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JOEL Joel's Blog

Silhouettes 2 (This Time It's Personal)


Shell chair by Hans Wegner c. 1963 - on right side of picture
Shell chair by Hans Wegner c. 1963 - on right side of picture

My blog last week about silhouettes was supposed to be a one and done. Instead, I got so many really interesting comments and observations that I felt obliged to have a part two. So this is it.

First of all, when I picked the modern desk as a contrast to the Newport desk, I picked it because it was the most readily accessible example that looked even vaguely similar. But it is a truly hideous piece of furniture, almost a cartoon of what a silhouette of something could be. But simple profiles don't have to be ugly. And a tremendous amount of effort in the 20th century was about simplifying the details of furniture while concurrently creating an interesting profile with interesting textures and interesting materials. The Bauhaus movement, with a philosophical commitment to simple furniture for working people, helped define a modernist look that we now associate with rich minimalism more than design for the masses. The Dutch designer Gerritt Rietveld truly designed furniture that most people could build with very simple materials. Many of the designs are colorful, cheerful and unpretentious. The furniture still has a magnificent profile, but the details have worn badly. If you see some of the Rietveld furniture at auction, the inexpensive materials and simple construction don’t really wear well. A lot of the Bauhaus furniture in many cases looks like modern versions of Art Deco. And for some people, the Art Deco movement could almost be the bridge between fancy decoration of the 19th century and no-decoration of the late 20th. The 1963 Shell Chair by Hans Wegner in the picture at the top of this blog is a case in point. The entire piece is about flowing, sinuous lines. There are no fancy details anywhere. Nothing specific draws your eye. What makes the piece compelling is the entire silhouette. From a distance across a room, the chair has impact. Close up, sitting in it, you might admire wood veneer of the frame, or the texture of the leather seating, but there are no close-up details to draw your attention. This is what well done modern furniture provides. A striking, intriguing silhouette. Interestingly the bulk of the comments I received were not about the silhouette design but rather about Derek Cohen's observations on the effect of a silhouette in creating a calmer environment.

I too was especially intrigued by the idea, as Derek observed, that the simplicity in furniture design stemmed from the contemporary search for simplicity in people's lives. And I suppose today, when we have many more possessions than somebody did in the 19th century, simplification is not a bad thing. I had written about furniture becoming less a display of wealth and therefore less on display, but this is just one perspective. Yoav Liberman, who has written extensively for Popular Woodworking, Fine Woodworking, and our own Build-It Blog, called me the morning after the blog came out to offer his perspective. Yoav said the simplification idea of life is really important because one aspect of modern life is distraction and noise. In the 19th century, a house was pretty quiet. Of course there was a small amount of street noise, but nothing compared to today’s automotive and jackhammer sounds. There wasn't an ever-present din of music, televisions and interruptions. Simple furniture, he suggested, is a natural reaction designed to counteract some of the noise and sense of invasiveness and lack of control that we can feel in our homes. His observation is a further examination of what Derek wrote about, and I think there's a lot to be said for these ideas. Ian, one of the commenters on the blog post, linked to an article, The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture – Common Edge that concluded that the architecture of the 20th century (and by extension, the various other design aspects that drew from it) was invented by people who really didn't see the world as a giant community, they saw it in isolation.

I personally am a messy person. My desk always looks like a bomb hit it. However,in the workshop I try to be neat. In all places when I start a project, or when I find myself too agitated to work for one reason or another, I begin by putting things away and cleaning up my desk and work surfaces. My brain needs order in order to calm down, think, and be productive. And my own need for simplicity makes me believe that Derek and Yoav are correct in their assessment of the need for simplicity. I love looking at fancy carved furniture. But I'm not sure if I want to own it. I love the thought of owning that Newport desk, but I'm not sure if it fits in with my lifestyle. As someone who designs things, I want to control my environment. And I recognize many people don't approach their environment in the same way I do. But considering the amount of time we spend at home, the therapeutic nature of a restful home is really important.

I started this first part of the blog simply saying furniture has gone from detail to silhouette, and that I love the craft and the expression of detail. But now I'm ending the subject, (at least I think I'm ending it) wondering if the lack of detail makes my life better - and calmer.

If nothing else, these blog entries remind me of the importance of design - and the technique required sometimes to execute the design. I also want to thank everyone who contributed comments, emails, and phone calls. It is both energizing and gratifying to have this exchange. And the ideas and knowledge I get are really awesome.

Note: The pictures at the top of the blog is was taken by Derek Cohen at the Bauhaus Museum in Berlin. The Museum has an awesome collection of furniture.

PS - I sent Yoav a preview of the blog just before deadline and he gave a thumbs up but he wanted to add the following addition thoughts:

Hi Joel,
I like what you wrote, but I would emphasize the imperative, or why people yearned for sophistication and ornamentation throughout most of history (pre-modernism).

Minimalism as Ideology

Throughout most of history (pre-modernism), people yearned for sophistication and ornamentation in the objects they made.

Humans have always looked for enriching visual and tactile stimulation and exploration. This is why we drew on caves' walls and dressed up the greek temples with a sophisticated scheme of color and patterns (now we think of them as monochromatic white, but in their original state, they looked completely different).

