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

On The Beauty Of Useless Things

Last evening I caught up with an old friend, who has been busy having a bit of a clear-out. Old books long since read and never reopened, knick-knacks which seem to come from nowhere, and even a diploma frame emblazoned with the school logo were being tossed out. The experience was described as freeing, and of course that’s to be taken both literally and figuratively: as living space becomes less cluttered, the mind feels less cluttered also.

It’s a feeling I know well, having to go through the de-hoarding process regularly. Despite public perceptions of what living in Georgetown must be like, one thing that all village residents know well is that homes built a century (or quite a bit more) ago, while very quaint, often present significant storage problems for their residents. Closet space is at such a premium that, at least twice a year, I end up hauling great sacks full of worn, but still wearable clothes out of the house to give to the poor.

Yet the guilt we may sometimes feel for having useless “stuff” must be tempered by an acknowledgement that utility is not a virtue, in and of itself. Employing a spirit of utility in the imitation of Christ’s poverty is virtuous, whether you are a Capuchin friar who has renounced all earthly possessions, or a successful entrepreneur giving away your substantial resources in order to aid those in need. The application of utility as the sine qua non of human existence however, can just as easily lead to evil (see, inter alia, Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx, Margaret Sanger.)

In Whit Stillman’s film “Metropolitan”, textbook college leftist Tom Townsend criticizes the Christmas parties he’s been attending, which he finds wasteful when there are people less fortunate than himself in the world. Nick Smith points out that there’s something rather arrogant about not enjoying yourself at a party that you’ve been invited to, because you’d rather stay at home and think about others whom *you* consider to be less fortunate. It’s a scene that, in a way reminds me of one of those moments in the Bible when consumption and utilitarianism come head to head, in an unexpected way.

In each of the four Gospels, we read the story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ head with costly perfume, washed His feet with her tears, and wiped them clean with her hair. In their respective versions of the event, Saints Matthew, Mark, and John also recall the words of Judas during this scene. He criticizes the “waste” of the perfume, which could have been sold to help the poor. Judas is trying to make himself appear more virtuous, but he’s also embracing a utilitarian attitude toward what is taking place in front of him.

Christ not only rebukes Simon the Pharisee, in whose home this scene is taking place, since he failed to even offer the basic material comforts which were due to a guest, but He also rebukes Judas’ utilitarianism. As to the former, a host who fails to provide for the needs of his guest is not acting with the generosity with which God acts toward us. As to the latter, Jesus notes that we will always be able to help the poor, but that this woman was doing something very special to honor Him: an act which He predicted would be remembered throughout the world. And of course, He was right.

During His time on earth, Christ may not have owned anything, but He certainly enjoyed things that were lacking in utility. He liked to sing with His friends, sail on the Sea of Galilee, and even barbecue. Perhaps you are being called to give up all that you own, in imitation of Christ, and that is a special calling indeed. For most of us however, I think we’re called to remember that moderation is what we’re after, not a wholesale rejection of Creation – for Creation was, after all, a gift that was made for and given to us.

Christ In The House Of Simon The Pharisee by Jean Beraud (1891)

​Fallen Angel: Rethinking The Selfie

Recently a tourist was visiting Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art, when he decided to take a selfie with a magnificent Baroque statue of the Archangel Michael. The image, which stood on a plinth in one of the galleries, was carved in the mid-18th century by an unknown artist. It is made of polychromed wood and gesso (plaster), and depicts St. Michael dressed in gleaming armor, with his cloak billowing out behind him as he steps onto a cloud.

To the horror of onlookers, as the tourist backed up to take his selfie, he knocked the statue over. It fell to the floor, and smashed into pieces. While initial reports stated that the damage was irreversible – which at the time I thought rather a hasty conclusion given the materials involved – the museum later indicated that the statue can eventually be repaired.

The selfie, whether obtained by stick, outstretched arm, or self-timer, can be a godsend in some situations. We have all been at events such as birthday parties or family vacations where we want to record a memory of our time together, but there is no “other” to whom we can turn to capture an image for us. In these moments, the selfie becomes a manifestation of love and gratitude.

However in many instances, the selfie has become a way to actively avoid trusting other human beings. If you are standing in front of the Capitol here in Washington for example, there will be plenty of passersby whom you can hand your phone or camera, and ask them to take your picture. Such requests were once so commonplace, that it became a kind of internationally-recognized cultural behavior: people who could not communicate to one another using words, could use gestures to politely ask for, and give, assistance to one another. The selfie has, to a significant extent, reduced or eliminated such trusting interaction, turning the focus back exclusively upon the self.

Of course, not all selfies are indications of an insidious, underlying selfishness, any more than all images which do not feature their photographer are inherently selfless. A woman photographing still lifes of her jewels or fine clothes and sharing these images on social media, may well be acting out of a greater selfishness than a woman who posts a selfie of herself and her friends, all dressed to the nines for a joyful wedding celebration. There is nothing inherently evil about taking and periodically posting a self-portrait, even if there is something unquestionably stupid about allowing selfie sticks into places like public galleries and museums.

We do not know the motives of the tourist who ruined the statue of St. Michael. Perhaps we can take a kindly view, assume that he has a pious devotion to the Archangel, and wanted a picture of himself with this striking image of the Heavenly warrior. Yet even if this is the case, both prudence and an underlying respect for others would dictate that he should have asked for help. Would it really have been so difficult to, in a moment of trust, ask another of the museum patrons to capture the image for him, directing him so as to not only avoid damaging the statue, but also to achieve the result he wanted with a minimum of disruption?

Media analysis of this incident has largely focused on the lack of adequate museum funding, saying that if there had been more guards, this accident would not have happened. However I doubt that even a fully-funded staff of guards and docents could ensure that such an occurrence would never take place. Rather it is the underlying view of the selfie that needs greater consideration, particularly with respect to how it can negatively impact others.

Philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand once observed that “vanity as a rule is referred to intellectual, vital, and exterior assets rather than to religious or moral virtues. What occupies the center of attention here is one’s social figure.” Yet vanity turns into something more destructive, when it is employed in such a way as to injure others, whether directly or through the loss of beautiful works of art or natural wonders shared by all mankind.

Again, selfies are not in and of themselves, bad things, and the solution to the problem of accident prevention is not to ban museum photography entirely. But perhaps what our cultural institutions can do to avoid situations like this in the future, is to encourage visitors to think more carefully about why they are visiting in the first place. For when we choose to place ourselves in front of a great work of art, merely in order to photograph ourselves with it, we may be saying more about our attitude not only to the art itself, but more importantly toward our fellow man, than we may realize.