Furniture





The institution of schools of art and design, and the efforts of serials

and magazines devoted to artistic matters, have had their proper effect

in the creation of a pretty general distaste for the clumsy and

inartistic forms which characterised cabinets and furniture generally

some years back. Unfortunately for the movement, some manufacturers saw

their opportunity in the demand thus created for better and more

artistic shapes to produce bad and ill-made copies of good designs,

which undermined the self-respect of the unfortunate man (frequently a

good and sufficient craftsman) whose ill hap it was to be obliged to

make them, and vexed the soul of the equally unfortunate purchaser.



The introduction of machinery for moulding, which left only the fitting

and polishing to be done by the craftsman, and which enabled

manufacturers to produce two or three cabinets in the time formerly

occupied in the making of one, was all against the quality and stability

of the work. No good work was ever done in a hurry: the craftsman may be

rapid, but his rapidity is the result of very deliberate thought, and

not of hurry. Good furniture, however, cannot be made rapidly. All wood,

no matter how long it is kept, nor how dry it may be superficially, will

always shrink again when cut into.



It follows that the longer the interval between the cutting up of the

wood, and its fitting together, the better for the work. In the old

times the parts of a cabinet lay about in the workman's benchway for

weeks, and even months, and were continually turned over and handled by

him while he was engaged on the mouldings and other details. The wood

thus became really dry, and no further shrinkage could take place after

it was put together.



A word here about the designing of cabinets.



Modern furniture designers are far too much influenced by considerations

of style, and sacrifice a good deal that is valuable in order to conform

to certain rules which, though sound enough in their relation to

architecture, do not really apply to furniture at all. Much more

pleasing, and not necessarily less artistic work would be produced,

were designers, and handicraftsmen too, encouraged to allow their

imagination more scope, and to get more of their own individuality into

their work, instead of being the slaves of styles invented by people who

lived under quite different conditions from those now prevailing.



Mouldings as applied to cabinets are nearly always too coarse, and

project too much. This applies equally to the carvings, which should

always be quite subordinate to the general design and mouldings, and (in

its application to surfaces) should be in low relief. This is quite

compatible with all necessary vigour as well as refinement. The idea

that boldness--viz. high projection of parts in carving--has anything to

do with vigour is a common one, but is quite erroneous. All the power

and vigour which he is capable of putting into anything, the clever

carver can put into a piece of ornament which shall not project more

than a quarter of an inch from the ground in any part. Indeed, I have

known good carvers who did their best work within those limits.



Knowledge of line, of the management of planes, with dexterity in the

handling of surfaces, is all he requires. Another common mistake is to

suppose that smoothness of surface has anything to do with finish

properly so called. If only half the time which is commonly spent in

smoothing and polishing carved surfaces was devoted to the more thorough

study and development of the various parts of the design, and the

correction of the outlines, the surface might very well be left to take

care of itself, and the work would be the better for it.



There is not space in this paper to do more than glance at a few other

methods in ordinary use for cabinet decoration. Marquetry, inlays of

ivory, and various other materials have always been extensively used,

and sometimes with excellent effect. In many old examples the surface of

the solid wood was cut away to the pattern, and various other kinds of

wood pressed into the lines so sunk. The method more generally adopted

now is to insert the pattern into veneer which has been prepared to

receive it, and mount the whole on a solid panel or shape with glue.



The besetting sin of the modern designer or maker of marquetry is a

tendency to "loud" colour and violent contrasts of both colour and

grain. It is common to see as many as a dozen different kinds of wood

used in the decoration of a modern cabinet--some of them stained woods,

and the colours of no two of them in harmony.



The best work in this kind depends for its effect on a rich, though it

may be low tone of colour. It is seldom that more than two or three

different kinds of wood are used, but each kind is so carefully selected

for the purpose of the design, and is used in so many different ways,

that, while the all-important "tone" is kept throughout, the variety of

surface is almost infinite. For this reason, though it is not necessary

that the designer should actually cut the work himself, it is most

essential that he should always be within call of the cutter, and should

himself select every piece of wood which is introduced into the design.

This kind of work is sometimes shaded with hot sand; at other times a

darker wood is introduced into the pattern for the shadows. The latter

is the better way; the former is the cheaper.



The polishing of cabinet work. I have so strong an objection in this

connection to the French polisher and all his works and ways, that,

notwithstanding the popular prejudice in favour of brilliant surfaces, I

would have none of him. Formerly the cabinetmaker was accustomed to

polish his own work, sometimes by exposing the finished surfaces to the

light for a few weeks in order to darken them, and then applying beeswax

with plentiful rubbing. This was the earliest and the best method, but

in later times a polish composed of naphtha and shellac was used. The

latter polish, though open to many of the objections which may be urged

against that now in use, was at least hard and lasting, which can hardly

be said of its modern substitute.



The action of the more reputable cabinetmaking firms has been, of late,

almost wholly in the direction of better design and construction; but a

still better guarantee of progress in the future of the craft is found

in the fact that the craftsman who takes an artistic and intelligent,

and not a merely mechanical interest in his work, is now often to be

met. To such men greater individual freedom is alone wanting.



STEPHEN WEBB.





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