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

Meeting At Bethany

The attentive reader will look at the calendar and realize that this coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. In Spain – and possibly in other places as well – today, the Friday shortly before Palm Sunday, has its own spiritual tradition, based partly on Scripture and partly on tradition. Whether or not one accepts the theory, I think you’ll find it an interesting point of reflection.

We know from the Gospels that prior to entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus was staying with his close friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany. Indeed, St. John’s Gospel places the raising of Lazarus from the dead before Palm Sunday. In Spain, it is commonly believed that on the Friday before Palm Sunday, Jesus’ Mother Mary was in Bethany as well. Moreover, pious belief is that He told her, on that Friday, what was going to happen to Him the following Friday.

There is a certain logic to this belief. Surely if the Virgin Mary had heard about the death of Lazarus, it would have been reasonable for her, as a Jewish matron, to go comfort Lazarus’ sisters. Her presence in Bethany at the time, and staying there to celebrate Passover rather than returning to Nazareth, would also explain why, within hours of Jesus’ arrest, she is present in Jerusalem to witness His execution. After all, Nazareth is about 90 miles from Jerusalem, whereas Bethany is only about a mile and a half away.

Even if Jesus did not get to see His Mother prior to entering into His Passion, she was of course there to witness His sacrifice on Calvary. Yet I rather fancy that He did see her. Perhaps they talked late into the night that Friday, or perhaps she simply accepted what He told her, much as she accepted the message of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, which we commemorated this week. She may not have been able to understand how God would bring about what she was told would happen, but once again she did not shy away. She believed, and put herself at His service.

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Detail, "Virgin of Sorrows" by Murillo

The Hipster at Home

Yesterday an architect friend sent me a rather interesting article about the contemporary American artist Jeff Koons, which happened to re-trigger a thought process I had begun but abandoned some months ago regarding the American pop artist Andy Warhol.  Those of you who know me or read these pages regularly might be surprised to find me writing about these two artists, but as I often do I beg you to bear with me.  I think you will be rather surprised.

Jeff Koons (born 1955) is originally from Pennsylvania, and after studying in Chicago and Baltimore moved to New York in the 1970’s.  He  has been something of a controversial figure in the art world and in popular culture for some time now.  He is famous – or infamous, depending on how you look at – for creating works of art that are often regarded as bizarre, deeply offensive, or simply tacky objects of kitsch.  Some tamer examples of his work include “Puppy”, a giant, 43-foot-tall topiary in the form of a dog;  and arguably his most famous work, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”, an 18th century-style gilded, white porcelain sculpture, depicting the late pop star and his pet chimpanzee.

There is no question that Koons is an artist whose work is often difficult to like.  Looking at an exhibition or catalogue of his output, he veers seemingly without explanation from humor to pornography, from childlike delight to repulsive blasphemy.  What some also find objectionable, beyond his sometimes prurient subject matter, is that more often than not Koons himself does not actually make any of the art which bears his name.  Instead, he employs a veritable factory of assistants who produce his work, based on his ideas.

Interestingly enough, this production method ties him rather closely to the example of another controversial American artist, albeit from an earlier generation.  Like Koons, the hugely influential pop artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987) also hailed from Pennsylvania, and left the relative sanity of the Keystone State to pursue his career in New York.  Warhol established a “factory” method for his famous colored prints of Campbell’s soup cans and Elizabeth Taylor, whereby he himself was not actually producing the art, in most cases, as indeed Koons was to do later.

Subject matter aside, it should be pointed out that this method of an artist’s workshop producing work in the name of an artist, rather than the artist producing it all himself, is more traditional than might first appear.  Today we think of the artist as toiling away in solitude, covered in sweat, paint, or flakes of marble, in some attic studio, but this is a comparatively recent phenomenon.    As I wrote about recently in regard to the contemporary copy of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” from The Prado, which was recently restored to glorious effect,  many artists like Leonardo, Rubens, and Murillo had young artists-in-training who apprenticed with them, in order to learn the trade themselves.

This method of art production, controversial as it may be to some, turns out to be a clue to what we might call a kind of krypto-conservatism on behalf of both these very unconventional men.  There is no question that Koons and Warhol challenge notions of the nature of art, such as what is and is not acceptable, both in their subject matter and in their way of producing art.  However it is rather interesting that in order to do so they returned to a pre-modern philosophy, more common to the 16th century than the 20th, in order to achieve it.

And what is even more interesting is the fact that despite all of their hipster swagger, preaching a new world of self-indulgence to a godless congregation, both Koons and Warhol are rather different when they are off-stage.  In their respective home lives, in the nests they create for themselves away from the paparazzi and the glitterati, they turn out to be not only somewhat conservative, but downright traditional.  The reader will be rather surprised to learn that these two artists, known for their bad taste in the art they themselves produced, in fact display rather refined tastes in their own homes.

Koons lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – not exactly a bohemian, starving artists community – in a home designed by architect Peter Pennoyer, chairman of the Institute of Classical Architecture.  His traditional home is filled not with his own art, but with the work of well-established, great Western artists of the past six centuries, that read like a solidly thought-out collection from some conservative banking or industrialist family: Eduard Manet, Gustave Courbet, Nicholas Poussin, Quentin Massys, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and others. There is no bare-bones, cold glass and concrete living, here.

Similarly, when Andy Warhol died and Sotheby’s was called in to value the contents of his Manhattan residence – again, an elegant, traditional house on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, and not some grungy bedsit in Alphabet City – they were shocked to find that in private, Warhol lived like a descendant of colonial gentry. He filled his house with things like museum-quality furniture from the American Federal period of the early 19th century, creating rooms that would look perfectly at home in the White House or the mansion of a Boston Brahmin family. Whatever his public persona may have been, in his private life Warhol was not living with furniture made out of plastic.

Both of these challenging, difficult artists play the offending fool in public, yet adopt the role of the tasteful courtier in private. In this respect they are not unlike other challengers of the status quo in modern history, such as Voltaire or Marx, who despite what they said or did in public, in their private lives sought out and enjoyed the kinds of luxuries which are normally considered the benefits of being successful members of the establishment. By acquiring such accoutrements, whether consciously or not, they betray a realization that the supposedly bourgeois values of tradition, comfort, and good taste are not such bad things as they are made out to be, by those who claim to abhor such things.

Of course it would be easy to simply dismiss such people as being nothing more than hypocrites. Yet the better way to absorb this knowledge is to look at it as a challenge to some assumptions held by those who seem to attack traditional ideas about culture, taste, and so on, as well as our own perceptions of both such persons and the relative strength of their convictions. In the end, perhaps the power of tradition is not so dead a thing as we have often been led to believe.


Andy Warhol’s Upper East Side living room (1988)