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!


Robyn said...

That was so informative. Thanks for the mini-lesson.

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