How to start studying furniture

Once you decide you have an interest and want to give it a go, here are the places and steps you can take in your pursuit of studying furniture.
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One of the most miserable memories of my high school years (back when the world was black and white before color was invented) was having to spend a Saturday afternoon in the city with my family at a big department store while my mother shopped for furniture for our new house. Furniture?! Who cares? You sit on it, you sleep on it, you eat on it. What else is there?

The style of this furniture, made by Henry Belter and seen in the parlor of the antebellum mansion Rosalie in Natchez, Mississippi, was the American attempt to recreate the lavishness of the 18th century French court. The style is called Rococo Revival and was THE Victorian style of the second half of the 19th century.

The style of this furniture, made by Henry Belter and seen in the parlor of the antebellum mansion Rosalie in Natchez, Mississippi, was the American attempt to recreate the lavishness of the 18th century French court. The style is called Rococo Revival and was THE Victorian style of the second half of the 19th century.

When I left the comfortable environs of our home to go to a major state college, the subject was even less inviting. The state had already decided on what furniture was appropriate for me in my dorm room. It looked like every other room on that floor so there was no “snob” appeal.

Besides, it was already there, I didn’t have to move it and it was included in the cost of the room. I spent so little time there anyway it really didn’t matter. The same attitude continued, more or less, when I eventually moved into the fraternity house. The basics were there: the bed, the chest, the desk.

There was little room for innovation or expression other than in wall décor which consisted mostly of posters anyway. My distant relationship with furniture continued throughout my college years and into my first two real world apartments. It was just the stuff that came with whatever space I was currently paying rent on.

A great deal of the furniture many people consider to be “antique” actually falls in the category of Colonial Revival reproductions. These are loose interpretations made in the 20th century of styles from the Colonial past.

A great deal of the furniture many people consider to be “antique” actually falls in the category of Colonial Revival reproductions. These are loose interpretations made in the 20th century of styles from the Colonial past.

Then something drastic happened. I met this girl who was becoming increasingly important to me. She wasn’t a lot more domestic than I was at the time but still – she was a girl and furniture was part of her vocabulary.

As our relationship grew so did the size of our accumulated possessions. It dawned on us that we could probably buy a real house for what we paid in rent and have a lot more space for our stuff. We succeeded in reaching the American dream with the purchase of an older house, built in 1928, that had three or four times the space we had in the apartment. We happily trucked our stuff across town, deposited piles in what seemed to be the appropriate areas of the house and decided to sit down and take a break. But sit on what?

It suddenly dawned on us that we didn’t own a stick. The basics we had been using belonged to the apartment we had been renting. We didn’t even own a bed! A quick trip to the dreaded department store resulted in a box spring and mattress being delivered the next day but that was it. And with the out of pocket outlay for the down payment on the house, the first mortgage payment, the utility deposits and the new motorcycle (there ARE priorities) there didn’t appear to be many prospects of furnishing that house in the near future.

This style of furniture, more correctly called Late Classicism rather than Empire, appealed to me early in my career. It helped kindle my interest in antique furniture.

This style of furniture, more correctly called Late Classicism rather than Empire, appealed to me early in my career. It helped kindle my interest in antique furniture.

Over the next few years we stumbled by on garage sale pick ups, family gifts and the occasional purchase of something new or nice. But there still was no direction. No guidance. No goal in what we were buying other than the urgency of the moment.

Then I noticed that a lot of the pieces we had acquired and were using on a daily basis were old. Not just used – OLD. Well, I thought they were old. They reminded me of stuff in my grandparents’ house so it had to be old. Besides it was cheap enough when I bought it. But it had a certain appeal, something that seemed more warm and inviting than the Danish Modern of the 1970s. Something more comfortable than the left over stuff from the 1950s and 1960s. What was this stuff? And how old was it really? Those questions opened a lot of doors and have dominated a good part of my life since then.

Once those doors have been opened and the spark of interest in older and antique furniture has been kindled, how do you fan the spark to become a flame and how do you control the flame?

This is the genuine Duncan Phyfe chair that most can never acquire. This chair is in the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach, Florida.

This is the genuine Duncan Phyfe chair that most can never acquire. This chair is in the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach, Florida.

First go to the library and the computer. Do some serious grazing. Learn a little about the history of furniture and the evolution of construction and design. Look at the forms and styles.

There are several good reference books that will give you this important general background without getting bogged down in the details including “Four Centuries of American Furniture” by Oscar Fitzgerald (Krause), “Field Guide to American Antique Furniture” by Joseph T. Butler (Henry Holt), “Early American Furniture” by John Obbard (Collector Books), and “How To Be A Furniture Detective” by Fred Taylor.

Then get a feel for the political, economic and social forces behind the society that produced the furniture by studying the history of the periods. As you become familiar with certain items and periods you will probably develop an interest in one specific aspect – a period, a style, a form, an idea, a movement, an application.

Once you identify that area of interest set out to learn what you can about it. And as you embark on this phase of the hunt, don’t get discouraged if you get side tracked onto a different idea or period or style. That’s the fun of it. Get out there to where the artifacts of your interest are actually placed. You can see the best of the best in museums of course but access on a personal level is severely restricted. You can’t actually touch the artifacts, feel the silky surface or run your fingers across a chisel mark. Galleries and traveling exhibits are also great places to go but they often have the same restrictions as museums.

Instead, go to auction previews for sales that will be handling things of interest to you. There you can actually touch the stuff, maybe sit on it, crawl under it and talk to the auction house representatives about it. You will be able to see and meet other people who are interested in the same things you are and observe how they observe the inventory. You can do the same thing at many shops. Most dealers will gladly educate you and are happy to demonstrate their inventory. They will generally show you how to examine a piece. They are usually proud to show you the clues that lead to the correct identification of a period or piece. After a while this hands on approach will give you an idea of what really reaches out to you.

One of the most interesting periods of American furniture in terms of sheer adaptability is the Renaissance Revival period, circa 1860-1885.

One of the most interesting periods of American furniture in terms of sheer adaptability is the Renaissance Revival period, circa 1860-1885.

At this point sharpen your focus. You can’t learn all there is to know about everything so be happy with some in-depth knowledge on your favorite subject – or two or three. Along about here is where reality starts to rear its ugly head in this so far scholastic endeavor.

Once you decide what you truly want to pursue and collect, take a minute for some quiet consultation with your budget. While most of us would really like to have the occasional nice Townsend or Goddard piece or the odd Lannueir table or that eclectic Phyfe chair, it’s really not in the cards. Instead we have to settle for the best we can afford that still satisfies as many components of our wish list as possible, holding out the hope that we will of course one day “trade up.”

Most of us don’t but it’s still fun to play the game. And why don’t we? Because it turns out that over time we develop an attachment for most of the things we have already acquired. We just can’t bear to part with them.

Even if you never acquire the piece you have looked for for years, or if you never trade up or even if you never even make the first significant addition to your collection, the fun is still in the looking and learning and meeting the people in the business.

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