If you know me through my writing, then you likely think that I prefer traditional furniture to the more contemporary forms.
That’s not exactly true. What I really prefer is traditional construction – quality and appropriate and sensible construction. The style of the furniture isn’t as important, and the pieces I’ve built for our home run a range from the 18th century to stuff that would look good in Ikea – if Ikea actually made furniture that was worth a damn.
The problem I have with contemporary furniture is that it is generally made one of two ways:
1. To a price. The manufactured contemporary furniture (from Ikea and worse) is made to have a shelf life. Once you pass the expiration date, the furniture will wobble, peel or commit hari-kari on you.
2. It is made outrageously. The work of contemporary makers I’ve examined tend to overbuild pieces or radically underbid them. I’ve seen pieces that are built to be used by the cockroaches after we have been returned to the primordial ooze. I’ve seen pieces that are unlikely to make it to the next presidential election. Good furniture construction is a balance. You have to know how your material will behave through time.
That’s why I prefer furniture made in a traditional manner. It has obeyed the rules that allow it to survive generations or centuries.
So why don’t Americans build contemporary furniture with traditional methods? Well in some ways we are too cheap to pay for it. Or we are now used to ugly and temporary things and cannot conceive of nice furniture that costs more but lasts longer.
Or, in my case, I am afraid of fashion.
The so-called modern styles of the last century haven’t held up very well. Contemporary furniture from the 1980s – think: stacking waterfall tables – look ugly to the 2011 eye. Yet, period furniture and other forms of so-called “brown furniture” have looked appealing to me since I was a kid.
It’s easy to build something that will stay together for 100 years. It’s hard as heck to build something contemporary that will look good in 100 years.
So we default to the old styles.
These thoughts, which have been stewing in my head for decades, started to boil over this week as I was teaching in Germany.
Since the 1970s, Germany has fully rejected its traditional furniture forms, which were heavy, dark, ornate and carved. Even in the traditional monastery where I was staying, everything was contemporary, from the furniture to the handles to the chairs.
And yet, it is well-made for the most part. Extremely well-made if you get down on your hands and knees and look. This appreciation for quality goods extends through many parts of the German psyche, from house building to car construction to furniture making to food.
But as I looked at the furniture all around me it was evident that hand tools would not be much help when building it. The machines and the furniture are designed to complement one another – to build each other up.
This is a design challenge for all of us who are interested in modern forms and the old ways. Can the two things be united on a regular – instead of an intermittent – basis? Can we make contemporary furniture that will look good and last a long time? Should we?
I have some hints. In Germany, the woodworking design books celebrate both Japanese and Shaker forms. And they look to nature for assistance with form and proportion. Two of the cabinetmakers’ personal toolboxes I inspected this week had modern lines but had handles made from branches with the bark still on them.
It is something worth trying to sketch up in a notebook sometime you are waiting in the doctor’s office or at the DMV. Who knows? You might produce a new style – Early Wilbur Pan, Roger Renaissance, Mid-Madge.
— Christopher Schwarz