Connoisseurship Fundamentals 1

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.





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9 thoughts on “Connoisseurship Fundamentals 1

  1. Chuck,

    Glad to see that you’re getting back to the discussion on design and connoisseurship.

    I would agree that design, craftsmanship, materials and finish are the basic elements of what can make a piece a masterpiece. It makes perfect sense that each of these elements must have the appropriate treatment and attention for the final outcome to rise to that level.

    I follow your logic (and agree) regarding one’s intent for a deign. To some degree this restates the “form-follows-function” or “form-is-everything” mindsets – when function is important then constraints must be addressed with the ultimate design to accommodate that function; when there are no functional requirements and we just want to look at something then the exploration of form can run wild.

    The one thing I might query you on is whether a piece that is a100% reproduction requires any elements of design from the person that is reproducing it? In reality, the design is there and if all parts of it are reproduced faithfully, I would think that if there is no effort to interpret that design with one’s own eye then really only the other three elements (craftsmanship, materials and finish) are involved. I don’t feel that this diminishes the abilities of the woodworker or artist, but it does seem to take design out of the equation.

    What do you think?

    The Craftsman’s Path

  2. I’m glad you are back on the subject. I’m self taught in woodworking so any ideas or techniques of design and porportion are very helpful.

    Great post, Chuck,

    Charlie M.

  3. Mark,

    Actually, reproducing a piece faithfully is how I got my start. On the surface it sounds easy but it forces you to look at details which would go completely unnoticed ordinarily. Even if you have the piece sitting in your shop, it’s extremely hard to copy something 100%. Sure, having it in the shop makes it easier to get molding profiles and dimensions correct but those are only a few details that go into the overall appearance of a piece. The hard part is getting the curve of a foot or cabriole leg just perfect. To get those cabriole legs rounded off exactly the same as the original might not seem like a daunting task but when you consider that slight changes can have a great effect on the appearance of the piece the process takes on a whole new meaning.

    For those of us who aren’t lucky enough to have every piece they want to copy sitting by their bench during the process, we need to bring our knowledge of period design and construction to bear. Since most pieces that I copy are done so from photographs (and a few dimensions), there’s a fair amount of “interpretation” that occurs. Fortunately, no two cabinetmakers interpret all those details the same. This is where the designer-craftsman’s design sense comes into play. For me, and my customers, that’s what separates my furniture from the other small and semi-production shops.

    I copied a highboy made by Moses Bayley and Joshua Morss that the folks at Israel Sack had in their shop at one time (Sack, Albert, The New Fine Points of Furniture, New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. pg.185, “Masterpiece”). Lots of other cabinetmakers have copied the same piece including one of the larger, well known semi-production shops. I say “semi-production” because they only had thirty or thirty-five people working in the shop making as many of these highboys as they could crank out in a two week span then they move on to a different “production run”. If you look at their interpretation and mine, they are two entirely different pieces with the same overall appearance. The connoisseur can see they are worlds apart.

    At some point, I’ll post some pictures of my highboy and we can dissect it for educational purposes.


  4. Much has ben written about what makes something of enduringly classic beauty. The ancient Greeks wrote extensively on aesthetics thousnads of years ago.
    Recently, I have been reading some of the British philosopher, Roger Scruton’s books (on radical islam). He has two books that might be relevant (I have not yet fully read either). While the focus is more on art, lit., and music, he does dig deep and the understandings would apply equally to furniture design…..

    1. “The Aesthetic Understanding: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Culture”
    – from the blurb: ” Roger Scruton argues to be the central problems of aesthetics – what is aesthetic experience, and what is its importance for human conduct? His work is among the best that rebuts the modern view that all such things are irredemiably “subjective” – a characterization that robs great works of art of their universal appeal and applicability, as well as their ability to lift us, however momentarily, above what Hegel called this life (“the highway of dispair”) so that we can glimpse the finer aspects of our nature. Roger Scruton is to be congratulated for giving us hope that the Aesthetic spirit in humanity can triumph over the the mundane.

    2. “Beauty”
    “Scruton insists that beauty is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and that the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world. ”

    I read this many years ago, but recall some of the essays spoke to the question of what makes for enduring beauty in art and architecture…

    Russell Kirk’s “Redeeming The Time”….

    The above are all from a classical liberal (modern conservative world-view), which I share. So, for example, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol would not be considered worthy of much more than passing fad.


  5. Chuck,

    That’s great insight into the world of period reproduction. You raise some interesting points that I had not really considered before.

    I really should have considered these points, because your points on reproducing a cabriole leg are spot on. When I did my Queen Anne Side Table, trying to get the legs just right was the toughest challenge and you are absolutely correct that even small deviations give the piece a different look and feel – mine were surely not perfect, by the way!

    It is also interesting that you do most reproductions from photographs. I had assumed that you were able to crawl around these pieces to get exact dimensions, molding profiles and construction details. Of course, doing this from photos definitely brings design back into the equation and requires unique interpretation of the design of the piece. Interesting!

    I’d love to see more of your reproduction pieces with some discussion on how you went about reproducing them as well as the period details that you included. That is fascinating stuff!


    The Craftsman’s Path

  6. Hello Chuck…….first let me say that I heard your interview with Glen Huey and I appreciate your woodworking experience.

    This design interest on the internet must get awfully confusing to the current woodworker trying to find an understanding.

    The idea of being a connoisseur is interesting. Out of curiosity, is your definition restricted to period reproduction work or the entire genre of “furniture design”???

  7. Neil,

    My definition is in no way limited to solely to period furniture. In fact, connoisseurship defines the modern masters. When you look at Maloof’s and Nakashima’s work crticially you discover why it rises to the top. After the contest ends, I’ll see if I can drag Mr. Hogarth in for a visit and we’ll continue the discussion. With a little luck, we’ll al discover a few ways to critically look our work and make it better… from a design standpoint.


  8. Hi Chuck………COOL!! I’ll keep checking back for more. I have my own thoughts based firmly on experience.

    One of my interests is how the the Design Process is being discussed/presented to the internet woodworker. I find alot of the presented thought, lacks depth of experience and therefore becomes scattered when presented to the blog-following woodworker. Everybody presents as an expert and I believe, the presentation of furniture design has been fogged.

    I’m looking forward to your posts.


  9. Chuck, you know how much I really love that Highboy! I would love to see you dissect your’s for an education! I agree with you analysis of this subject.

    I remember the first time I saw a great looking Highboy. In that television discussion, the focus was on the upper case to lower case ratio. I remember seeing other Highboys in frame, and their commentary was accurate. The Highboy in discussion was better designed than others in the room, and the aspect from lower to upper case was why, along with the height and shape of the legs.

    I wish we had great period furniture here in Texas to study. I think at the time these “Masterpieces” were created, Texas wasn’t even a thought!!

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