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JOEL Joel's Blog

The Future of Furniture - Part 1


The Future of Furniture - Part 1  1
Here are four links to articles in the New York Times that set me pondering.

The first says the antique furniture market is collapsing because nobody wants the old stuff, but the article gives hope for modern makers. How Low Will Market for Antiques Actually Go?.

The second says nobody wants the old stuff because people aren't using their living rooms or dining rooms since everyone congregates in the kitchen. Why Are Antiques So Cheap? Because Everyone Lives in the Kitchen.

The third article points out that our society exalts the expert but we would all be happier and have a lot more fun doing stuff if we were a little more tolerant of mediocrity. In Praise of Mediocrity.

The last article says the internet facilitates hobbies and crafts because people who are spread out all over the world are getting together in small little groups. This is not only true, it's AWESOME! And it's great seeing confirmation in print. Online Hobbyists Can Reaffirm Your Faith in the Internet.

I find the last two articles true and encouraging. I find the first two true but depressing.

It's the second article that ultimately I found most important. It's true adults do not entertain as much as previous generations did. We don't even eat meals together like our forebears did. We don't have staff so if you entertain, chances that guests who want to talk to the hosts have to hang out in the kitchen and help. Adults are also working longer hours so entertaining at home can easily become a big chore (or never happen).

What is interesting to me most of all is that historically it's not so much a change as much as a return to earlier patterns of living.

When the Bible says (King James Genesis 26:8-9)
{26:8} And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac [was] sporting with Rebekah his wife. And Abimelech called Isaac, and said, Behold, of a surety she [is] thy wife: and how saidst thou, She [is] my sister? And Isaac said unto him, Because I said, Lest I die for her.

The reason Isaac and Rebekah were outside was that there was no privacy inside.

Rooms and privacy came later. Before the invention of the chimney (12th century) almost everyone slept in one big room. The lord of the manor might have an area with some partitions, but heating was a big fire in the middle of the room with a hole in the roof. Just about everyone else slept in common spaces. A hayloft would have been dry and warm. Average people didn't have much in the way of possessions, so a big blanket chest might be all one would need. Peasants and serfs would have had their animals living inside to protect against their theft and also share the heat.

Without a separate fireplace going, the communal areas around the kitchen or really the main fireplace were where people gathered. The house was a place you slept, ate simple meals, and stored your few possessions. The Church, the local pub, the village common, and the street was where you socialized.

In the Victorian age, when the industrial revolution gave rise to a large middle class, their private homes became miniatures of what rich people lived in. The parlor, the living room, and the upstairs bedroom. For the first time the kitchen was in the back, tended by a household staff in all but the poorest houses. The poor were crammed into single rooms and largely bought ready to eat food. Water, if the place was lucky to have running water, probably only came into a tap in the basement or kitchen. Bathrooms with plumbing come into play in the second half of the 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century, the basic design of middle class private house was widely understood: public rooms, private rooms, and a kitchen in the back, with room for live in staff. After World War II, private house ownership exploded but labor was in short supply. Cities, New York City especially, provided an alternative model of middle class and upper middle housing before WWII, with a small maid's room and bathroom tucked in near the kitchen in the back of the apartment (with a second service entrance). But the white brick buildings that rose up in the post war period contained a nice kitchen in the middle of the apartment and no provision for staff.

As fewer and fewer families had anyone staying at home during the day (because everyone works), there was far less incentive and energy to entertain, show off their furniture as a symbol of wealth, and with the advent to television, live collectively.

In many ways we are returning to our roots. Everyone works, comes home at what used to be workaholic hours, and has little time for hours of socializing. We don't have the energy to emulate the very rich who still have staff and entertain. The furniture associated with that live-style sits unused. The new generation just doesn't bother. I have been amazed by a new style of multi-bedroom apartments in NYC that don't have living rooms. The apartment has bedrooms spoking off a central room with kitchen appliances. This model was presumably developed with roommates in mind, but families are also renting them. In more spacious suburban homes, the "den" has become a relic as family members spend more time in their rooms, alone with their electronics.

The future of furniture is a subject that interests me deeply. What will future woodworkers build? What is the point of building a nice dining room table if you don't plan to use it? Will we be inventing new furniture forms or just tweaking the old designs? Will the old techniques still have a place in this evolution? Or are we all destined to be building square melamine boxes? This blog entry is the start of an occasional series as I try to understand these questions. Before I can go forward I think I need to go backward and understand the social reasons why the furniture we have looks and is used the way it is. I think I also need to understand the difference between building a piece of furniture because it's an interesting project and building a piece of furniture because it's needed.

