Tasteless Furniture


On Art TASTELESS FURNITURE BY MARION MULLER Collectors continue to scour the country for antique furniture, and styles like Shaker, Art Noveau and Art Deco are perennially revived With the...

...On Art TASTELESS FURNITURE BY MARION MULLER Collectors continue to scour the country for antique furniture, and styles like Shaker, Art Noveau and Art Deco are perennially revived With the century running out, it therefore seems appropriate to wonder what we should be stowing away in our basements and attics today for the appreciation and amusement of future generations Or, on a higher plane, to inquire how contemporary handicrafts measure up to those of the past A good opportunity to address the subject has been provided by New Handmade Furniture, an exhibit that just recently ended its stay at the American Crafts Museum (formerly the Museum of Contemporary Crafts) in New York and is currently embarked on a two-year tour through the United States and Canada The show contains over 40 unique pieces?chairs, tables, desks, bookshelves, clocks, cabinets, chests, a tea-table, and more All are original designs and handcrafted down to the hinges There is no limit to the challenges the designers undertook Working with intricate butls, curly maple, heavily striped zebia wood, they have matched and combined grains, textures and colors ol lumbci The motivations vary greatly Some works are formidably serious, some whimsical and odd-ball, some sedate and reminiscent of previous modes as well as of modern commercial productions The one quality that does not vary is the craftsmanship It is superb throughout Laminations are perfect, and veneers on some objects are so perfectly arranged that often they give the appearance of painted patterns or landscapes, the joinery is exquisite, the finishes are flawless, begging to be stroked (Unfortunately, the "Please Do Not Touch" placards make it impossible to determine whether the drawers open and shut smoothly, whether the seats are comfortable, how it feels to work at the free-form desks, or how well the rolling tea-table trundles ) The technical excellence notwithstanding, however, the esthetic quality of the exhibit in general and a number of pieces in particular leaves much to be desired Alan Siegel's chairs, for example, are dubiously "playful " The back of The Smiling Bandit is formed of sections that represent the eyes, nose and moustache, the soft seat becomes the law lips and teeth The entire assemblage is a caricature in wood ot a leering rascal Another Siegel chair, composed of caned and painted anatomical parts of the female torso, is molded so that in effect one would be sitting in the lap of a nude woman While this furniture is mildly amusing at first sight, the charm doesn't last long Several articles on display demonstrate their designer's response to "found" material Howard Werner, for instance, was inspired by the size and shape of a huge burl of poplar wood, from which he carved Love Seat—a remarkable achievement, yet not especially graceful or loveable furniture Mark Lindquist's "cloud" chair, too, seems to have had its origin m found sections of cherry burl and birds-eye maple The back of the chair is carved to resemble a cumulus cloud, the arms and legs echo the rococo-like form of a cloud Although impeccably executed, the chair manages in the end to come off as a parody of itself Another group of designers, obviously university trained, seemed to conceive their pieces as sculpture first and furniture second Typical are a huge rocking lounge chair by Michael Coffee, a free-form leather-topped desk by Wendell Castle, tables by Bill Keyser and Daniel Loomis Valenza These pieces echo familiar ideas from Henry Moore's organic forms to Mark di Suvero's beams and planks Two works in the show even mimic the latest superreahst fad A costumer carved in wood, with a carved wooden coat ensconced on a peg, and a carved umbrella stand, complete with wooden umbrella None of these imposing attempts at fine art make for particularly attractive or functional furniture On display, too, are complicated forms that have no real justification, and pieces that strain after cleverness —as in the case of two glass-top tables, one supported by a pair of carved wooden dogs, the second by two pairs of wooden clamps These "idea" bases are not terribly witty, and the stylized design ot the dogs is hardly an enhancement Similarly unsuccessful are a bookshelf that hangs flat against the wall, with only about one-eighth ot the entire length left for books tables with intrical convoluted bases but no real surface space, and desks with no drawers that are big enough to hold paper Perhaps the most satisfying works are the far-out, since they don't offer the smallest promise of being utilitarian In this category, Michael Speaker's Rhinoceros Desk is the show stopper The rhino is 4' high, almost 8' long and is completely fabricated of mosaic-like koa wood tiles, except for the ebony tail and the ebony bird perched on his shoulder A small door in the animal's side drops down to become the working surface and to reveal surrealistic little drawers and cubbies straight out of The Cabinet of Dr Caligan The desk would be a conversation piece in any home, it has no competition in the exhibit Almost as effective, though considerably less appreciated, is the unpretentious molded chair by Peter Danko It is made from a single slab of stacked veneers that have been slashed into seven ribbons or bands The outermost are pulled forward to form the arm rests and front legs Bands two, four and six come forward to provide the seating portion Bands three and five are thrust back to make the supporting hind legs Albeit more functional than attractive, this armchair is stunning in its economy and wit overall the exhibit leaves one feeling unsatisifed, I think this is attributable not only to individual failures but also to the lack of two important elements throughout The first is taste The words has been drummed out of existence in the fine arts, since it suggests superficial pleasantness at the expense of true emotion and honest form Yet in the applied arts, like furniture-making, taste can and should be cultivated by study It is what distinguishes furniture that brings grace into our lives from pieces that are either self-serving monuments or flat-footed utilitarian crates And there is no dearth of treasures from the past to learn from A simple chest, whose mam feature is a decorative facade of carved stylized birds resembling Egyptian intaglio design, would have come off better if the creator had followed her Egyptian inspiration more closely Again, the wooden dogs supporting the glass-top table pall compared to the rich and imaginative animal designs that go as far back as the Assyrians Finally, the absence of taste permits outright vulgarity, as in a jewelry box called The French Kiss, where touching tongues protruding from two mouths form the handles The second missing element in the show is ornamentation Having been stripped to essentials in architecture, clothing and furniture, people are hungry for the loving detail with which designers once invested their creations I have in mind, specifically, the abstract patterns of Africa and India, the calligraphic meandenngs of Islamic designs, the fanciful ribbons and fretwork of Thomas Chippendale, the fruits-and-flowers, hearts-and-hex signs of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the sinuous floral patterns of Art Noveau, and the charged and vibrant technological symbols of Art Deco Regrettably, m our time there exists no urge to decorate lovingly or evocatively No wonder we haunt the antique shows and line up by the thousands to see artifacts from Egypt, Pompeii, Dresden, and the Kremlin...

Vol. 62 • August 1979 • No. 16

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