Arts and Crafts Essays/Furniture
The institution of schools of art and design, and the efforts of serials and magazines devoted to artistic matters, have had their proper effect in the creation of a pretty general distaste for the clumsy and inartistic forms which characterised cabinets and furniture generally some years back. Unfortunately for the movement, some manufacturers saw their opportunity in the demand thus created for better and more artistic shapes to produce bad and ill-made copies of good designs, which undermined the self-respect of the unfortunate man (frequently a good and sufficient craftsman) whose ill hap it was to be obliged to make them, and vexed the soul of the equally unfortunate purchaser.
The introduction of machinery for moulding, which left only the fitting and polishing to be done by the craftsman, and which enabled manufacturers to produce two or three cabinets in the time formerly occupied in the making of one, was all against the quality and stability of the work. No good work was ever done in a hurry: the craftsman may be rapid, but his rapidity is the result of very deliberate thought, and not of hurry. Good furniture, however, cannot be made rapidly. All wood, no matter how long it is kept, nor how dry it may be superficially, will always shrink again when cut into.
It follows that the longer the interval between the cutting up of the wood, and its fitting together, the better for the work. In the old times the parts of a cabinet lay about in the workman’s benchway for weeks, and even months, and were continually turned over and handled by him while he was engaged on the mouldings and other details. The wood thus became really dry, and no further shrinkage could take place after it was put together.
A word here about the designing of cabinets.
Modern furniture designers are far too much influenced by considerations of style, and sacrifice a good deal that is valuable in order to conform to certain rules which, though sound enough in their relation to architecture, do not really apply to furniture at all. Much more pleasing, and not necessarily less artistic work would be produced, were designers, and handicraftsmen too, encouraged to allow their imagination more scope, and to get more of their own individuality into their work, instead of being the slaves of styles invented by people who lived under quite different conditions from those now prevailing.
Mouldings as applied to cabinets are nearly always too coarse, and project too much. This applies equally to the carvings, which should always be quite subordinate to the general design and mouldings, and (in its application to surfaces) should be in low relief. This is quite compatible with all necessary vigour as well as refinement. The idea that boldness — viz. high projection of parts in carving — has anything to do with vigour is a common one, but is quite erroneous. All the power and vigour which he is capable of putting into anything, the clever carver can put into a piece of ornament which shall not project more than a quarter of an inch from the ground in any part. Indeed, I have known good carvers who did their best work within those limits.
Knowledge of line, of the management of planes, with dexterity in the handling of surfaces, is all he requires. Another common mistake is to suppose that smoothness of surface has anything to do with finish properly so called. If only half the time which is commonly spent in smoothing and polishing carved surfaces was devoted to the more thorough study and development of the various parts of the design, and the correction of the outlines, the surface might very well be left to take care of itself, and the work would be the better for it.
There is not space in this paper to do more than glance at a few other methods in ordinary use for cabinet decoration. Marquetry, inlays of ivory, and various other materials have always been extensively used, and sometimes with excellent effect. In many old examples the surface of the solid wood was cut away to the pattern, and various other kinds of wood pressed into the lines so sunk. The method more generally adopted now is to insert the pattern into veneer which has been prepared to receive it, and mount the whole on a solid panel or shape with glue.
The besetting sin of the modern designer or maker of marquetry is a tendency to "loud" colour and violent contrasts of both colour and grain. It is common to see as many as a dozen different kinds of wood used in the decoration of a modern cabinet — some of them stained woods, and the colours of no two of them in harmony.
The best work in this kind depends for its effect on a rich, though it may be low tone of colour. It is seldom that more than two or three different kinds of wood are used, but each kind is so carefully selected for the purpose of the design, and is used in so many different ways, that, while the all-important "tone" is kept throughout, the variety of surface is almost infinite. For this reason, though it is not necessary that the designer should actually cut the work himself, it is most essential that he should always be within call of the cutter, and should himself select every piece of wood which is introduced into the design. This kind of work is sometimes shaded with hot sand; at other times a darker wood is introduced into the pattern for the shadows. The latter is the better way; the former is the cheaper.
The polishing of cabinet work. I have so strong an objection in this connection to the French polisher and all his works and ways, that, notwithstanding the popular prejudice in favour of brilliant surfaces, I would have none of him. Formerly the cabinetmaker was accustomed to polish his own work, sometimes by exposing the finished surfaces to the light for a few weeks in order to darken them, and then applying beeswax with plentiful rubbing. This was the earliest and the best method, but in later times a polish composed of naphtha and shellac was used. The latter polish, though open to many of the objections which may be urged against that now in use, was at least hard and lasting, which can hardly be said of its modern substitute.
The action of the more reputable cabinetmaking firms has been, of late, almost wholly in the direction of better design and construction; but a still better guarantee of progress in the future of the craft is found in the fact that the craftsman who takes an artistic and intelligent, and not a merely mechanical interest in his work, is now often to be met. To such men greater individual freedom is alone wanting.