Furniture’s Bum Rap: Mr. Eastlake was Innocent
This Eastlake-style secretary shows the geometric precision and simplicity of Eastlake’s ideas.
According to some older and antique furniture dealers and collectors, there is one style from the 19th century that stands as the least attractive (read: ugly), most clunky and least desirable of all the Victorian period forms.
What gets that honor? Eastlake, of course.
Eastlake furniture is often regarded as the bottom of the barrel of the 19th century. It is awkwardly sized, indelicately assembled and sometimes just downright cheap looking.
No argument there, but Mr. Eastlake actually got a bum rap. He didn’t do it.
Charles Locke Eastlake was an English designer who was a leader in the rebellion against Victorian excesses. Born in 1836 with the proverbial silver spoon firmly in place, he was trained as an architect, but rather than practice the craft, he traveled Europe as a young man and became an art and architecture critic.
At the ripe old age of 19, he was appointed secretary of the Royal Institute of British Architects. From this lofty vantage point he began to notice the groundswell of activity in the field of design reform. What had begun as a vague discontent with the stagnation of original English thinking on the subject crystallized into openly expressed distaste at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition.
He advocated a return to value and simple design in furniture and was, in fact, one of the early pioneers in the Arts & Crafts movement that blossomed at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
This turn-of-the-century Eastlake-style oak table shows the excesses of the machine-driven manufacturer. Eastlake would have deemed it frivolous.
He published his influential book, “Hints on Household Taste,” in England in 1868 and in the U.S. in the early 1870s. In the 1860s, he wrote a series of articles for several prominent London magazines including “The Queen.”
He assembled these articles and published them in 1868 as his book, which was his take on how to properly decorate a home. In it he expressed opinions on not only furniture but also most types of articles found in a house, including wallpaper, draperies, ceramics, clothing and jewelry. This was not a modest man.
His ideas of straight lines and simple decoration appealed to the machine-driven, factory-made furniture production of the post Civil War industrial era.
The factory production of furniture was nothing new to America. J. and J. W. Meeks had a three-story factory in New York in the 1830s, as did Lambert Hitchcock in Connecticut. In the 1850s, J. H. Belter had a multistory factory next to his apartment house in Manhattan, and Mitchell & Rammelsberg had a factory in Cincinnati.
What was new in the 1870s was the addition of significantly more powerful machinery. Meeks, for example, used machinery but it was ox-powered, and Belter had used machinery, but only marginally. The new factories of the 1870s had powerful steam-driven machinery that was much more versatile than Meeks or Belter ever imagined.
This bed is another example of Eastlake’s basic idea taken to the extreme. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers.com/Wickliff Auctioneers)
Within Eastlake’s guidelines, furniture manufacturers saw the potential of high-speed mass production based on two things machines do very well: straight lines and circles. One illustration in his book, an oak “toilet table,” as he called it (vanity with a mirror and several small drawers), with straight-line decoration and shallow incised decoration, seemed to become the blueprint of subsequent “Eastlake” furniture.
Except that Eastlake didn’t design that table. It was designed and made by the London firm of Jackson and Graham. Eastlake merely admired it and included a woodcut print of it in his book.
But the bell had been rung and there was no unringing it. Manufacturers then began to pick and choose which of Eastlake’s tenets they chose to follow in their manufacturing processes.
One thing he advocated in his chapter “The Bed-room” was square corners in cabinet work. He opined current fashion “…condemns us to adopt his own notions of elegance by rounding off corners which …can only be angular shaped.” That little tidbit most manufacturers agreed with, since it was simpler, quicker and cheaper to leave corners squared off than to take the time to round them.
But in other areas his advice was disregarded. Drawers are good example. His advice: “For practical purpose drawers are generally far too deep. …A depth of five or six inches is quite sufficient for a single drawer of ordinary use and by the additional height thus gained in the whole chest, another drawer may be added to the set.”
That may have been good advice, but it was largely ignored because, to a manufacturer, it made no difference about the inconvenience of a deep drawer. It was more economical to make fewer deeper drawers than it was to make more drawers and extra slides in the case.
This sidelock bonnet chest is about as close to Eastlake’s ideas as can be seen in today’s market. It has simple lines, shallow incised decoration and narrow drawers.
Eastlake’s overall guiding principal was simplicity. He stated, “It is far better …to choose the very plainest and simplest forms of domestic furniture procurable.” Alas this was almost totally ignored by manufacturers and designers.
The farther away from the publication of his book, the farther away from his school of thought the furniture became. Finally by the time of the publication of the 1878 edition of his book, he had had enough and it was time to speak out. He felt compelled to author a new preface to the book distancing himself from “what American tradesmen are pleased to call ‘Eastlake’ furniture, with the production of which I have had nothing whatever to do, and for the taste of which I should be sorry to be considered responsible.”
Even though Eastlake actually designed little to none of the furniture that bears his name, it is nevertheless attached to one of America’s most produced styles.
So if he never designed most of the furniture what did he do? He provided the design vehicle that broke the stranglehold of Renaissance Revival. He provided the bridge that linked the mid-19th century early reformers like John Ruskin and William Morris to the turn-of-the-century luminaries like Elbert Hubbard and Gustav Stickley.
In other words he laid the groundwork for the American Arts and Crafts movement. That’s what.
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