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

Blow Out: Destruction And Danger In A French Cathedral

Recently a number of people have been sending me links regarding the transformation of an elegant French chateau into a monstrosity for the display of (mostly bad) art. It’s odd that this story has only been making the rounds in the commentariat now, since the destruction of this building actually took place a few years ago. However in the uproar over this act of architectural violence, few have noticed a more recent architectural disaster in France that needs addressing.

Two weeks ago, the 13th century rose window of Soissons Cathedral was blown out during severe winter storms, leaving a gaping hole in the façade of the West Front. As Apollo Magazine notes, thanks to the solid engineering which went into its construction, the structure of the great window at Soissons had successfully withstood previous disasters, including a nearby explosion during the Napoleonic Wars and bombardment during World War I. The great iron pins that hold the stone tracery together did their job for many centuries, up until now.

Back in 1918, a bomb blew out all of the glass in the rose window, but left the structure of the window itself intact. The replacement design was a pleasant if unremarkable hybrid of Romanesque and Gothic, depicting Christ seated in judgement of the world. This is an entirely appropriate theme for the West Front of a Gothic cathedral, where the decorative program usually references the Apocalypse, including the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, and the condemnation of the damned to Hell.

In addition to the structural damage, officials will have to address the problem of replacing the church’s organ, which stood behind the window and was destroyed as it caved in. The instrument dated from the 1950’s and, although not as ancient as the rest of the building, it did hold historic significance for lovers of sacred music. It was for this organ that composer Maurice Duruflé wrote his Opus 12, “Fugue sur le carillon des heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons”.

However even before the organ can be dealt with, the Cathedral is obviously going to need a new window. The glass of the now-destroyed window was itself a replacement, less than a century old and not of particular artistic importance. One could argue that the Cathedral is less morally bound than it might otherwise be, regarding its replacement.

Therein, of course, lies the potential danger.

For decades, there has been a tendency in church renovation to take advantage of the opportunity to replace failing or missing stained glass with ugly and embarrassing designs. Usually the replacement window exhibits no genuine artistic skill, or it has little or nothing to do with Christianity. We can see this in historic churches all over the world.

At the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona for example, which was burned by leftists during the Spanish Civil War, there are several miraculous survivors of windows from the Middle Ages. Yet some of the replacement windows are both ugly and inscrutable, such as this one installed in commemoration of the 1992 Olympic Games. Similarly, Westminster Abbey in London recently announced that it has commissioned a new window from British artist David Hockney, meant to honor Queen Elizabeth II. I realize that I am in a very tiny minority on this point, but I find Hockney’s work juvenile and shallow, and I expect the end result to be something similar.

What will Soissons do? Will the previous window, of which many images exist, be recreated? Will a new design in keeping with the subject matter of the old window be commissioned? Or will an image of the Last Judgment be considered too out of step with “who am I to judge”?

Only time will tell, but given the state of Christianity in Europe generally, and the many decades of horrible church renovations we have seen since the 1960’s, I don’t honestly feel too hopeful about the outcome in this situation.

Join Me For A Glorious Christmas Concert!

​On Wednesday, November 30th at 7:30 pm, the Choir of St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church in Washington, DC will hold their first Christmas Concert under music Director and Organist Neil Weston. For more information, read the flyer below or check out the parish web site. I strongly urge you to attend if you can, and even if you cannot, please share this information with anyone whom you think may be interested because, quite frankly, our choir is amazing. Those Christmas CD’s they will be selling after the concert will go very quickly.

As regular readers know, St. Stephen’s is my parish here in the Nation’s Capital, and I have often praised the musical talents of our musicians on social media. In fact, everyone who has joined me for Mass at St. Stephen’s over the years has commented on how superb our music is, and that we are one of the best-kept secrets in Washington. Check out this recording I made of them singing Vivaldi at Mass one Sunday – I think you’ll agree that they sound more like something out of a cathedral rather than a parish church.

Part of this amazing sound has to do with the church itself, a building which will be of interest to those who like Midcentury Modern design. From the outside, St. Stephen’s doesn’t reveal its secrets, except in the magnificent bronze doors depicting scenes from the life of St. Stephen by the great contemporary sculptor Antony Visco of Philadelphia. Upon entering, you are enveloped in walls of French Modernist stained glass from Chartres, and the swooping lines of Mad Men and Connery-era Bond architecture. You can read about the history of the building, including why it was JFK and Jackie’s favorite parish when they were in the White House, by reading the Wikipedia entry.

However even with the great acoustics inside the building, in the end it is the people who make the music. Our musicians at St. Stephen’s are seriously impressive talents, capable of performing a very wide repertoire, from Medieval to Modern, highly popular to relatively unknown works. Director Neil Weston not only has exquisite musical taste, he is also a force to be reckoned with on the organ, as you can hear and see here.

I hope you’ll join me for this evening, and please do share this event with those you know who might be interested in attending. Be sure to come up and say hello, if you spot me at the performance. It is early enough in the season that it will not conflict with anything else on your calendar, and it will help all of us to start the Advent and Christmas season off right!