Sorting furniture styles: pigeonhole with caution
CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – One of my jobs as a reporter when I cover an antiques show or sale naturally is to ask exhibitors for details of their merchandise, take photos and record comments. But I also sometimes have the opportunity to pester attendees who don’t know me and to whom I do not introduce myself.
I engage them in casual conversation about a booth or an item and at some point slip in a question like “Do you like antique furniture?” Sometimes the answer is a short “yes” or “no” but usually it is a long winding essay being careful not to offend a nearby dealer or patron and also being careful to pay correct homage to family tradition and pride.
The end result is an unequivocal “maybe.” And I can understand that. The question is phrased, intentionally, so poorly as to not lead to a clear answer. It is like asking “Do you like food?” or “Do you like clothes?” It really is phrased for the responder to correctly parry with “What is it you really want to know?” and my counter thrust is “Do you like Chippendale (or Rococo or Queen Anne or Victorian or whatever else is in front of me) antique furniture?”
The reason for asking is that people are drawn to antique furniture in general for many reasons, some apparent, some not. (What is your reason?) Once that attraction is solidified though we tend to begin the “big sort,” something that is happening all over the country on a number of levels.
In a country so immersed in “diversity” have you noticed that people prefer to be with people like themselves? We tend to favor friendships with people with similar interests. We like to live among people like us, sometimes even in gated communities to keep the “others” out. We don’t always acknowledge it but it does happen. There is even a book out called, naturally, The Big Sort by Bill Bishop, (2008: Houghton Mifflin, available on Amazon). Bishop postulates that the prosperity of America allows more Americans to live where they please and they gravitate to “lifestyle” locations with all sorts of identifiable results.
The same thing happens, more or less, with collectors and admirers of antique furniture. They tend to hang out with people who like the same style or the same period or the same cabinetmaker or even the same country. You have to admit that if you are a died in the wool admirer of 18th century Chippendale chairs, your friend’s Renaissance Revival parlor set doesn’t really do it for you. And likewise, I am sure. If your taste tends to run toward mid-century modern, you probably aren’t inspired by turn of the century Golden Oak.
It just boils down to how fine a sort you want to make. According to a website called “Connect Lines” http://www.connectedlines.com/styleguide/index.htm, they have identified 19 different furniture styles and periods for American furniture since 1600 including one broad category simply labeled “Victorian.” That single category would add about 10 more styles if revival styles are separately identified. Other entries are rather straightforward like William and Mary, Queen Anne and Chippendale, but it also includes some gray areas (at least for me) like Early American, Colonial and Scandinavian Contemporary. I could add to or subtract from the list endlessly, but it would only be my opinion and you might argue differently, especially if you are “finely sorted” down to “Centennial bench-made from New York” or “Shaker chairs from northern Ohio.”
Some collectors and dealers carry the sort a lot further than just friends and acquaintances. For the last 21 years admirers of the Arts and Crafts period and its artifacts have trekked to the Arts and Crafts temple in Asheville, N.C., known as the Grove Park Inn for the annual National Arts & Crafts Conference at the Grove Park Inn. The 30th edition will be Feb. 17-19, 2017.
While there are entire museum collections devoted to one style, period or area, in 1982/1983 the Newark Museum under the direction of Ulysses G. Dietz, curator of Decorative Arts, enthusiastically decided to take it all on (or at least a good part of it) with an exhibit called “19th Century – Century of Revivals.” The exhibit consisted of 53 examples of Neo Classical, Rococo Revival, Renaissance Revival, Gothic, Eastlake and Colonial Revival furniture. That was refreshing since almost anybody could make it through that sort.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has narrowed the sort somewhat, not with an exhibition, but with an interesting thematic essay online. The page is called “American Revival Styles 1840-1876,” http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/revi/hd_revi.htm, and focuses tightly on the time frame for architecture and furniture. Other essays include the Arts and Crafts movement in America and a look at Duncan Phyfe and Charles-Honoré Lannuier.
The National Art and Antique Dealers Association of America breaks its categories of dealers down in a loose sort by geography including American Furniture and Decoration, Chinese Export Furniture and Lacquer, English Furniture and Decorative Arts and French and Continental Furniture and Decorative arts. On the other hand the Antique Dealer’s Association of America does not offer any sorts at all but allows you to peruse the membership role and look how each dealer makes his or her own sort. One just says “early American antiques,” another “Federal furniture and decorative arts” while another says “top quality American formal furniture and decorative objects of the first 40 years of the 19th century” and yet another says “furniture in original or old surface.” That could cover a lot of territory. And so the list goes through a huge variation of sorts.
In today’s world we have become, sadly, accustomed to being “sorted” by age, gender, race, height, income, language and an incomprehensible host of other terms of the sort. Now you have just been sorted by your furniture preference. What do you like?
By FRED TAYLOR
Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format.
His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
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