Saturday, December 26, 2009

RIP Vic Chesnutt: 1964-2009

Awhile back, I made the declaration that the Janus Home blog would be "all furniture all the time". At the time, I had the intention of starting up a music blog called The Pop Narcotic. Well, 2 posts and about 6 months later, my music blog sits woefully unattended - truth be told, I can barely get it together to update THIS blog on a regular basis. New year's resolution? "WILL UPDATE BLOG ONCE A WEEK. WILL UPDATE BLOG ONCE A WEEK". So, while the ultimate fate of The Pop Narcotic remains undetermined - hopefully one day when I have more time, I will be able to do something with it - something happened a few days ago that I simply can't not write about.

That something was the death, presumably by suicide, of Vic Chesnutt, a brilliant artist who deserved much wider recognition. While he received consistent critical accolades throughout his career, as is often the case, this did very little to increase his sales or turn him into anything other than a cult hero.

If you don't know anything about Vic Chesnutt, never seen him, never heard his music, you should know that the simultaneously most and least important thing about him is that he was a paraplegic with limited use of his hands and arms, left that way at the age of 18 as the result of a car accident. It is the most important thing because it completely changed his life, gave him tremendous obstacles to overcome, and eventually likely led to his death from an overdose of muscle relaxants. It is the least important thing because it seemed to do very little to dampen the man's spirit, or his ability to write and record amazing songs.

I've been lucky enough to see Vic play twice, and the two performances couldn't have been more different. One show was a good show with a full band behind him, the other was simply one of the most inspiring simultaneous displays of human strength and frailty that I've ever seen in my life. At this show, Vic played accompanied only by his primitively strummed acoustic guitar. It was here that I realized the extent of the man's disability - not only was he in a wheelchair due to being paralyzed from the waist down (which I knew), his upper body was partially paralyzed as well, and he could really barely hold his guitar, let alone play it. Despite that, there he was, on stage at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle, in front of a room full of adoring fans, playing and singing his heart out. While it was an amazing performance, it was also not easy to watch, as the tension between what the man's mind was capable of creating and what his damaged body was able to produce was palpable.

While that show was hardly one of the BEST performances I've ever seen, it was absolutely one of the most MEMORABLE, and likely one that I'll never forget. Vic's lack of fear in getting up onstage with no backing band, presenting himself exactly as he was with no apologies, could simply be filed under "how to be human". His performance was so raw, so unadorned, so unflinching and unapologetic, that one couldn't help but be completely moved by it, practically to tears. Then there's the whole "man, if this guy can get up there in this condition and play these songs in front of all these people, and do it WELL, I have got NOTHING to complain about" thing.

Vic was an artist who could reliably be counted on to put out a new record, whether it was under his own name or a collaboration with other like-minded artists, every few years. While the quality of those records was somewhat variable (I hadn't picked up his two most recent releases, "North Star Deserter" and "At the Cut", because I was rather underwhelmed with his 2006 effort, "Ghetto Bells" - but I hear they're really good, so I need to rectify that), he could always be counted on to make something interesting, even if it may not have been a career highlight. On the subject of career highlights, I think that anyone who is even remotely interested in the singer-songwriter genre, especially if anyone who has an appreciation for twisted, Southern Gothic storytelling, NEEDS to have both "Is the Actor Happy", from 1995, and "Silver Lake", from 2003, in their collection.

It's been said that Vic had been suicidal on and off for most of his life, and that he had tried it more than once. It's hard to glean that from his music, which, while certainly not always chipper, is uniformly enormously full of life. However, it's got to be damn hard to accept a disability that was brought on purely by one's own poor teenage decision making (the accident that crippled him was a one-car accident that was the result of drunk driving). Given what he was able to accomplish despite the odds stacked against him, Vic Chesnutt was truly an inspirational figure, and his tragic passing leaves us with one less astute commentator on the art of being human.

Read more about the career and albums of Vic Chesnutt here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Janus Home Holiday Guide to Dining Tables, Pt. 1

In honor of the impending holiday season, we thought we would take some time to focus on that most important piece of furniture, the dining table. There's a certain je ne sais quoi to a dining table. Part of it is that it's the single piece of furniture that people gather around and eat on. Eating is a big deal, and eating with other people, specifically friends and family, even more so. It's also the centerpiece of a dining room, which sometimes, depending on the layout of the house, can translate into being the centerpiece of the entire house. The point is - dining tables are kind of a big deal - even more so around the holiday season! So, if you're considering thepurchase of a new dining table, there are several things you need to take into account.

