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.