It’s all in the mix

Modern office furniture can now happily sit alongside Queen Anne walnut

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

As I look around my sitting room and consider my motley collection of cherished treasures, it is peculiar to consider these as fashion items. But interior design and styles of furniture are forever being examined according to what is and is not considered fashionable.

Every time someone asks me what is going to be the next big thing in furniture fashion, my answer is, of course, a non-answer or, at the very best, a bit of a fudge. At the most expensive end of the market there is a dual fashion: the pursuit of the gold bar trophy which could have come from any country and era (if the object is famous — in our world — it will make serious money). More specifically: British mahogany furniture from the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

This period of furniture has kept its bloom whilst others have moldered. Today, furniture in satinwood, walnut and oak has been sidelined and therefore reduced in desirability and value. The hot period hangs around the legendary architect and designer, William Kent, whose gutsy Italianate work is currently seen as dominating like a colossus over the rest of the century.

William Kent’s gutsy Italiante work is currently seen as dominating

For example, the dealer Edward Hurst had a superb bench at the Masterpiece Fair which three international museums fought over (with some acrimony); the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston was the ultimate winner. The heroes of the neoclassical period, Robert Adam and Thomas Chippendale, are clearly still marvellous names to conjure with but, below their very best work, their style today seems fragile in comparison to the camp muscularity of the earlier epoch.

Alongside this, modern super clients want less fancy polish, less gold, and where there is gilding it should be (or at least look) original. The pieces should exhibit as little restoration as possible; furthermore, what has been done should be obvious and declared. At the top of the market, “dry” and “untouched” are magical words. But some dealers and auction houses are finding favour with a different fashion.

Currently there seems to be a near binary split in the market between those who swoop on the choicest morsels and the lower reaches, where age, originality, quality and materials drift into the background and the “look” is paramount.

The reason is partly financial. Items from the decorative end of the market have very little resale value. People buy fully aware that their purchases are a sunk cost like a car, sofa or curtains.

This does not mean that buyers are unenthusiastic. Quite the contrary. Nowadays, buying antiques has been de-intellectualised and consequently made much more accessible. It is no longer necessary or even relevant to be knowledgeable. You can buy on colour, shape and on size and crucially you can forget history.

You can now buy on colour, shape and on size and crucially you can forget history

The age of eclecticism is upon us. Modern office furniture can sit alongside Queen Anne walnut. Amazingly, it can look great just as an Old Master can hang with Modern British or Contemporary.

This trend began as dealers looked for ways of making their brown furniture appear relevant and mixed things up. The unexpected consequence was that the status of the specialist was eroded as clever dealers sold twentieth-century design alongside eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works.

Their younger clients saw the old stuff as having resonance with the modern. Older clients saw the same thing in reverse. The upshot was that the “look” became the dominant aesthetic impulse and form took precedence over everything else. Duly eroded was the importance of all other aspects of furniture and decorative arts scholarship. Ultimately this is the reason why the lowest end of the market is now the most vibrant end.

Many dealers in the post-retirement age bracket yearn for a return to a time when they could talk for hours with a client about executional nuances in herringbone veneer cross-banding. Sadly, that time will probably never return. The younger dealers know now to buy the interesting, the unusual and the stylish, rather than the excellent. Unless, that is, you are pursuing the really big game.

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