  • Shape. Most dining tables are either round, oval, square, or rectangular. However, when paired with their extension leaves, round tables can become oval and square tables can become rectangular.
  • Versatility. Some dining tables, such as farm-style tables and most tables with glass or stone tops, are fixed and cannot expand or contract. Others, usually made of wood, havevarious different types of expansion mechanisms, which we will discuss below.
  • Materials. Wood? Glass? Metal? Stone? Some combination of the above? If wood, what kind of wood?
Perhaps the easiest decision of these to make is shape, as it is largely determined by the shape of your room. In general, rectangular tables are more efficient, space wise, than round or square tables (i.e. you can get more people per square foot around a rectangular table than you can around a round or square table). However, if you have a large square dining room, a big round table might be just the thing you need.

Versatility largely depends on your intended use of the table, and also the space that you have available for the table. Do you have a tiny space, but nevertheless like to entertain and have lots of people over? Then perhaps you would consider a table that breaks down fairly small, but has a number of extension leaves to make it bigger when you are entertaining.

When it comes to leaves, there are several types. You have your basic drop-in extension leaf, where the table pulls apart in the center and one or more leaves simply drop in to make the table bigger. Usually this type of leaf needs to be stored in a closet or somewhere else, although some tables have mechanisms for storing the leaves underneath the table. The advantage to this type of leaf is that sometimes a table like this will have the capacity to get very large, such as the Paul McCobb for Calvin dining set pictured below.

This dining table by Paul McCobb starts out at a very modest 44" round.But, with the addition of 6 12" center extension leaves, the table morphs into a 10' monster, roomy enough to seat 10 comfortably.

Often, a table will actually expand to accept more leaves than actually come with the table - and sometimes leaves get lost, leaving you with a table that will expand to accept leaves, but no actual leaves.

This is a solvable problem, however, because you should be able to find a local carpenter or woodworker who can fashion you a leaf that will fit into the table. Of course, the leaf will probably not match the table exactly, but the fact is that most times when we put leaves in our table to have company over, we put a tablecloth over the table, so the fact that the leaves may not match becomes less of an issue. It's also quite possible to fashion a leaf out of a complementary wood, so that while the leaf may not match, it will contrast nicely with the wood of the table, giving a pleasing aesthetic effect. For instance, just last week, we made a leaf out of poplar wood for a client who purchased a rosewood table from us that had no leaves. The whitish-greenish-yellow of the poplar wood contrasted quite nicely with the purplish brown of the rosewood, and the clients were quite happy!

Another type of leaf that is quote common in mid century tables, especially Danish tables, is the draw leaf. These leaves are stored underneath the main table surface, and pull out from either end of the table by means of runners. This is a very popular design, mainly because it is extremely convenient, as the leaves automatically store right underneath the table. Another advantage of this design is that the leaves are usually very easy to operate, and can be expanded or contracted by one person, making this a smart choice for a single person shopping for a dining table. In contrast, it can sometimes be difficult for one person to pull a table apart to accept a drop-in leaf. Perhaps the only drawback to this type of design is that unlike drop in expansion tables, which can sometimes expand practically to infinity, these tables are limited in the amount which they will expand. However, unless you own a castle and need to seat 24 people comfortably, a large draw-leaf table will usually suffice for the needs of most families. A teak draw-leaf dining table with oak base by Hans Wegner. This view shows the table extended.

A similarly designed teak table by J.L. Moller. The extension leaves fit neatly underneath the main table surface.

One other less common, but still worth mentioning, leaf design is the butterfly leaf. This is a leaf that folds in half and stores under the table, and by means of a mechanical device, pops up when the table is pulled apart. These are very fun, and can be entertaining to your friends and family (especially small children), and also have the advantage of storing underneath the table. The only drawback to this type of leaf is that they are usually limited to a single leaf, so you don't get a whole lot of expansion potential - it is seldom possible to seat more than 8 people at a dining table equipped with a butterfly leaf. A contemporary hand-made Koa wood dining table featuring a butterfly leaf.

