This summer I’d gone to the Museum of the City of New York, to see the absolutely fabulous Stanley Kubrick exhibit. At the same time I stopped in at a small exhibit of the design work of the architect Rosario Candela. Candela’s name is still dropped in New York real estate circles; he is the architect behind some of Manhattan’s oldest luxury apartment buildings.
The show included a settee c. 1926 that really caught my eye. It was made by a Queens-based company called “Company of Master Craftsman” and sold at the W & J Sloane department store. The settee is a semi-copy of a century previous settee by Duncan Phyfe.
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If you look at it closely, you can see it is very nice work but not up to Phyfe’s standards. For example, the beading on the legs is nice, but doesn’t exactly flow with the bottom rail. I was struck by how an interior designer in the 1920s, rather than creating yet another Art Deco design, instead decided that a throwback design was appropriate in a modern setting, and didn’t make everything look dated.
This approach is really important to consider if you are planning to sell furniture now. We cannot sell furniture in an older style that is meant for an older house. That ship has sailed. We have to show how great design doesn’t become obsolete: while the inspiration for the new piece might be old, its context and value can be new. Colonial reproductions, for example, are a very tough sell. Almost nobody wants them. But you can tell people — and you should tell people — that your modern designs were inspired by great design from two centuries ago.
This thought allowed my mind to drift to the English Arts & Crafts movement, which I like enormously. Nancy Hiller has a great new book about the subject – including working drawings for several pieces. You can look at her book as a historical assessment of the style, which it is, but I think there is a lot more to be gained understanding the style and designs that make the English Arts & Crafts movement so appealing today. Then get some wood and seeing how the style fits in now.
P.S. The thought leaders* of the English Arts & Crafts movement were John Ruskin and William Morris. While Morris is mostly known for his design work, he also wrote turgid Icelandic sagas and a slightly more accessible futuristic book that you might enjoy called News From Nowhere. Nancy’s book “English Arts & Crafts Furniture: Projects & Techniques for the Modern Maker” is available here.
P.P.S. The phrase “thought leader” is about as cliched as it comes, but I enjoy the vision in my head of a bearded William Morris making a presentation about traditional handwork to a group using a Power Point display and worrying about the number of Twitter followers.
This “Tools & Craft” section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.