Lingerie chest highlight change in furniture styles over the years
J.D. sends me an interesting painted floral accented lingerie chest that someone has painted in wild green with floral designs, and wonders when it was done — and more importantly why. And what is the tradition of painted furniture? Her question is interesting, because today, the war is between those who love color and those who love white and stripped wood.
Today, my 35 year old son loves real wood and would not paint “real” wood for the life of him. But through the 18th and 19th centuries, painted furniture was considered of more value than non-painted if the quality of the wood was sub-par — and we will see why. I myself see why paint is a good alternative, and I am always ready to paint something! I would not paint a piece older than 1860, however.
First, varnish, and good wood, was more expensive than paint. A tradition grew up amongst early craftsmen that, if you didn’t have great wood — well, paint it, and the paints were very interesting: sometimes, when a painter could only afford a water based (and not an oil based) paint, it would be beautiful, and the painter therefore could add milk to the mix, which, over time, cause a crackled surface (we call that, in expensive circles now, desirable “Craquelure.”)
When I was a kid in Deerfield, Illinois I used to make my mother crazy, because I painted all the furniture I had, and used wild colors that were predominant in the 80’s like pink, yellow, and green. I painted my great-grandfather’s work box. I painted frames, my walls, my bed. But if you don’t have the finest furniture, what is the harm of that?
I had a precedent. Famous cabinet makers, who made “copy books” that went to all corners of the word, so that their furniture and techniques could be followed, were the 18th century cabinet makers that started two separate and long term styles of furniture craft: George Hepplewhite (1727? – 21 June 1786), and William Sheraton (1815-1879), who, along with Chippendale, were two of the big three of English and American Furniture design. In these “pattern” books, aimed at the local craftspeople in Australia, England and America, they stated if one doesn’t have great wood – paint it.
This caught on in the orphan schools in England where the nuns said, “If you can’t do anything useful, girls, you can paint furniture and boxes,” and that was in the early 19th century. Some of those schoolgirl creations are sought after by English and American “primitive” collectors.
Today, according to my son, walls should be WHITE, and trim, if wood, should be wood. But in the 18th and 19th centuries that was just the opposite, walls were never white, and usually trim was painted. You can see that color was important in 18th and 19th century interiors, but we have gone full circle.
There’s a fine book if you like painted furniture and want to gather some historical ideas: Schaffner and Klein’s “American Painted Furniture 1790-1880,” considered the heyday of painted furniture — and I suspect, once we are over our monochrome period in decorating, will come again.
Much of the tradition of painting wood comes from immigrants to the U.S. who did not have great wood to build furniture with — or even a proper wall to put molding upon. For example, immigrants to the Dakotas, and Nebraska, who were mostly Mennonites, took large pieces of average wooden furniture and developed a “grain” paint that would accentuate a grain in the wood even though it was not the top quality, and then, if they saw a rough patch, they would accent the area with a nice painted motif.
French immigrants came early to Philadelphia, and began to paint furniture, especially in the French technique of gilding (with gold) to hide as well as to accent areas of pieces that were not fabulous.
The piece sent to me is of the 18th century Venetian style, and Venice loved to paint furniture in the 18th century. This piece is a 20th century version of that, and American furniture makers and painters of the 1930-1940 loved this style and copied the Venetian tradition of the glam household; and I do adore the greens, although I doubt many 30 year old purists for white and blanched wood would love it as well.
Just shows how tastes change, but I have news: The change comes again, so get out your paint brushes.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.