When I talk about furniture connoisseurship, I’m basically talking about three or four aspects of a piece that make it what it is. If I try to categorize these aspects they break down into design, craftsmanship, materials and finish.
Like nearly everything that is considered a “masterpiece”, the process begins with the design or plan. Most great painters or sculptors begin with preliminary sketches and conceptual drawings. I’ve made very few pieces of furniture without a plan. A fair amount of design can be considered “subjective” but, realistically, great pieces tend to have certain things in common. That commonality manifests itself in those four aspects I listed above.
For most woodworkers three of those aspects are easily defined and, relatively accessible. Sure, your joinery skills may need some honing, the wood you really wanted was just a little out of budget and/or you’re just too scared to start lapping on the stain for fear your masterwork will end up relegated to the back corner of the garage for eternity. All of those things are conquerable, learnable skills. But what about the abstract, ever elusive “design”?
I’m asked all the time where I get the plans for the pieces I build. The answer is simply that I develop them…myself. You’ll notice that I used the term “develop” and that was done purposely. Sure, the easiest thing to do would be to find someone who has published a set of printed plans for a piece of furniture, buy some wood and head into the shop. What I’ve found, after decades of studying antiques is that most of the “plans” available today lack the aesthetic accuracy and quality of the real pieces. I have to ask myself why?
It really doesn’t take that much extra effort to create a truly beautiful design. Why do so many people skimp on the details of their plans? The answer is simple. They really haven’t studied what goes into making one piece “good” while another is a “masterpiece”.
Most people say to me “But what looks good to you may not look good to someone else and what looks good to them may not look good to you.”. While on some level this may be a completely true statement, it certainly doesn’t hold true in the analysis of art at the connoisseurship level. There are real, measurable, intellectual reasons why certain works of art (and furniture qualifies as “functional” art) are considered “masterpieces” while others are not.
So, what is connoisseurship? It’s been quite some time but I talked a little about it in an earlier blog post. The simple definition is that connoisseurship is the educated, intellectual, critical analysis of a subject, or object. So how does one apply this to furniture design? Simply put we need to consider the intent of the piece (is it functional or is it merely meant to be observed…I’ll expand on that in a minute), the symmetry and balance of the piece and the overall proportions.
Let’s take those one at a time starting with “intent”. There are many aspects to “intent”. Some of the questions I first ask when analyzing a piece are: “Is it meant to be a reproduction or an original piece?”; “Is it intended for actual use or is it meant to be purely displayed?”; and “Is form or function meant to be dominant?”.
I started out in my parents’ basement building bookcases for neighbors and friends. The price point for the pieces was set to compete with the local unfinished furniture store book cases but mine were finished. At thirteen and fourteen years of age I wasn’t concerned with distinguishing myself as an “artist”. I was interested in building stuff and getting paid to do it so I could buy more tools, or a car whichever came first. My intent wasn’t to create masterworks for under $300. Consequently, in those early pieces, function outweighed form. Even so, I tried adding molded feet and over hangs. I even occasionally bought colored shelf tracks so the brushed aluminum was predominant. See, not everyone starts out building Philadelphia Highboys. The point of this little story is to illustrate how function can influence form. From the vantage point of the connoisseur, my pine bookcases with adjustable shelving are not even on the radar screen of furniture design.
Another aspect of my bookcase story that illustrates “intent” is that those pieces were meant to be used. They were not grand monuments to my abilities as a craftsman, meant to be displayed on a pedestal under the glaring lights in some museum. They were meant to be loaded up with books. Is that to say that something that is meant to be used can’t be a “masterpiece”? Absolutely not. In fact, most of the pieces of furniture that are classified as “masterpieces” that have been made throughout the history of man have had the distinct pleasure of being “useful”.
The final answer to my questions of “intent” involves “original” versus “reproduction”. Whether you are trying to create a completely new piece or you are trying to create something that is a “copy” of something that was made before, should be a consideration in your design “intent”.
I’ve made many varied pieces throughout my career. Some have been exact replicas of period pieces while others have been purely my own contemporary designs. I’ve also made pieces for which the intent was to create something that “might” have been in a period home. In other words, the piece has no historical precedent but my modern day customer wanted one anyway. In terms of connoisseurship, each of these different “intents” carries with it a different set of standards by which the piece is to be judged. An exact replica means just that. I’ve spent the time and effort necessary to copy the minute details of a piece while an adaptation, or a piece that “might” have been, means I need to work within the parameters of the specific period in which the piece I’m making is based. The completely original design carries with it it’s own set of criteria upon which it is judged.
In the next installment of this series we’ll start to look at proportioning and symmetry and balance. From the earliest known pieces to the most contemporary, these three aspects of analysis will show how all pieces have certain things in common. Meanwhile, please feel free to jump in with your comments and expand on the assertions I’ve made in today’s post. I’m very interested to see if those who read the blog are interested in an ongoing, in-depth conversation about furniture design and connoisseurship. The last post, referenced above, got some pretty good response but I got sidetracked onto other things for a good while. This subject has come up a lot recently so I’m back in the mode to expand on it further. I just want to make sure that those who read my pontifications actually want to discuss this subject. So, don’t be shy. Jump into the fray and post some comments or questions. I want this to be a discussion, not a lecture. So, feel free to point out areas where you think I got it right or wrong. Give your own opinion and ask any question that relates.
I’ll see you in a few days and I’ll be bringing along an old friend. His name is William Hogarth and he’s had a lot of influence on analysis of art over the years.