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JOEL Joel's Blog

The Road To Ikea

01/18/2024

Headboard and bookcase by Eileen Gray c.1930
Headboard and bookcase by Eileen Gray c.1930

Cabinet by Eileen Gray c. 1930
Cabinet by Eileen Gray c. 1930

A recent Christie's auction of 20th century furniture I visited included many of the usual suspects - Ruhlmann, Nakashima, and Lalanne, to name a few. But for the first time I noticed work by Eileen Gray (1879-1976) too. Typically I find Gray's work, which is eminently collectible and sells for high sums, not particularly interesting or distinguished for its era. This work struck me differently. It was furniture she had made for herself. The table below, circa 1930-1935, was typical of her professional work, very light and airy. And like a lot of furniture of the time, it takes it's material and construction sensibility right from the Bauhaus, and in this case adopts a tubular steel frame.
Table by Eileen Gray C. 1935-1935
Table by Eileen Gray C. 1935-1935

If you search around on the internet, you'll find her her professional work that seems to my eye very much in the 1920s and '30s high style / Deco mode. But her personal stuff is what is interesting to me. The other two pieces show here (above), both circa 1930, came from her Paris apartment and look to me what people want today in their furniture. The pieces are very practical, made out of very prosaic materials, and are pretty poorly made. Exactly what a practical designer living on a budget might want for herself! For me they seem right out of Ikea, albeit with maybe a few more curves. And that idea is way advanced for it's time.
You can ask if Ikea defines what modern furniture looks like, or if changes in the way we live redefined what we look for in furniture and Ikea just reacted to the demand. But either way, there was a cataclysmic change in popular furnishing from 1940 to 1980. (We can nickel-and-dime the dates.) I am not even talking about decoration; I am talking about basic forms and their uses.

While the Bauhaus pretended to want to make furniture for the masses - and they did sow the seeds for that - their actual furniture was made in too low a volume and with fancy finishing, and so mostly attracted rich buyers. By removing decoration and straightening lines you got rid of all the expensive handwork. No need for carvings, no need for hand making curved moldings, no matched veneer, etc. But the furniture forms were the same. A dining table and chairs, living room sofas, armoires, nick-knack cabinets, and other pieces designed for formal living, preferably with servants.

It looks like in 1930 Eileen Gray realized that she wanted practical stuff for herself. A headboard that isn't a gorgeous showpiece but is something for storage with a light built in. Her clients might have wanted "modern design," but they didn't actually have a "modern" lifestyle. Gray wanted both.

American mass market furniture started the post-war period with the neo-colonial style of the pre-war period. Higher-end Danish style with a nod towards the Bauhaus evolved and became known as mid-century modern, but it wasn't highly popular. People still had their curio cabinets, and their new television platforms still had decoration. By the 1970's, Americans welcomed in Shaker furniture, which was significantly plainer, and Arts and Crafts style, which even in its most simplified versions required lots of wood and skill to make work.

By the 1980's, people were moving - every five years or so, on average - enough to make substantial pieces of furniture less attractive. Ikea not only popularized knockdown furniture at lower cost but also realized the shift towards practicality. People didn't need or want a curio cabinet. The idea of servants didn't exist in the post-war house. People wanted practicality since they had to cook, serve, and maintain their homes all by themselves. Longer work hours (for all members of the household) stopped most formal entertaining, so the living room, dining room, family room, and kitchen all became munged into one large space where people informally gathered to eat, socialize, play video games and watch TV.

Even our concept of a desk has evolved. Desks used to be a place where you had a nice writing surface, good light, storage for paperwork and bills, and maybe even some help with organization. Now, a desk is simply a flat surface top with a few outlets for recharging your computer. And people understand this - which is why Ikea style desks are so popular. Office desks which, if you rank high enough for some status, also evolved to the same flat landscape, but are large and use fancy materials to denote status.

What interests me so much about Eileen Gray's personal furniture is that while professionally she had to cater to her customers, privately she lived a much more modern life and designed really some of the first truly modern furniture.

The problem the modern artisanal furniture maker has now is how does one design and sell something unique in a society whose furniture requirements are so much simpler than they used to be?

Detail from cabinet by Eileen Gray c. 1930
Detail from cabinet by Eileen Gray c. 1930

Detail from cabinet by Eileen Gray c. 1930
Detail from cabinet by Eileen Gray c. 1930

Detail of what looks like a folding nightstand on the headboard by Eileen Gray c. 1930
Detail of what looks like a folding nightstand on the headboard by Eileen Gray c. 1930
Join the conversation
01/18/2024 Alan
Joel, did you get a close up of that drop down "shelf" thing by the bed? Love the post and it is interesting to see the everyday stuff.
01/18/2024 Jon Christopher Jeswald
Very interesting as always. You've given me a lot to think about as a furniture maker and some data points that I will look into deeper. The provocative last sentence is something I think about almost every day. I do have the sense, from looking out of my own shop window, that in this age where we seem to be surrounded by impermanence - moving on average every five years for example, that there exists in the market a segment that yearns for some form of permanence in their lives and select pieces of furniture that contain within them the stories of their family can sometimes provide that. At least that's the view from my shop window.
01/19/2024 Jesse Griggs
what's the point of the Tetris hole in the middle of the table? seems pretty anti-functional to me.
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