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JOEL Joel's Blog



Two desks 250 years apart
Two desks 250 years apart

Many years ago, I spent a wonderfully pleasant afternoon and evening with Derek Cohen and his wife Lynndy when they visited the US from Australia. Although Derek is well known in the tool world as a fine craftsman and writer professionally Derek is a psychologist. I imagine his training affects his perspective on furniture and design. In any event I value his insights.

One of Derek’s observations that has really stuck with me over the years relates to the evolution of furniture design. Furniture styles of 200 years involved lots of detail: a table with carved legs, inlaid decoration, and the like. Lots of detail that took quite a bit of skill to execute. Nowadays, especially in the Ikea world, everything is streamlined with no decoration. Derek observed that increasingly when we look at things we focus on the silhouette, not at the details. To put it a different way, you as a furniture maker building a piece of furniture in 1700 would expect your customers (and other interested parties) to examine the work closely and see carvings and inlays and the grain in the marquetry. Today, the furniture maker’s work will be seen essentially for its shape and building materials.

It's makes sense to consider that the change is because detail is expensive, so in the quest for lower costs, people remove detail. But do we actually value it? While we still appreciate the fancy stuff, in general we don't seem to want it. If I had to go out on a limb, I would say the same thing happened to furniture that happened to cars and phones, albeit it happened much faster in these latter two categories. When furniture was invented, or rather when the modern age of the middle class was invented, and people started actually having more furniture than one box to put stuff in, furniture was a way of displaying wealth. So it makes sense that people wanted to have frills, frills and frills. When new cars came out in the 1950s and '60s, the big advertisements were about new features - air conditioning; radio; big fins as opposed to small fins. I remember 10 years ago when phones started to become ubiquitous, when a new phone came out, regular people talked about the phone’s desirability and particular features, maybe even waiting in line for a 12 megapixel camera instead of a 2 megapixel camera. But then as the technology became more commonplace, and ownership of the phone became more routine, nobody really cared which camera you had on your phone. The phones themselves have become just a thing. Phones are no longer a status symbol. Most people have cell phones. Done. The design of cars has also moved away from the excitement of the size or angle of the fins to more practical concerns. No more agonizing over "Do I want the car with the propeller?"

For most people, aside from the Bentley owners’ group, a car is no longer a status symbol - it's a car. As with all goods, the market includes a stratospheric area where people just really like fancy watches and fancy cars and they buy them, but most customers have practical concerns and are not seeking a status symbol or a head turner in the larger picture. I suppose if I drove down the street in a fancy Ferrari, I might turn a few heads, but short of that, nobody would care. Note: one reason they would turn their heads if I drove a Ferrari would be to marvel at the idiot who was driving a low-slung car in New York City and thinking the car wouldn’t drag on the road.

Likewise, the market for furniture is governed by people who need a place to sit. I need a chair; I get a chair. Most people are far less interested in the details of a chair than they would have been 200 years ago because the chair represents so much less of a status symbol and consumption.

More importantly, beginning the Bauhas movement, we have been conditioned to consider decoration old. So while museums still show fancy decorated furniture that people will coo over, people don't covet it like they used to.

I sent a preview of this blog to Derek and he shared with me the following:
"The question is “Why did this process begin?” I think that there were two parallel movements.
In the first, primarily financial, no doubt the simplification - reduction - of complex mouldings and carvings into silhouettes was the product of lesser craftsman producing what I often think of as “photocopies”. But this needed to evolve further for the public to accept and value it.

A major influence may be traced to Danish Mid Century furniture (which has been making a strong come-back over the past decade, and for psychological reasons, I believe - see further on). Danish Mid Century furniture began with the Bauhaus movement in the 1930s, with designers such as Klaare Klint abandoning ornamentation for clean lines, elegance and form following function. This gave credibility to designs which pared the structure down and reduced the complexity to its essence. Modern construction also made it possible to create more complex silhouettes of interest (Hans and Wassili Luckhardt (ca 1930). And modern materials became art in themselves.

The psychological aspect involves finding calm in an uncalm world. Furniture with clean lines, minimalistic homes, the absence of clutter … all are relaxing and add a sense of peace. Busy, ornate and high detail force one to focus on many items at once, and this requires more concentration. That can be too demanding for those living in a stressed world. Ikea brings calm to the savage breast. "

Derek's last paragraph is really interesting because I consider this simplification of design as a bad thing. A loss. Derek is suggesting the opposite - that maybe we do need to live in less cluttered environments and this simplification is a good thing. I don't know if he is right, but I do know that maybe people like the fancy stuff better, and enjoy it in a museum, but just don't want the pressure of living with it.

Note: In the photo at the top of the blog we have on the left a wonderful Newport style desk and bookcase from about c. 1755-1770. The massive storage capacity is just what a successful businessman or politician would love for organizing correspondence and accounts. This example of ornate but restrained design was a luxury piece when it was made and is just wonderful. It can be found at the The Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The piece on the right, while nowhere near as luxurious as the first is a "Belfast Storage Desk and Hutch" available now. I picked it because it was the closest production desk I could find that had the same basic structure as the Newport desk. But it has far less storage, and reflects the far lesser need for file storage and paperwork than was once required.

