Sunday, 4 January 2015

The myth about antiques

     I have always joked about the phenomenon of "tradition" in Britain and that some kind of writ must have been included in the Magna Carta that thou shalt bow down and unquestionably succumb to the great furniture making practice fixed in time, being like Stradivarius violins - superior in ever way to anything that could possibly be made today! Oh, by the way, we fly rockets to planet Mars and perform micro surgery and implant 4D components into the human body! I'm just saying.  

     So I have my own theory about "tradition" - a haphazard random system of practice handed down through the ages by semi-skilled, half blind craftsmen often in remote rural areas and so poorly designed they have been subsequently bodged up by farmhands using angle iron and steel pins! This is not to mention the huge trade in fake antiques "distressed" with bicycle chains, shotgun pellets, induced woodworm and then dipped in sheep's urine to get the right patina!

     In essence the rich tradition of English period furniture was largely headed by royal courtiers who were despatched to the continent for new ideas to return to impress the monarch of the time, resulting in a mishmash of design styles throughout the ages! The discipline of one craft was imposed on another such as the linenfold panel found in church stonework but transferred to the craft of furniture. Stone and wood have entirely different working properties.

The claw and ball foot is an animal form and has nothing to do with wood or furniture and makes some pieces look as though they are confused which direction to turn whilst others look as though they are about to pounce on their owner.

    In contrast Scandinavian classic modern furniture such as Alvar Aalto's timeless laminated chairs echo the bending trees in the wind. Such furniture is based on human need rather than indulgence and inspired my Nature itself! 'Less is more' or as we in Britain say 'more is more'!

    Of course I am being hugely irreverent and making sweeping generalisations about antiques but I can honestly only pick out a handful of English designs that have any real structural integrity. One is the Windsor chair, paradoxically made by the High Wycombe forest "bodgers" but it is honest in construction.

   At the turn of the last century I was commissioned to design and make a piece of furniture for one of the great halls in England (owned by a member of the royalty) and looking around I saw pieces of furniture dating back to the 13th century. My modern piece was to sit alongside furniture conceived of centuries apart - I saw 16th century pieces there. We (the proletariat!) tend to lump all antiques together as 'old' and respectable and yet making a living as a furniture maker in my youth, I was up against the prejudice that old and new cannot mix when the furniture in question was within the same century, not centuries apart! 

   More recently, and this is what inspired this blog, is that a friend asked me to repair a Chippendale chair she owns that a rather overweight guest had broken in leaning back. I'm not sure the chair is an original but immediately I am faced with the conflict that on the one hand I can repair it because I can make/do anything with wood, but will my repair (that will put back the strength in the chair that never was there in the first place!), detract from its value?!! Fortunately my friend is more concerned with getting a rather pleasing looking antique chair back into service rather than about its value. This is refreshing as England is obsessed with this 'what's it worth culture'.

   On studying the chair I could see it would be very difficult to take it apart
without the risk of breaking it further. I could see old splits and repairs where the grain is short and dowels intruded to already weak mortice and tenon joints that further destroy the wood fibres. The essential principal for a strong joint is fibre overlap - demonstrated in my late twentieth century rocking chair with its massive halving joints.

   I know that with the router I can carefully do some wood surgery by replacing inserts with the grain following the original member but like the dowels they will be detectable as long elongated inserts made smooth to follow the contours and stained etc to match the original colour. I shall likely be making a YouTube video of my repair in due course as I did with this recent chair repair.

   The problem with many of the designs of yesteryear is there was little respect for the character (strength) of wood and its behaviour (timber movement) and whereas mahogany was favoured by the great designers of the past such as Chippendale and Hepplewhite for its readiness to take ornate carving, it is actually quite a brittle wood and not ideal for chairs.

  Few will take the trouble to understand a fundamental principle in woodworking that short grain should be avoided because it is weak as can be seen in the diagrams below:

   Of course antique furniture has a huge charm and I am seduced as well! One of my favourite pieces is the classic tripod table (below) and of course it would not be authentic if it did not invariably have a split across the solid wood circular top! Why? because the top is not fixed to the under rail by slot screwing which allows the timber to shrink and expand but has screws in round holes hence the wood has nowhere to go and splits! Equally there is short grain on the S bend legs because the grain has to run diagonally to achieve any kind of strength. There is often a steel re-inforcing bracket added below the legs. But it is inferior workmanship by the standards of today.

    I believe these prejudices still exist today despite the fact that I have lived through what future historians will probably refer to as a Golden Age of Furniture. My series of DVDs "Furniture Today" place the superb modern work being made today in a historical context, but unlike wines, architecture (eg Grand Designs TV programme) there is still huge public ignorance about wood and modern furniture culture. Why upset the status quo 'they don't make it like they used to'?!

We are yet to live in the Age of enlightenment!

I'm just saying.

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