However, if you don't plan on entertaining large groups of people, or simply have a small enough space that won't let you open up a big dining table no matter what, a butterfly leaf can be a very viable (not to mention stylish!) option.

Please join us for our next installment, when we will discuss the question of materials. Until then, happy holidays!

The Janus Home Holiday Guide to Dining Tables, Pt. 2.

As always, thanks for reading, and welcome back to part two of our (admittedly belated) Holiday Guide to Dining Tables!

Now that you've decided on shape and size, it's time to discuss materials. The vast majority of mid century dining tables out there are made of wood. There are many different types of wood used in dining table construction, but for mid century tables, you will find mostly teak, walnut, rosewood, oak, maple, and birch. The type of wood you choose will usually revolve around what else you have in your home, and what type of floor you have. Generally, it's best to choose a wood that will contrast with your floor rather than blend into it. So, if you have light oak hardwood floors, it's maybe not the best idea to get a light oak (or birch or maple for that matter) dining table.

Although other woods such as rosewood, oak and walnut do appear with some frequency in Danish modern dining tables, teak is by far and away the most common wood used. In contrast, it is fairly rare to find a vintage teak table that is made in the USA. In lieu of teak, walnut is seen much more commonly in American mid century dining tables, as is birch and maple. The reasoning for this is pretty simple - walnut, birch and maple are all trees that are found very commonly in many parts of the USA, whereas woods like teak and rosewood are "exotics", found only in parts of the world like India and Southeast Asia. Since the majority of the lumber-producing forests in Europe were cut down hundreds of years ago, Danish furniture makers were unable to rely on indigenous woods as were their American counterparts, which is why exotics like teak and rosewood are much more common in European furniture of the era.

Another thing to keep in mind when considering a wooden dining table is the possibility of having it refinished to a different color. This mainly applies to lighter woods such as birch and maple, which can be stained or lacquered practically any shade or any color you want. While it's not as common to do this to darker woods such as walnut, rosewood and teak, it is possible. It's just that more often than not, these woods have very attractive grain patterns that you wouldn't want to hide under coats of dark stain. In contrast, most lighter woods don't have very exciting grain patterns, so it's no major crime to stain them very dark to achieve a more dramatic effect. A good example of this is the Paul McCobb Planner Group dining table that we refinished and sold awhile back.This table is a great looking, extremely functional table with its combination of drop leaves and center extension leaves. However, the maple wood in its natural state was just a little plain. The ebony stain that we applied to it gave the table a fantastic presence, and made it look just that much more elegant as well.

When choosing a material for your dining table, the most important thing to consider is the other pieces in your home. If you have hardwood floors, a wooden credenza and a wooden china cabinet, you might want to consider a metal and glass table to break up all the wood. Likewise, if you have an extremely clean, modern interior with lots of chrome and leather and polished concrete floors, you might think about a wooden dining set to warm things up a bit.
In the end, if versatility is an issue (the ability to have your table go from small to large), you are most likely going to be stuck with a wooden table. Although expandable glass tables do exist,
they are much less common than their wooden counterparts.

The glass and steel dining table shown below offers a very specific look, and also needs a very large room to live in, measuring in at around 7' x 4'. Although quite attractive, it offers little in the way of versatility.

When putting a room together, perhaps the worst thing you can do is to have everything match. Our brains thrive on contrast and how things play off of each other, and if everything in a room matches perfectly, well, there's no contrast and nothing plays off anything else, and the end result is BO-RING. That's not to say that if you have the opportunity to purchase a matching dining set of table, chairs and sideboard, that you shouldn't do it. If you find such a set that meets your needs - by all means, go for it. However, there's no need to get hung up on whether or not the chairs you buy to go with your table "originally" went with the table. It's also worth noting that many vintage furniture dealers have the rather annoying habit of "marrying" a dining table and set of chairs that don't really go together, trying to sell them as a set, and refusing to "break up the set" when it is pointed out that the table and chairs don't actually even belong together. Which is to say, even if you think you're getting an original set, it may not always be the case.

