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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

More Real Than Real

I make cottage furniture.

Except, technically I don't. If you want to get precise about it, cottage furniture is... well, my fingers hurt from making cottage furniture that isn't really, so I'll stop typing and paste a picture and save us all some grief:
Cottage Furniture refers to inexpensive suites of furniture from the nineteenth century, almost always made of the plainest wood and painted, with decorations painted on them. If there was woodgrain showing, 99% of the time it was "grain-painted" in a spartan, primitive style.

I go to antique stores pretty regularly. Real cottage furniture is about the rarest style I see in there. It was mass-produced for the better part of the 19th century, but it's all gone now. Everyone wanted it and then no one wanted it. A great deal of the "shabby chic" movement involved painting cottage furniture white and sticking it in your second house, so it's still around here and there under a badly applied coat of house paint. The back leg is kinda hinky, the drawers are stuck from the humidity, your weird uncle had a leaky bottle of Hai Karate aftershave that gives the dresser a funny smell, but it's there next to your buttsprung mattress on the rusty exposed spring foundation.

The king of Cottage Furniture was Andrew Jackson Downing. He didn't make any, as far as I know; he was really a gardener at heart (Central Park in New York was his idea) He popularized the ideas behind it and basically defined what a "cottage" was in America with books like The Architecture of Country Houses.




It's a text-heavy book by modern tastes, but it's got some illustrations of furniture Downing offered as examples of appropriate to the country house. You don't want any. They look too rococo to the modern eye. Various publishers have made a living repackaging the illustrations of gingerbread millwork and furniture Downing supplied with his various tomes. He championed a Gothic Revival style for country houses in order to make houses look picturesque out in the landscape. The style can easily be stripped down to simple shapes and forms that are not fussy or expensive, but have a bit of whimsy associated with them: Carpenter Gothic.

The Gothic style got associated in popular culture with the era just before the Depression, and so it gets unfairly maligned constantly as the place in the movies where Anthony Perkins keeps his mom past her fresh sale date, where Jimmy Stewart's newel post knob comes off in his hand over and over, and where Boo Radley would live. If Orson Welles wanted to do scary, he'd put Agnes Moorehead in a black satin frock, put the camera down low in a gothic room, and show the musty side of things.

So I don't make cottage furniture if you look at his pictures, but I do if you read what Downing was driving at:

...the highest principle in designing or building a cottage, that it should be truthful, that is, should clearly express the modesty and simplicity of cottage life. Hence, not only should the cottage aim to look like a cottage, but it should avoid all pretension to what it cannot honestly and faithfully be. And as its object is first utility, and then beauty, the useful should never be sacrificed to the ornamental, but the latter should more obviously be connected with, and grow out of the former, in a cottage than in a more elaborate dwelling.

Almost everyone's house is a cottage nowadays. A cottage is just an informal house. Very few people live in formal houses of any kind. There's often a kind of fight going on between reality and their idea of what they're supposed to be doing, however. Many people have very fussy and severe looking furnishings and finishes in their informal houses. The juxtaposition of these contrary impulses makes people crazy and Home Depot rich.

I'm being interviewed by the newspaper this week, and a television station next week. They're going to ask me, I know it in my bones--

Are you:
  • Norm?
  • Bob Vila?
  • Wallace Nutting without the chromographs?
  • Martha Stewart, only less tough?
  • Pottery Barn's idiot brother?
I'm not any of those things. I'm this generation's Andrew Jackson Downing, saving the American House one end table at a time.

...if it so happens that one is forced to inhabit a house meagre and poor in its interior, its baldness and poverty may be, in a great degree, concealed or overcome, by furnishing the rooms in a tasteful and becoming manner...

...And here we may be allowed to prose a little, at the outset, by an allusion to the blunders committed by many persons in furnishing a house. We mean the blunder of confounding fashion with taste, of supposing that whatever the cabinetmakers and upholsterers turn out as the latest fashion must necessarily be the only things worth having; and of a total ignorance of the fact, that the most fashionable furniture may be in the worst taste, while furniture in the most correct taste is not always such as is easily obtained in the cabinet warehouses.

Tasteful furniture is, simply, furniture remarkable for agreeable and harmonious lines and forms, well adapted to the purpose in view.

Preach it, brother.

7 comments:

River Cocytus said...

But she desired, nevertheless, something more or different. She did not know what it was, and the nearest she could come to expressing it to herself was--that she wanted more room. Watho and Falca would go from her beyond the shine of the lamp, and come again; therefore surely there must be more room somewhere. As often as she was left alone, she would fall to poring over the coloured bas-reliefs on the walls. These were intended to represent various of the powers of Nature under allegorical similitudes, and as nothing can be made that does not belong to the general scheme, she could not fail at least to imagine a flicker of relationship between some of them, and thus a shadow of the reality of things found its way to her. -George MacDonald, The History of Photogen and Nycteris

A thought about these more abstract or allegorical forms.

Thud said...

sipp...keep on fighting the good fight for taste and discernment...or sanding,carving,routing the good fight.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Please provide the link or YouTube to your interviews.

Doesn't Bob live in a villa? It's a cottage of sorts...

Anonymous said...

..the blunder of confounding fashion with taste, of supposing that whatever the cabinetmakers and upholsterers [and HGTV decorating shows] turn out as the latest fashion must necessarily be the only things worth having; and of a total ignorance of the fact, that the most fashionable furniture may be in the worst taste...

Sipp,
Do you think we are officially over the powder blue and brown color fad yet? I have a bad feeling that the next one will be a greenish gold and mossy purple.
Deb in Madison

Eric said...

I would say we are not over the powder blue/brown thing yet. Recently, while looking for a new shower curtain for a pink and light blue tiled bathroom at Bed, Bath and Beyond, I was rather amazed at the seemingly endless array of shower curtains in those two colors. Many different designs, but basically those two colors. The whole bathroom section was this shade of brown and blue.

Wierd.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

We had a high school reunion this past weekend (30th) and in every prom picture there was a powder blue tuxedo.

And, in the interest of full disclosure, I did have a powder blue leisure suit all those years ago.

So, why are STILL putting up with Powder Freaking BLUE!?!?!?

Sweet Cheeks said...

"The back leg is kinda hinky, the drawers are stuck from the humidity, your weird uncle had a leaky bottle of Hai Karate aftershave that gives the dresser a funny smell, but it's there next to your buttsprung mattress on the rusty exposed spring foundation."

I think we all had this furniture growing up...
Good luck in the furniture business. Like your blog. :)