One of the more unfortunate interior trends of the last decade is the current skunner for what has been called “brown furniture.”
In this trend, well-crafted mahogany furniture, in classic lines, was un-valued and cheap. It got painted. Or here in Florida, it got painted and shabby chic’ed.
You can see it in any antiques marketplace, where good hardwood reproductions of cherry, oak, maple and mahogany furniture sell for cheaper than they were in the 1970s, or are marked up as they are laquered and sprayed.
Painting of furniture is not wrong. But it depends upon the wood. Homer Formby spent the entire 1970s teaching Americans, in that Bicentennial decade, to look at, and value, the patina of the wood. But 40 years later, everything became oversized, under-designed, and white, or stainless. A look at a Home Depot lighting section gives a hint of the state of design; multiple “modern” designs in cheap, simple patterns worthy of the Tic Toc houses that they inhabit.
Back in Fashion
But in recent catalogs, something has changed. The brown reappeared.
The most recent Garnet Hill catalog features a few pages with brown furniture, including a Victorian spool bed. The spool bed style dates from the 19th century. Helen Comstock in her authoritative The Concise Encyclopedia of American Antiques, calls the spool “a turning in the shape of a row of spools which was employed for long, thin members such as legs. Introduced after 1820 and continued through the Victorian period in rural work.
Crate & Barrel sells a whole Jenny Lind spooled bed collection, right out of another era. The line includes beds, dressers and cribs.
Pottery Barn’s fall offerings also include so called “brown” furniture, including “Shay” Windsor chairs, in a set right out of 1974, or 1874. Restoration Hardware, too, is on to the trend, with a Hepplewhite (sort of) chest of drawers. They call it Maison, retailing for $2,800 or so. Here is how it is described.
Inspired by late 18th-century French furnishings, we’ve captured the linearity and rectangular forms associated with that period. Crafted of solid hardwood, each piece is carefully distressed using a hand-applied multistep process to achieve the look of a weathered antique.RH, or Restoration Hardware, online catalog
Not bad looking.
All furniture trends are cyclical. So it would be reasonable to assume that styles would move away from the repro modern seen everywhere, including Ethan Allen, which should know better, owing to its roots as a reproduction furniture maker.
Through the 18th and 19th centuries, styles went from Queen Anne to Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Empire, Louis IV, Duncan Phyfe and Eastlake, among many other variations. One thing that remained consistent and constant was color. Painted furniture was for cheap woods, that needed to be hidden. But if you had good wood, you needed to show it.
In the 1950s to the 1980s, a number of these styles peacefully co-existed. The marker was whether the piece was good, no matter the style. But as American manufacturers shut down, and local and regional department and home stores disappered, styles got homogenized by a cabal of designers, decorators and magazines.
Around 20 years ago, Mid Century Modern saw a revival. What had been good taste in the 1950s and 60s, the designs of Eames, Saarinen and Noguchi, in the 70s became tired, and bland. And ugly. The 1976 Bicentennial completely killed Mid Century Modern, or what then was was called Modern, or Scandinavian. The nostalgia for “ye olde” and “colonial” had brought back a passion for the old styles.
In the 1970s, Pennsylvania House, Ethan Allen and the design sensibilities of Colonial Williamsburg’s Craft House exploded. Every city had an Ethan Allen, in an ersatz colonial mansion, cranking out well crafted Windsor and captain’s chairs. As historic house tourism exploded, consumers saw well-built and crafted everywhere, and wanted the look. A state like Virginia had dozens of great colonial reproduction brands.
Of course, some houses never changed. Old Money always finds a way to keep what is good over the generations. But everywhere else, like every fashion, changed. And we came to the idea that a minimalist room, with white furniture and steel and chrome, ruled.
Seeing this season’s catalogs, it looks like finally, the tide has turned back. Or maybe the product marketing people are just plain bored of vanilla white furniture. This will be good for manufacturers, designers and retailers, who will now have an increased variety of styles to offer. The larger question is what it will do to the value of American antiques, and how far the trend will go.