Today I’m going to start a whole new project. The education of the masses on what makes one piece of furniture better than another. Sure, we woodworkers would probably look at the construction techniques or the refinement of the carving and make the determination based on that observation but we’re missing something. The sum of the collective parts is not necessarily greater than the whole. What I mean is, if a piece is meticulously crafted but is lacking in design, and detail, it will still be something less than a masterpiece.
Much like my Woodworking Fundamentals courses, I think we need to start with a Connoisseurship Fundamentals. Without the proper foundation, we can never hope to fully understand what makes one piece better than another. This is going to be the first in a series of posts on design and aesthetics. That doesn’t mean we won’t discuss construction techniques. In many instances the construction techniques are an integral part of the design. In others, while not seen, those techniques enhance the overall quality of the piece. I’m also not going to limit this discussion to “period” furniture. The rules and principles of design and connoisseurship apply regardless of the style or time frame in which a piece is made.
The first concept you need to understand is “there is nothing new under the sun”. Even the furniture makers of the period (I mean the guys in the 18th Century), were building their work on the shoulders of those who went before them. Whether it’s Chippendale’s inclusion of Greek and Roman architectural elements into furniture or Greene and Greene’s take on Jacobean furniture, very few craftsmen have ever gone in a completely different direction than everyone else who has ever lived. Sam Maloof put his own spin on a 1920’s arrowback rocker and became a modern day woodworking legend. What people don’t usually figure out in all of this is that even the Greeks and Romans based their variations in architecture on elements of things they were exposed to in the far reaches of their empires.
I guess we could trace the origins of design back to the first caveman who decided that a log laying across two rocks looked like a better place to eat than on the ground. From there everything built on what came before. In this analogy you saw two elements of connoiseurship at their beginnings. Form and function go hand in hand throughout this discussion. The caveman saw a need. He needed to get his food up off the ground. By laying a log across a couple of rocks (or maybe even just a large flat rock spanning two other rocks but this is a woodworking blog…) he opened up the door to embellishment and changes in construction techniques. A flattened board would look, and work better than a round log. Higher rocks meant he didn’t have to stoop as much. Exchanging the rocks for wooden legs joined together by aprons meant he could move his new found piece of furniture around. And so on. It is this evolution of design combined with the discussion of construction techniques that will be the basis of this connoisseurship discussion.
With a little luck, this discussion will never end. I’ve been intently studying the aspects of connoisseurship for over thirty years and I still have a long way to go. So, just what is connoisseurship? Webster’s defines it as being “expert”. A connoisseur is “one who understands the details, techniques, or principles of an art and is competent to act as a critical judge” additionally it is “one who enjoys with discrimination and appreciation the subtleties”.
As you can see from that definition, connoisseurship does not focus on only one aspect of an art form. It is the appreciation and knowledge of the art form as a whole and in its intricacy. As a woodworker I may tend to stray from the path at times and focus on the techniques or construction details that make one piece better than another. If I seem to be leaning that direction, hopefully some of you will set me back on the path. In this ongoing discussion I want to consider everything that goes into making a great piece of furniture from, and here’s where the scope of this discussion narrows a bit, wood selection to joinery techniques to proportions and even hardware choices. Essentially I want to discuss anything that directly impacts the overall standing of a piece. If there are things you’ve always wondered about, make sure you ask. This discussion, as I said earlier isn’t going to be limited to one type of furniture, or even one type of woodworking for that matter.
Until the 18th Century, most pieces of furniture were relatively simple. Now I know that statement is going to get me into trouble with the 17th Century crowd but I did say “most” and “relatively”. Function dominated form. Oh sure, they did some embellishment but it was primarily decorative carving or applique. Tables tended to be simpler in form as did chairs. And chests were little more than boxes…literally chests (hence the term). With that said, even the simplest forms can be critiqued. A masterpiece will always stand out. It is the attention to detail that drives it to a higher level. Even the simplest of boxes has aspects of its nature that cause it to rise to the top. Proportion, construction, wood selection, coloration and finish all combine, with many other aspects, to create a whole. That whole can be viewed critically and ranked.
Since everything that has ever been built is a progression on what has gone before, we will be studying many things both old and new is this discussion. I may show you examples of extremely early pieces set beside a Wharton Esherick piece so that you can understand how we got from one point to another. We might look at the subtleties of a David Ellsworth turning in comparison to an ancient Egyptian vase and a 17th Century gateleg table. As you can imagine, this conversation can go in nearly any direction over an unlimited period of time. With a little luck, it will even be entertaining as well as educational. I’ll begin to narrow the scope of the discussion in the next segment, Connoisseurship Fundamentals 1 (original isn’t it?).