Of course, you don't want to go overboard and have every piece contrasting wildly with every other piece - that'll just give you a headache. What we're looking for here is a happy medium. Strive to bring different elements together so that they complement each other instead of clash with each other. Keep in mind that materials are only part of the picture - you can draw a room together using pieces made from different materials so long as they all possess a complementary line.

Having said that, the first rule of Interior Design (at least in our book) is that THERE ARE NO RULES! If you play strictly by the "rules", you might never put together this modern industrial dining table with these black lacquered antique French chairs. And that would be a shame!

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Zanini de Zanine Caldas at NOHO Modern, 10/23/09

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend and help out with the setting up of a truly monumental exhibition of the work of a young Brazilian furniture designer and sculptor, Zanini de Zanine Caldas. My close friend Thomas Hayes, owner of the NOHO Modern gallery, along with Zanini, has been working on this exhibition for over two years. It was a truly special experience to contribute, even in a small way, to the success of this show, and to see years of hard work, impeccable craftsmanship, and seemingly insurmountable logistical difficulties finally come to fruition.

Zanini strolling past his Ipe wood hanging bookshelf, the night before the opening.
The work of Zanini is unlike anything I have ever seen. Although he draws considerable inspiration from the work of his father, renowned Brazilian architect and furniture designer Jose Zanine Caldas, Zanini remains true to his quest to be his own man and his own artist, all the while carrying on the considerable legacy of his father, who passed away in 2001 at the age of 82.
Like his father, Zanini works exclusively with salvaged wood, either from trees that have naturally fallen in the Brazilian rain forest, or from houses (sometimes built by his father) that are being torn down or remodeled. Most of his work is done in one of three exotic Brazilian hardwoods - Ipe, Macaranduba or Pequi wood, all of which are some of the most dense, heavy woods on Earth.

The weight of the wood is such that Sofa Curva (pictured above), crafted from a single salvaged Ipe wood beam, weighs over 1 ton, and can only be moved with a forklift.

The simple Ipe wood "deck chairs" (pictured above, with Zanini balanced on top), crafted from a deck that was being torn off a house built by his father, weigh about 75 lbs each.

However, having said that, there is much more to Zanini's work than simple mass. Taking inspiration from his father's body of work, but never outright recreating or copying his designs (which would be impossible, anyway, because each of his father's furniture designs were one of a kind, and created with each specific piece of wood in mind), Zanini's designs are incredibly simple, yet almost mind-bogglingly complex when the work and skill required to tame these incredibly difficult materials is taken into account.

Dining table of Ipe wood and glass. This table, priced at $35,000, was considered by many to be the star of the show.

Zanini was literally raised by his father to be a furniture designer, which has created a certain. Here I would like to quote Thomas' essay in the exhibition catalog: "(Zanini) has such profound respect for his father and his work that his every decision in designing is aimed at two goals. The first is to respect the standards his father set about how to do things with the highest level of mastery, and the second is to create pieces markedly different from his father's work; pieces that could never be confused with them". In these goals, Zanini has also succeeded admirably - one would be hard pressed to confuse Zanini's Inclinida Aperador credenza (pictured below, with Zanini standing atop), or, for that matter, one of his simple, geometric wall sculptures, for the work of his father. At the same time, the lineage and inspiration is obvious.

The same credenza, the night before the show, with wall sculptures scattered on the floor before being hung

The list of sons who have never been able to break out of the shadow of their famous fathers is long and tedious (wherefore art thou, Julian Lennon?), whereas the list of sons of famous fathers who have been able to not only carve out their own space in the same niche occupied by their fathers, but actually thrive in that niche, is much more succinct (continuing on the music analogy, I can only think of one example off the top of my head - Rufus Wainwright - although I'm sure there are others that I'm forgetting about). With this exhibition, Zanini places himself squarely in the latter category. His is a body of work that will ripen with age, along with his worldwide reputation. Although he has already made a bit of a name for himself in his native Brazil, the NOHO exhibition is Zanini's first US show of any size. Considering the sheer quality and singularity of the work, there is no question in my mind that there will be many more to follow.

Zanini de Zanine is showing at NOHO Modern Gallery, 6162 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038, now through December 31, 2009.
NOHO Modern on

The gallery on opening night.