PS - There will be a part two next week

Join the conversation
02/15/2023 Charlie Moore
What a great pespective on modern vs period forms. I have always had a deep love for simple aesthetics and very much love the Danish Modern movement with its function over form simplicity. With these design there is very little room to hide imperfection in design or execution and Bauhaus is a great reference to the abandonment of ornament.
Nakashima is one such designer that embraced this aesthetic and very much with roots in Bauhaus and Japanese building, what a great juxtaposition.
Thank you again for this great artice and especially the 2 on creativity...really thoughtful!
02/15/2023 Ira Kopilow
As a long-time woodworker, I agree with the state of our craft, and realize it is often set aside for new methods and materials. However, our society has become very mobile as well as concerned with reducing landfill waste. These two concerns are at odds with each other. Ikea "furniture" is great, but those kinds of RTA pieces cannot withstand much movement. The old fashioned, old world method of building furniture works out better in the long run for someone who moves a lot. Having quality pieces stand the test of time and survive many moves. Or, maybe I am just getting old and still appreciate the saying by Ben Franklin, "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten."
02/15/2023 Jesse Griggs
i think the role of campaign furniture must also be considered. it predated danish modern by over a century. you have generations of British global rule where the ruling class is traveling and living with high quality silhouettes. after a few weeks we get used to living in "rough" conditions. and generations of kids who grew up with it. (how many of the wealthy kids with nostalgic memories of campaign furniture funded danish modern as a status symbol?) plus the campaign furniture demand meant that the form was explored enmasse. then the soil was ripe when the middle class expanded and more people stuck at home wanted simple affordable quality furniture. it's too bad the affordable part of the equation has grown so important that we're left with termite barf. on the other hand, crumby termite barf drove me into furniture making.
Here is a different take on the disappearance of ornament originating in the trauma of WWI. Thanks for the great article.
02/15/2023 Moops
People have more clutter now. They buy big houses and fill them with stuff, or they have smaller homes, but they still fill them with stuff. Less stuff in a place might make ornamentation more attractive, as the individual pieces start standing out on their own. Less usage of highly figured wood might also affect that, as beautiful zebra wood might overshadow skilled detail anyway.
02/15/2023 Dave Fitzgerald
I identify with all the arguments that Joel and Derek make, yet the two pieces chosen for illustration are instructive. Even though I'm not usually drawn to ornamentation, the 18th Century piece is just a more attractive piece of furniture - by a lot. Of course it's not a "fair fight" since the modern version is made with economy in mind above all, and the museum piece in its day certainly wasn't. (If you click on the link, you'll see that the newer example is available for less than $300. And it's even made of "wood"!) But the older piece has a warmth and depth to it that make it inviting in a way that its "descendant" can't match. The ornamental details, while somewhat fussy to the modern eye, are integral to the design. The "storage desk and hutch" strikes me as a sort of Franken-appliance of amalgamated functional components, whereas the Newport desk and bookcase, even for all of its angles, drawer fronts, surfaces, and recesses, makes a harmonious impression. A modern sensibility looks to incorporate functional elements in a way that is organic to the whole of a piece. Yet the judicious use of added detail has a place in modern design and, thoughtfully used, can provide a powerful unifying effect.
02/15/2023 S. Aune
"designs which pared the structure down and reduced the complexity to its essence" = made it utilitarian. When I saw the photo of the modern example," Utility Hutch" is what came into my mind.
02/15/2023 Tom Lewis
This argument is well framed, but a bit simplistic. Is it really the case that “beginning with the Bauhaus movement we have been conditioned to consider decoration old.” Surely it’s an evolution of taste as much as conditioning. And the jump from the 18th century to mid century Danish omits many stops on the way to simplification. Certainly the Shakers of the late 18th and 19th century valued functional furniture (and architecture) with clean, and elegant lines. Long before Bauhaus, while others were adorning their chairs, desks, cabinets, and tables with inlays and carvings, the Shakers were producing these items without embellishments but with quiet grace. I’m reminded that the theologian Thomas Merton once said that the peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.” All great design—18th century, Mackintosh, Morris, arts and crafts, Bauhaus, Danish, Eames, among others—is populated by angels and grace.
02/16/2023 joseph curran
Wow. What a Pandora's box of ideas. No offense or disrespect to anyone. For me Derek's last paragraph and the article in general point out that its more about the ethos of the age we live in. We say, "the phycological aspect" but in the modern world of now, "phycological" has become a shallow replacement for spiritual AKA self responsibility and our relationship with the force of creation. Also we should not connect design with expense. They represent two different aspects of life. A person can be poor and still have a meaningful love of the design found in life. Each of us is responsible for the design that we live. Expense represents the power the material world holds over us in our expression of that design. Today rather than enrich our environs with reminders of our dignity as human beings we opt out and prefer the shallowness of a world as presented to us by what's trending. This is our culture, our civilization, our world or what's left of it. Modern design, or the design of any age, mirror who we are, what we have become, where we are going. We have been completely co-opted by none other than ourselves into believing that you can't have fine culture (design) without lots and lots of money (think super bowl). Sorry to say we have misunderstood and forgotten our purpose and reason for being. Oh well at least we can soon look forward to design by AI. Damn, and I always thought God had something to do with it.
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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.