Here To Help: Furniture Advice From the Past
This little piece of propaganda from 1931 from the U.S. Department of Commerce is full of advice. Be careful what you read and believe.
If you are a collector or dealer of Depression-era furniture, or if you simply inherited a houseful of it and you happen to like most of it, how would you feel if you ran across an article in a magazine with a paragraph reading:
“It is a recognized fact among connoisseurs that little artistic furniture was produced in this country during the first half of the twentieth century…Unfortunately, there are being hoarded today many hideous pieces of the Depression era which the owners fondly believe to be antiques. These really belong in a museum of monstrosities. A nation which grew from 76,000,000 to 152,000,000 in population in a half century could not escape growing pains, and of these the mid-twentieth century pieces of furniture are among the most painful.”
That’s pretty harsh no matter how you put it. But suppose you sort-of halfway agree with that premise, based on your personal taste in furniture.
Fair enough. How about if we just change Depression to Arts & Crafts or Mission styles? Does that hit home yet? Or does Art Deco work if we change it to that? Or to Colonial Revival or to Victorian?
The truth is, the original correctly quoted paragraph reads as follows:
“It is a recognized fact among connoisseurs that little artistic furniture was produced in this country during the last half of the nineteenth century…Unfortunately, there are being hoarded today many hideous pieces of the Victorian era which the owners fondly believe to be antiques. These really belong in a museum of monstrosities. A nation which grew from 3,000,000 to 122,000,000 in population in a century and a half, could not escape growing pains, and of these the mid-nineteenth century pieces of furniture are among the most painful.”
How does that feel?
And who wrote this wonderful tribute to 19th-century furniture? The same people responsible for that dreaded phrase “We are from the government and we are here to help.” Hide the women and children and turn out the livestock!
That paragraph is contained in a 100-plus-page paperback published in 1931 by the National Committee on Wood Utilization of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The name of the book was “Furniture: Its Selection and Use” and it was intended to help young newlyweds make the correct choices in furniture selection for their new households—never mind that little 600-pound gorilla in the room called the Depression.
It plainly states in the opening pages that furniture is too complicated a subject for average American families and they need some help in deciding what they want and need. And who better to do that than the U. S. Department of Commerce?
So who actually wrote this advice and what do they know about furniture? A quick scan of the contributors to this work revealed the unchanging affinity of bureaucrats for other bureaucrats. Participants included such luminaries in the furniture industry as the director of Industrial Relations, Metropolitan Museum of Art; the director of the National Association of Real Estate Boards; a representative of the National Association of Purchasing Agents; the president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs; the master of the National Grange and the executive secretary of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
That’s who I want to educate me about furniture!
With an all-star line up like that, what follows in the book is not a real surprise. It is very factual in parts and gave me an insight into periods and styles I had not seen previously. For example, according to these lights of industry, there are only four furniture periods in the Western World: Gothic (1100-1453), Renaissance (1453-1560), English/French (1560-1815) and American Colonial (1650-1930). Everything else is a detail.
Also of great interest was the booklet’s take on a contemporary style of its day. It said, “A number of gaudy and absurd productions have appeared, showing absolute disregard for the principles of art.” Does this refer to the music movement of the 1770s by that radical composer Mozart or the 1960s music of the Beatles? Perhaps it refers to modern-day dress codes or codes of conduct? Maybe its target is the “modern” art or dance of the 1950s?
Nope. This was the official approach in 1931 to that latest abomination of the time to good furniture: the little meeting held in Paris in 1925 known as the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs. This confab of disaffected early 20th-century designers resulted in what was known at the time as the “moderne” style, with a small “m” and an extra “e.”
This radical new idea turned into one of the most popular movements in the world before the middle of the 20th century, not just in furniture but also in clothing, architecture, transportation, dinnerware, accessories and lifestyles, not to mention Hollywood.
Yet it was not until the 1960s that the phrase that adequately described it was finally coined: “Art Deco.”
This voice from more than 80 years ago was regarded as an authority when it was written. It looks a little close-minded from today’s perspective.
But it begs the question: How will our view of furniture today be regarded 80 years from now? Glad I won’t be here to find out.
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