NOHO Modern gallery owner Thomas Hayes posing with Zanini on opening night.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Beginnings of Modernism in American Furniture

Welcome back to our ongoing series, "How to tell Real Vintage Furniture from Contemporary Knockoffs". In our last post, we discussed how to distinguish Danish mid century furniture from American.

Within the realms of Danish and American furniture, there is still a very broad range of possibilities, from the rarest, highest end pieces imaginable, to the lowest end, most commonplace "dime a dozen" factory made furniture.

As an aside, do keep in mind that in this discussion of "low end" vs. "high end" vintage modern furniture, by referring to "low end" furniture, we are not trying to disparage it. We understand that not everyone has the means to be able to afford the desirable, higher end pieces that we like to talk about, and while we may not spend a great deal of time discussing or dealing with the lower end vintage stuff, most of it is still well-made, entirely serviceable furniture that is suitable for use in many living situations.

Also keep in mind that even if you can only afford what we deem to be "lower end" vintage furniture, by choosing this option over some cheaply made, ultimately disposable new piece of furniture, you are participating in "recycling" of the highest order, which is definitely something to be proud of. You can even think of lower end vintage pieces as sort of a "gateway drug" - get started with something easily manageable and easy on the wallet, and graduate little by little to more serious (and more expensive) stuff!

A (very) Brief History of American Modern Furniture
The Modernist movement in US furniture making can be traced to the end of WWII, and the building across the country of countless clean-lined, unfussy ranch-style homes. US furniture makers clearly saw an opportunity to capitalize on this new aesthetic, and started churning out simpler, clean-lined furniture to match this new style of home that was becoming increasingly popular among the middle class.

Although the roots of Modernism can be traced back to Art Deco furniture of the 1920s and 1930s and, more significantly, the "International Style" espoused by European architects like Mies Van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, it really wasn't until the late 1940s that Modernism really started to catch on in the American public consciousness. Most of the companies that we are going to discuss had been been in existence since the early 20th century, producing mainly antique reproductions. For instance, both Dunbar and Herman Miller had been dabbling in Modernist furniture since the early 1930s, but it wasn't until the mid to late 1940s that both companies decided to turn their backs on the antique reproductions and fully embrace a Modernist aesthetic.Below are two examples of this early "proto-modernism" - a pair of Rosewood chests by Gilbert Rohde for Herman Miller, below, and a desk by Edward Wormley for Dunbar, below that.

At first blush, both of the above pieces could easily be mistaken for Art Deco, but upon further inspection, you will notice the overarching simplicity that defines both of these pieces. The forms are very much rooted in the Art Deco tradition, but the details are very much in the modern idiom.

As Modernism grew and evolved throughout the 1940s and 1950s, certain companies grew to represent a more cutting edge version of modernism, while others, for the most part, stayed fairly close to the more traditional Art Deco influenced styles shown above. In our next post, we will start to explore some of these companies in greater detail.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff

Welcome back to our ongoing series, "How to tell 'Real' Vintage Furniture from Contemporary Knockoffs". So, using the steps outlined in our previous posts in this series (here, here, and here) you've determined that the piece of furniture that you want to buy is in fact vintage. However, just because it's vintage doesn't mean that it's necessarily worth buying - there are many other things to consider before you make the decision to plunk down your hard earned dollars! Today we're going to get started on the discussion of differentiating between "good" vintage and "bad" vintage. This is a fairly deep topic that's worth spending some time on, because it really cuts to the heart of what we vintage decorative arts dealers actually DO for a living.

The funny thing is, whether or not a given object or piece of furniture is "good" or not is largely subjective. However, we are not completely lost at sea with this - there are certain attributes that a piece may or may not have which we can use to determine whether or not it is "good".

Chief among these are
  • designer provenance (i.e. whether it was designed by a "major" or known designer)
  • manufacturer provenance (what company made the piece)
  • overall quality of construction and aesthetic sensibility
When one is unable to determine who the designer or maker of a piece was, we can always fall back on the quality of construction and aesthetic sensibility to make our decision on whether the piece is worth buying.

