous, the Ball Clock, became Clock 4755. It was available in six color variations.

According to legend, the Ball Clock was designed by George Nelson, Irving Harper, Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi during a night of drinking in 1947. Its Space Age atomic look supposedly came from the an abstraction of the atom with its nucleus and particles.

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.