Brown Furniture And The Dictatorship Of “Midcentury Modern”

This piece in Apollo Magazine, about the beautiful but forgotten furniture of our ancestors, caught my eye yesterday. It picks up on some trends that I’ve observed first-hand over the years in art, architecture, and design. So let’s go back a bit, if the reader will indulge me.

Last summer in Madrid, I spent a morning visiting a number of dealers in the city’s main antiques district, on the hunt for a special wedding present. I noticed that the stock on display in the majority of shops had shifted away from what you would normally expect to find. Instead of things like giltwood tables, crystal chandeliers, and Baroque statuary, pieces that could have decorated the lair of a villain in a Bond film were placed center stage. I asked several of the dealers about this, and they noted that mass-produced, industrial designs from the middle of the 20th century are what buyers want now; there was little interest in collecting more traditional art or furnishings.

These dealers were describing the choking embrace of what in this country we call “Midcentury Modern”, a term regularly abused to within an inch of its life on popular television shows such as HGTV’s “House Hunters”. With respect to architecture, it’s applied to everything from a Richard Neutra Palm Springs bungalow to an anonymous suburban ranch house built in the 1960’s. A similar over-generalization occurs when it comes to furniture and decorative objects, so that a chair designed by Eero Saarinen for Knoll or a handmade Isamo Noguchi coffee table falls under the same category as a 1960’s plywood dinette set from Montgomery Ward or a Sputnik-shaped pot metal chandelier by some unknown manufacturer.

In the current frenzy for Midcentury Modern, one significant area of collecting that has been lost in the shuffle is what at Sotheby’s I was taught to call “brown furniture”. Loosely speaking, this term refers to traditional wooden furniture, which was created by generations of cabinetmakers and furniture carvers between the late 17th and early 20th centuries. These solidly made tables, chairs, and cabinets, typically constructed from woods like mahogany, walnut, or oak, were inlaid, stained, and polished to look their best, and to last for generations. They were considered essential for the furnishing of a respectable home, whether you were a prosperous Philadelphia merchant or a humble New England seamstress.

Over the last two decades these pieces have fallen out of favor, and their prices have fallen along with them. They are viewed as too stuffy, too traditional, and too out of keeping with contemporary lifestyles. While at the upper end of the market, a rare Chippendale cabinet created by a famous cabinetmaker for the Earl of Someplace is always going to command a significant price, at the more affordable end of the market, there are real bargains to be had – especially when compared to what you can buy new.

For example, let’s say that you wanted to buy a nice desk for your home office, in order to replace the old kitchen table that you’ve been using. Back in December, you could have bought a hand-carved, 18th century polished mahogany desk, made in England during the reign of George III, for $1,000 at Wechsler’s Auction House here in DC. Or, you could have gone to the mall or shopped online, and easily spent twice that amount for a similar-sized desk made with little or no craftsmanship at all, constructed from cheap materials in some Communist hellhole like Red China or Vietnam, and designed to both go out of fashion and fall apart within the next 5 years.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate good Modern or Contemporary design. In fact I not only appreciate, have studied, and understand it, I can also identify what are good examples of it. There should be room in your life for both a well-made William & Mary chest of drawers, and a sleek Mies van der Rohe leather chair.

Yet that being said, there’s something rather sad about the fact that those handmade pieces of old, well-constructed furniture, which your grandparents would have cherished, are now looked on as inferior to pieces that were specifically designed to be disposable. The rejection of what was previously the product of careful craftsmanship, in favor of what was created to be fast and cheap, along with the adoption of the corresponding view that the latter is somehow more desirable than the former, is truly bizarre. Indeed, perhaps this state of affairs serves as an all-too-apt metaphor for the state of our society as a whole.

Still: for those wise enough to perceive it, the situation presents a terrific opportunity for those who still appreciate the beauty of brown.

Furniture designs by Thomas Chippendale

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7 thoughts on “Brown Furniture And The Dictatorship Of “Midcentury Modern”

  1. William, I love brown furniture. I really don’t think, aside from our mattress, that we have bought anything brand new and I have found some amazing pieces at yard sales, thrift shops and second hand stores. I have found that most of my furniture has stood our families test of time. With six children and a growing number of grandchildren our furniture has often taken a beating but has a lovely patina and oh the stories that coffee table could tell you.

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  2. I grew up with department-store mid-century modern, even if it was Swedish. It may have, in those days, been the stylistic equivalent of today’s disposable junk, but it lasted over half a century. If there was brown furniture in some relative’s home in Stockholm or Quebec, I sadly don’t recall it.

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