Monday, May 23, 2016

A One-Armed Chair

QUESTION: We bought an old farmhouse three years ago and this chair has been in our barn. What can you tell me about it?

ANSWER: What you have is a one-arm ladies chair made in the Eastlake style from 1870-1885. And, yes, it was part of a parlor set, which usually included a love seat, a two-armed gentleman's chair, and a one-armed ladies' chair. Furniture manufacturers made these chairs with one arm and low to the ground because the ladies of the time wore dresses with lots of fabric in their skirts, covering over one or more petticoats. Eastlake suggested that chairs be made low to the floor so that ladies could remove their shoes without having to bend over in an un-lady-like manner. The new middle class housewives loved it.

The Eastlake style grew out of the beginning of the Aesthetic Movement which later evolved into the Arts and Crafts Movement. Charles Lock Eastlake, himself, wasn't a furniture maker but wrote a book, Hints on Household Taste, published in England in 1868 and the United States in 1872, which called for the manufacture of simple sturdy furniture and gave suggestions on how to decorate a home in a simple, refined manner. He was a noted, trend-setting British architect, author, and lecturer, and by the time his book hit booksellers in America, it was an instant hit with middle-class housewives who wanted to keep up with the trends in home decoration.

Although Eastlake furniture is technically considered Victorian, it breaks away from the excessive high relief carving, classical elements, and numerous curves of other styles produced during this time. Eastlake’s reformed style offered the first glimpses of modernism and was on exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.

In contrast with other Victorian styles of furniture produced in America featuring classical motifs, Eastlake furniture was more geometric and incorporates softer curves. Though some pieces may have incorporated Renaissance Revival and medieval influences, they don’t overwhelm the pices.

A number of manufacturers made this furniture and most didn’t mark their pieces. Using oak, cherry, rosewood, and walnut, they often emphasized wood grains. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell what type of wood manufacturers used because of the dark varnishes they used to coat the surface.

In contrast to Arts and Crafts furniture, Eastlake pieces weren’t completely lacking in ornamentation and decorative elements. But the ornamental carving on these pieces was lightly incised rather than deeply carved. Generally, new Eastlake furniture came in a broad range of quality and price levels.