Names and Faces
As you start shopping for vintage furniture, you will start to notice that there are lots of brand names and designers that get thrown about willy-nilly by people in the know. If you're serious about collecting vintage furniture, one of the first things you're going to want to do is familiarize yourself with some of these names. Brand names, or manufacturers, are generally easier to familiarize one's self with than designers, simply because many pieces of furniture made by a given furniture maker are marked as such.

There are certain manufacturers that are synonymous with high end design, which we will discuss in greater depth in our next post. However, before we get to the discussion of the actual company that manufactured the piece, we're going to want to consider where the piece was actually made. The two main countries that you're likely to see pieces come out of are the USA and Denmark, so those are the two we will focus on here.

As an aside, it should be noted that a certain amount of "Danish Modern" furniture was produced in the other Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway and Finland), but the large majority of it was actually made in the tiny country of Denmark (if there was ever a competition for the number of pieces of furniture produced per capita, Denmark would surely take first prize). Although a significant amount of furniture of this era was produced in Sweden, for the most part it is relatively interchangeable with furniture that was actually produced in Denmark.

Here are some key differences between Scandinavian and American mid century furniture
  • 9 times out of 10, if it's made out of teak, it's Scandinavian.
  • 9 times out of 10, if it's made out of walnut, it's American.
At least initially, it can be difficult to tell the difference between teak and walnut. Broadly, walnut will be more brown while teak will be more red. Also, walnut grain tends to be broader and more distinct, while teak is usually tighter with shorter grain marks. Of course there are exceptions, for the most part these rules hold true. We've included images of "typical" teak and walnut grain patterns below:
  • In mid century furniture, lighter woods such as maple and birch are more commonly associated with American makers. For instance, all Heywood Wakefield furniture produced in the 1940s and 1950s was made from solid American yellow birch, and all Paul McCobb Planner Group furniture was made from solid maple (although it was often stained darker).
  • Be aware that while the above mentioned woods will cover perhaps 70% of mid century furniture, the remaining 30% is comprised of a sometimes-confusing hodgepodge of different woods such as Rosewood, Mahogany, Oak, Elm, Ash, Cherry, and others. It should also be noted that frequently, lighter woods that have been stained dark will be identified as Walnut by people who don't know any better. However, once you get familiar with what real walnut looks like, it's easy to tell the difference. We will explain these differences in greater depth in a future blog post.

  • When looking at dressers, American made dressers tend to have deeper drawers than Danish dressers. So much so, that while vintage Danish dressers can be very pretty to look at, they are often not very practical to use because the drawers are so shallow. We have come to the conclusion that in Denmark, they do not store sweaters in dresser drawers.

  • As a general rule, Danish furniture usually has more "sculptural" qualities than American. For example, consider the two credenzas pictured above. Both are long and low, and basically the same shape. However, notice how the details on the Danish piece are much finer - how the corners are rounded and come together at 45 degree angles, how the legs are nicely shaped and curved so as to flow out of the case rather than just sticking out of it. The handles for the doors are also carved pieces of wood that echo the sculptural qualities present in the rest of the piece. The American piece is much more boxy and workmanlike - compare the corners on the cases of both pieces and you will see the difference.
Stay tuned for our next installment, when we will go into greater detail talking about some of the major American furniture makers that you should know about!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

How to tell "Real" Vintage Furniture from Contemporary Knockoffs - Part 2b: Powers of Observation

Wood Furniture

In our last entry, we discussed using your powers of observation to distinguish real vintage furniture from contemporary knockoffs, with a special focus on upholstered furniture. Today we're going to talk about wooden furniture - tables, dressers, sideboards, desks, what have you.

At one point or another, you may have heard someone say, referring to new furniture, "they don't make 'em like they used to"! This is true of many things in life, but is especially true of wooden furniture! Today, you would have to pay thousands of dollars for a dresser that was built to the same quality standards as the most boring, run of the mill, "nothing special" dresser made 50 years ago. There are many reasons for this - chief among them that wood is simply a lot more expensive than it was 50 years ago! Because of this, in the last 30-40 years, the solid wood or plywood that was common for use in furniture up until the early 1970s, has been largely replaced by particleboard, the bane of modern furniture. The chief advantage of particleboard is that is is cheap. Apart from that, it has very little to recommend it. It's not sturdy, it's heavier than real wood, and if it should ever happen to get wet, it swells up and basically becomes unrepairable.