People's interest in beauty and complexity can also be witnessed in cloth items, jewelry, pottery, and furniture. When our homes were mainly quiet, those objects of splendid visual and tactile stimulation gave people a focal point to look at, feel, enjoy, and explore. Those values of detail, color, texture, and ornamentations were part and parcel of the needed function of the piece. With the dawn of modernity, our relatively quiet houses and "slow" lifestyle became inundated with novel outside and inside stimulations. Art pieces that were only a privy of wealth could now be mass-produced and purchased by the populous to decorate their walls. The gramophone and radio captured our attention and filled our homes with new and capturing media that drove us away from many of the static objects in our environment. Gradually, the vase and the armchair became entities of lesser attributed aesthetic importance and more as providores of function. I am not going to talk about the incentive for design simplification for economic reasons, as this was mentioned by Joel already. Still, I would like to talk about another drive for the deliberate attempt to strip design of its decorative elements.

Enter Modernism as a political ideology.

Modernism as a utopian design movement (mainly thanks to the Bauhaus) was heavily influenced by Marxism. It tried to redirect, reeducate and mold humanity's taste and materialistic layout. The Bauhaus architects and designers believed that they had an obligation to rechart the map of human aesthetic and functional needs, including uprooting exuberance, so-called decadence, and excess. They genuinely believed people didn’t need details or ornamentation to make their lives fuller and more pleasant, so they intentionally deprived their pieces of those "unnecessary" burdens. While their contribution to design is undoubtedly essential, their zeel to reshape humans and drive them into a collective lean diet of minimalism and away from ornamentation and sophistication of form and texture has not succeeded in the long run.


Join the conversation
02/23/2023 Jesse Griggs
Fascinating followup. This whole topic has me wondering whether there is a pattern throughout human creativity of exploring a subject to the limit of its complexity then changing course suddenly to find something new at which point that new something is starkly simple in comparison to what came immediately before it. Then, the new idea gets explored and becomes more and more complex until the process repeats. I'm a professional classical musician and can say this pattern happens throughout the history of music even in present pop styles (examples in a moment). Unfortunatly I don't have the historical breadth of woodworking to answer the question. I have been susupiscious about the furniture world especially once I discovered campaign furniture. I also see similarities in the art world but again lack the education. Now for musical examples of this idea of simple-->complex-->new idea starting simple --> complex-->etc. In music the process tends to start with few notes and simple rhythms and get more complex with more notes more complex rhythms etc within the same style then shift to something new and start simple again. This happened several times in the medievil/Rennaissance (900-1500ish) period. For example Church music hit a point of 5 minute long song with 3 or 4 words stretched across the whole length of the song (words are not repeated) complex harmonies,etc means the religious text is lost to the listener. Then Palestrina comes along and you get music similar to simple hymns. At the height of the Renaissance there is complexity in rhythm and harmony that would fool you into thinking you are listening to early 20th century modern classical music (think Ravel, Stravinsky, Shostakovich). Then the shift into the Baroque era started very simplistic and progressed into the extraordinarily complex fugues and extreme embelishment. Early Classical style was much simpler (comapre late J.S. Bach --> early Mozart). For a modern pop example compare the progression of Rock and the complexity it reached in the late 1980s with lots of electronic embelishments, major jazz like solo riffs, etc. only to shift drastically into grunge (3 chords and lots of feeling). There are of course many other examples but hopefully you get the idea.
02/23/2023 Kenneth L. Speed
Furniture doesn't have to do as many jobs as it once did. Artisans built wingback chairs to keep people warm and reduce their exposure to drafts in houses heated only with fireplaces. Cabinet makers made desks with locks and secret drawers because banks weren't available. Beds were high because heat rises and to allow people a place to put their chamber pots.
02/23/2023 Rob Foster
This has been a fascinating conversation to listen to, and one that is above my paygrade so to speak, but well worth reading and I have a few thoughts.

You made the statement that the Newport Desk was a perfect place for the businessman or politician of the time to keep track of correspondence or information, I'm 64 and watching the ongoing argument/discussion(?) in my household between my wife and son over the physically keeping and storing of important papers by utilizing the utilitarian storage aspect of each of the desks vs. retrieving the document from "The Cloud" is perhaps another step toward our need to declutter and destress our living and work spaces.

A beautifully built piece of furniture can express a great amount of detail and draw our attention in it's grain pattern, small details like dovetails and yes in it's silhouette.
As a boy in the 60s I lived in my parents home filled with Heywood Wakefield furniture. Simple clean lines inspired by Scandinavian Modernism. But in the open spaces of the furniture was the collection of highly detained sculpture and art that my parents had collected in their travels through India, Ceylon (yes I know it's Sri Lanka now) and China during the 1950's.
For my parents and their friends that style of furniture allowed them to fulfill a need for richness in their lives by showcasing smaller items that still drew attention and added richness to the home environment. I think that design esthetic still holds true today.

And finally, I have not understood the design trend of the last decade towards painting everything (it seems) in shades of black and white. House interiors and exteriors, furniture, cars... I don't get it. But maybe it's another step through the removal of color to simplify and destress the details of out environment.

Anyways, thank you all for this discussion. A great read as always.
02/24/2023 Joe
Thanks. Rather recently, I've started to design a piece. In 2000, Ethan Allen used to sell what they called a Storkie cabinet. At the time, I couldn't afford one but I really liked them. Now, I want to build one in an Art Deco style. I've started to research Storkie cabinets and can't find anything on the internet (other than old Ethan Allen storkie cabinets for sale). I asked the question on FWW blog and got no replies and have emailed Ethan Allen and no response yet. I'm starting to guess it fits with your theme of it being a silhouette of more complex older designs.
03/06/2023 Michael J Valentinas
I'd take a well-proportioned and beautifully grain matched simple A&C or danish modern piece any day of the week over something decorated with grandma details. Simple pieces allow you to appreciate the subtle details.
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