A lot of writers talk about people wanting experiences rather than objects. There is truth to this, especially in New York City where space is at such a premium, but humans have pretty much been thrilled about consumption since commerce began. I don't think I am ready to write off the possessions concept any time soon. Of course I want to learn how to encourage people to want to build things. In the next months I will be going to the library, discussing ideas with colleagues and experts, scratching my head, and trying to understand my world and where we are headed.

The picture above comes from "Furniture of the Pilgrim Century" by Wallace Nutting (1921).

In other news - our BT&C hardened planing stops are [finally] available.
Join the conversation
10/31/2018 Bruce
As an architectural designer, I was always modifying the home plan to fit new buyer expectations. In the eighties and nineties we experienced a shift to ostentatious display. Costly building lots shrank and homes expanded. Newer homes are condensing in scale and the massive sideboard of the 20s moved to a thrift store because a couch was more important.

I think you are close to the mark. I would add that China-made consumption and hard marketing have made everything disposable.
10/31/2018 Dave Jeske
I will follow your journey of discovery with great interest as I am puzzled by the path American society is taking. I have millennial aged "kids" who look at the world quite differently than my generation does. IKEA and similar furnishing rules even though they know it is basically disposable and yet they have a "care for the planet" philosophy in other areas of life. There seems to be a small renaissance in the idea of craft. How can this minute flame be fanned into a true resurgence?
10/31/2018 JR
Questions such as the ones you have posed here, like; Will we be inventing new furniture forms or just tweaking the old designs? Will the old techniques still have a place in this evolution? are of great interest to me. I have not formed any definite ideas or answers as of yet, but look forward to what you may find in your future research.

Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful and inspiring blog.
10/31/2018 Mike Guess
You have posed a very interesting question! I do not know the answer, but would ADDto the question: It seems to me that younger generations have opted for ENTERTAINMENT DEVICES over Fuenishings. One can no longer expect to get reasonable return on fine furniture. Younger generations do not use fine furniture-they use disposable MDF screwed together, with veneer covering for almost everything. Quality is not as much an issue as utility and expendabilty! When a 60” TV with incredible sound can be had for less than $1,000–a$10,000 table and chairs seems like a waste of money. If you dont use it—why buy it, care for it, and allow it to take up space. Put a tablecloth on a plastic table and the food will still taste good !
10/31/2018 Jeff
Millennials, etc tell you that they aren't about "stuff", but "relationships" but the truth is that all that they want is their laptops and a chair, couch, or bed to sit on whilst watching Netflix and scouring social media. It is the seemingly infinite availability of cheap entertainment that is the driver. What few items that they need, they get at Ikea. And if they move, the put it up for sale and re-buy the same stuff in their new location because it costs more to move than it is worth. And don't even get me started on Tiny Houses.
10/31/2018 Bill
Fascinating and thought provoking. I agree and have observed both personally and through others what you described happening today.

Looking forward to the future parts of this series. Great stuff, man!
10/31/2018 Jonas Jensen
Very interesting blog post.

I'd say that a bed might still be a type of furniture that will stand a chance in the future. While we can eat at a restaurant, and bank from the laptop, we still need a place to sleep once in a while. A couch could do the job, but a real bed is still more comfortable.

10/31/2018 Andrew Margeson
I am currently making a copy of a Stickley sideboard from riftsawn white oak. The materials were $300 and I am spending many hours building it. Stickley charged $8 for the original. Now it would be over $1,000.

The point? Both labor and materials are much more expensive now. IKEA furniture occupies the same market segment that arts and crafts furniture did a century ago. Labor is minimized by IKEA so the furniture will be affordable.

Another factor is this. The jobs are in big cities and the cost of a small home is astronomical. A 1,000 square foot house that would have been owned by a working class family can only be afforded by professionals. They don't have room for much furniture. Both partners work. They don't entertain at home, they go out with friends.