So, while the presence of particleboard in a piece of wood furniture is not enough to finger it as a contemporary knockoff (since pieces made in the '70s and even '80s do classify as vintage), it is something to keep a lookout for. You will see particleboard mostly in drawer fronts and the tops and sides of case pieces (dressers, sideboards, etc). Once you've sniffed out the presence of particleboard, you also want to take a look at the general quality of construction. Are the drawers made with dovetail joints? a dovetail joint on a dresser drawer

Are the drawer sides made of solid wood? If it's a table, is the top made of solid wood or veneered?

Unless a wooden piece has been refinished, it will likely show many signs of age. These can come in the form of scratches and dings, finish wear, and sun fading. None of these things by themselves will designate a piece as being vintage - after all, a piece that's only 5 years old can definitely be subjected to abuse - but considered together with the quality of construction that we discussed above, taking all these things into account, you're getting close to being able to say that a piece is in fact vintage.

Sun fading, while present in all different kinds of furniture, is usually most prominent on dining tables with leaves. The reason for this is that the main part of the table will be exposed to the sun while the leaves will be stored away in a closet never seeing the light of day (except for a few times a year when they get pulled out for use on holidays, but even then they're usually covered with a tablecloth) - and the end result is that 50 years or so down the line, the leaves look like they did they day they were purchased, and the main table is several shades lighter. There is no way to fix sun fading other than to completely refinish the table and the leaves, so if it's important to you to have leaves that match your table exactly, it's something to be cautious of.

Overall, just keep in mind that a vintage piece of furniture should look old! If it looks too new, and there's no mention of the piece being refinished, odds are good that it IS too new. Stay tuned for our next installment of this series, where we'll discuss how to distinguish higher end vintage pieces from low end or "middle of the road" pieces!

Monday, September 14, 2009

How to tell "Real" Vintage Furniture from Contemporary Knockoffs - Part 2: Powers of Observation

Upholstered Furniture

In our last post, we discussed various different ways of ascertaining whether or not a piece of vintage furniture that you're considering purchasing is, in fact, vintage, by talking to the seller of the piece. Unfortunately, most of the time when you're out hunting through vintage shops and antique malls, you're usually several steps removed from the original seller, and the people you have access to may or may not have any useful information to impart. In this case, you will have to make a decision based on your own knowledge. However, for the most part, it's actually pretty easy to tell an old thing from a newly produced thing.

First, let's go for the obvious again - does it LOOK old? Upholstery on a vintage piece of furniture should have a certain amount of wear, and may also be in what we could kindly refer to as a "dated" style. There are certain exceptions, such as leather and (especially) vinyl, but even these more durable materials will take on a certain patina over 30 or 40 years that will distinguish it from new. Of course, furniture can be reupholstered, giving new life to old bones. However, once again, this is a fairly expensive process, so if a dealer has gone to the time and expense of having this done, he/she is almost certainly going to mention the fact, and charge a commensurately higher price.

Other things to consider when looking at vintage upholstered furniture are the foam and springs or webbing. A surefire sign that an upholstered chair or sofa is genuinely old is the presence of flattened, hardened or "crunchy" foam. In the worst cases, foam will disintegrate into a foul smelling, noxious powdery substance. If you look at the ground underneath where a chair has been sitting and notice the presence of a yellowish dust, know that a) the foam in the chair has probably gone bad, and b) it's definitely a vintage piece! Of course, just because the foam is still good and pliable in a piece does not mean it's not vintage. For whatever reason, I've seen foam in 50 year old sofas that was just fine, as well as foam in 30 year old sofas that had completely turned to dust. Springs and webbing are another structural component that can help you establish the age of a piece of upholstered furniture. If you sit in a chair and the seat feels overly bouncy, it probably means that the springs have lost their tension over time, and will need to be replaced or at the least re-tied. Likewise, if you turn a chair over and you see rubber webbing that is hard and brittle instead of rubbery and flexible, you know you're definitely dealing with an old piece.

It should be noted that while all of the above issues can help you distinguish a piece of vintage furniture from a contemporary knockoff, they are also all problems that will need to be fixed if you plan on seriously using the piece of furniture. An experienced upholsterer is your ticket to fixing all of these problems. Sometimes the foam/springs/webbing of a piece will have gone bad, but the fabric has held up and does not need to be redone. It is usually possible to replace any of these components without completely reupholstering the piece, which will, of course, lower your cost. However, keep in mind that foam is still fairly expensive. To entirely replace the foam in a piece, you would need to budget between $100-150 for an average lounge chair and $300-400 for an average sofa. So, if you find a sofa for $100 and all it needs is new foam, you could potentially be into a "nearly new" vintage sofa for under $500, which is not too shabby! However, it is important to keep these factors in mind when you're shopping for vintage pieces, because if you're not prepared, the bill at the upholsterer might be a lot more than you bargained for!

Above is a before/after shot of an incredibly Hollywood Regency style slipper chair that we completely restored from thrift-store condition to showroom condition. We refinished the frame and upholstered the chair in a high end Italian cut velvet. Do you have upholstery projects that you've been meaning to get to but haven't found the time or don't have the resources? Let us help! With our extensive collection of "vintage friendly" designer fabrics and our ace upholsterer, we can take your thrift store finds and transform them into pieces that you'll be able to use and enjoy for years to come!

Stay tuned for our next post, coming this Thursday, where we will discuss using your powers of observation to distinguish vintage wooden furniture from contemporary knockoffs!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How to tell "Real" Vintage Furniture from Contemporary Knockoffs - Part 1: Talking to the Seller

Today in Janus Home's installment series "A Primer on Modern Furniture", we will start a “series within a series”, if you will, on a topic of great value to anyone considering buying modern furniture on the secondary market - "How can I tell 'genuine' mid century modern furniture from contemporary knockoffs"? Although this might seem like a daunting task, there are a few easy tips that we can give you that will make distinguishing the wheat from the chaff much, much easier. We are going to break this down into four separate posts: talking to the seller; powers of observation; commonly reproduced vintage designs; and last but not least, how to distinguish “quality” vintage furniture from lower-end or “middle of the road” vintage.

Part 1: Talking to the seller

Over the last five years or so, a little site called has positively revolutionized the way people buy and sell their stuff (in addition to making the newspaper classified section virtually obsolete!). You can find pretty much anything and everything you’re looking for on Craigslist – if you’re patient enough! It has also made it much easier for a buyer to connect directly with a seller without the intercession of a middleman or dealer. Let's say you're going to look at a pair of chairs that you found on Craigslist, and you want to be sure that they are actually vintage and not purchased last year at Target. The most obvious thing to do is simply to ask the seller where and when they got them! If you're at the seller's house looking at the chairs, and you ask them when and where they got them, and they say "Oh, I got them from my Grandmother and she had them for as long as I can remember", that's obviously a good sign. If they say "we got them at Macy's a few years ago", that's obviously not such a good sign. Admittedly, this is a pretty boneheaded example - however, sometimes the obvious solution to the problem is actually the right solution! It's pretty rare that a private seller of a piece of furniture will deliberately try to pass something off as something it's not, so you can usually get valuable information from them .

Things get a little trickier when you're buying from a resale shop, antique/vintage shop or antique mall. Of these three, the small antique/vintage store owner is most likely to provide you with accurate information about a piece. With an antique mall or a resale shop, it's usually almost impossible to talk to anyone who has any direct connection to the piece. Forget talking to the actual person who owned the piece, at that point you can't even talk to the person who bought it from the original owner! Although it’s something of a long shot, it can’t hurt to ask the antique mall staff if they could contact the dealer whose piece of furniture you’re considering. In any case, it's important to know the reputation of the shop that you're buying from! Talk to your friends and see if they've had any experiences, good or bad, with that particular shop. Social media sites like Twitter can also be a great way to get feedback from people on specific shops. These days, if someone has a genuinely lousy experience somewhere, it can get broadcasted to the web for all to see in a matter of minutes.

So, assuming you’ve exhausted all the possibilities listed above and are still unable to squeeze any pertinent information out of anyone with relation to the piece of furniture you’re interested in…you’ll have to fall back on your powers of observation! Stay tuned for our next installment, which will provide you with some great pointers on how to do just that.