The market for furniture is driven by the socioeconomic environment.
11/01/2018 Lane Carter
I'm a woodworker living in rural Arkansas. Too many don't understand. To say the jobs are in the city is failing to recognize that there are plenty of jobs in rural areas that are available to the smaller density population. In my area, unemployment doesn't exist. And we entertain. We can't run out to eat so we eat at home. We also entertain at home. Dinner around the dining table is common. Maybe not in a formal dining room but in an eating area off the kitchen. Dining tables, chairs, china cabinets, linen closets and such still exist in all our homes. Living rooms still contain furniture and usually are common or semi common to the eating areas. Never have I seen any IKEA "furniture" in any local homes. Mostly wood furniture - typically oak, pine, walnut with some little less common woods. Too bad city dwellers have no idea how great it is to live in rural America where family and friends still gather in homes and celebrate life, religion, the "old" American way of life - still with real furniture.
11/01/2018 Dan Moerman
I certainly agree about social media. I frequent a woodturning site, and also a hand plane collector/maker site, plus a few others. Compared to the standard FB "news feed," they are totally different. Positive, up beat, helpful, fun. The woodturning site has a regular participant who is 14 year old girl. People rave about her work (it's really imaginative!!) and pile on encouragement. No snark at all; lots of fun. One Brit, on the woodturner site, is a professional turner, third generation. . . think "50 stair balusters." His use of the skew is magical. Simply magic. So much fun to watch him turn . . . anything. Very international, and we actually get to sort of "know one another" after a while. Like. . . "friends." Highly encouraged.
11/01/2018 James Serles
Concerning the building of a project because it is interesting vs useful, I find the real joy in woodworking is in the process, not the end result. If it turns out to be useful and practical that's certainly a plus, but I derive most enjoyment during the creation and problem solving process. For those of us who enjoy working with wood, we will continue to find outlets for that expression; for working with our hands to create something tangible will continue to satisfy us whether or not present or future generations find relevance in hand made objects.
11/01/2018 Wayne Bower
I returned to the woodshop after a ~55 year “sabbatical” knowing that I finally had the time and desire to make some stuff but wasn’t sure what.

A quick look-around the abode provided ample proof that we didn’t need or want anything big, and past experience in attempting to bestow some of our once-valuable antiques to the (grown) kids was met with “uh, no thanks, we got all of that stuff we need.”

Attending a class to build a big (and very heavy) tool chest and cabinet from 3/4” Oak plywood reinforced my opinion that future woodworking projects should be consistent with my hunting mantra “if I can’t hold it in one hand and clean it with the other I don’t want to shoot it”. Another smaller arts and crafts 6-drawer 18x30” cabinet demonstrated that $450 doesn’t buy nearly as much cherry as in the past, even though the box is both functional and pretty and I enjoy using it.

So now what, Sherlock? How about cutting boards, small shaker-style cabinets, boxes, benches and stools that can be customized for many use along with small turned bowls and vessels that are fairly easy and quick to make and can all be completed quickly? Would they provide an outlet for some useful and/or decorative pieces at a reasonable cost and commensurate time requirement? When a 6’ 1x8” select pine board costs ~$10, the materials cost for many such projects seemed much more attractive, even if I give some of them away.

The current answer is “so far, so good” and after 3 years we continue to find projects in our “sweet spot” that people either like or are considerate enough to act like it. Based on these results my answer is to find some things you think might work and build a few for gifts or bake sales or whatever other opportunities might arise. You can still buy and equip your shop with all the tools and toys that would be necessary to build a quarter-scale taj-mahal, so the opportunity to show off your swag and keep Joel and others above water is the same no matter what you produce-or don’t.
11/02/2018 Jeff
Lane makes an excellent point. I live in a low-tax, rural area in Kentucky where home prices are quite reasonable and where there are plenty of jobs, albeit at lower wage rates. However, the local prices for used traditional, solid wood furniture on Craigslist or FB Marketplace, or in local stores are much higher than in nearby large cities...which is precisely the opposite of what one would expect. The explanation lies in the different cultural values between rural and urban America. The trends outlined in the linked articles are mainly an urban phenomena.
11/03/2018 Mike
We recently remodeled our kitchen and dining room. We have a large island with bar stools but no formal dining room table. We rarely used it in our old set up (it seemed) but now we miss it.

There are a lot of things going on here. Financing explains part of it. Most middle class people don't have an extra $20,000 cash to spend on two rooms of furniture, but remodel a house and just roll $20,000 into your mortgage (only $25 more per month forever!) for built ins/cabinets. People wrongly think that it holds more value if it is part of the house (which might be true if one sells their house soon after remodeling. But wait 15 years and the trends change so much that no one will want your white kitchen with a contrasting island)....

Factory furniture has been overpriced with questionable quality for years. I am not talking about IKEA, that stuff is actually fair priced for what it is. But go to Ethan Allen and see what they are charging for the neuve-riche trend-chasing stuff.

I think it is unfair to say millennials just want to sit on their devices. My mom is a baby boomer and she spends a great deal of time on her devices and in front of the TV as well. That said, the TV as the center of the room is largely going away. Unless you watch sports (I don't), the huge sectional sofa bordered by tables arranged around a 623" TV just seems silly.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.