Seeing Red

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Sometimes I think my taste in furniture comes from the fact that I’m easily startled. I’ll sometimes spit a mouth full of toothpaste onto the mirror when my wife appears behind me in the bathroom.

I don’t want to be alarmed or injected with adrenaline when I look at a chair, table or a sideboard because of its car-like surface finish, carving, inlay or dizzying grain patterns.

Furniture should be as natural as your fingers. Your hands are logical, unadorned and familiar. Yet when you choose to examine them closely you will be amazed at every aspect of their mechanics and form.

So when I look at furniture, I mentally divide what I see into pieces that are “red” and those that are “green.” This is all standard color theory stuff that you can learn about in an introductory psychology class.

Colors in the “warm” spectrum – red, orange and yellow – tend to excite us. Colors in the “cool” spectrum – blues and greens – tend to relax.

The first time I visited Winterthur Museum – Henry Francis du Pont’s amazing collection of high-style furniture from the entire timeline of American history – I felt like I needed a stiff drink afterward. While there are some fine vernacular pieces in the collection, the entire experience left me wrung out and on edge. That was a red day.

Seeing one carving by Grinling Gibbons inspires awe. Seeing an entire room of his work induces nausea.

I don’t mean to pick on Winterthur. It’s one of the most fantastic furniture collections on the planet. To be fair, I get the same unpleasant blood buzz in European castles and manor homes. There is only so much of the stuff I can endure.

Contrast that with my first visit to the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, S.C. The 1820 house is opulent in many ways, but much of that is muted by the fact that many rooms were empty of furnishings during my visit. For me, what’s most remarkable about the house are the slave quarters and work areas on the building’s ground floor. And the work yard.


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The first time I walked in there, I didn’t want to leave. While our tour guide encouraged us to climb the stairs to the “nice” portion of the house, I stayed put. The room and its furnishings were worn, logical, suited for use and – above all – oddly soothing.

I’m a white guy who was raised in the deep South in schools that were de facto segregated. (My high school mascot was a fat Confederate named “Johnny Reb.”) I’m not supposed to feel comfortable in slave quarters. But I did.

“Progress consists, not in the increase of truth, but in freeing it from its wrappings. The truth is obtained like gold, not by letting it grow bigger, but by washing off from it everything that isn’t gold.”
— Leo Tolstoy’s Diaries (1985) edited and translated by R. F. Christian. London: Athlone Press, Vol 2, p. 512

My affection for “green” furniture was sometimes a hindrance in my career as an editor of a woodworking magazine. When you have a title like “editor” you get asked to judge other people’s work at furniture shows and hand out blue ribbons for design and construction.

I’ll be honest: If you want to win a ribbon at an American furniture show, it pays to have a piece that incorporates carving, marquetry, veneer and French polish. Figured wood helps, too. You want to grab the judges by the lapels and open all the ports on their glands.

Those pieces win the prizes almost every time. And perhaps it’s the ornament that also makes people open their checkbooks to purchase them. But what happens when the adrenaline fades? When you have to live with a “red” piece in your house? To me it’s like having a giant leering (if harmless) vampire in your living room. It’s unsettling.

During furniture competitions, I always stick up for the pieces that I would want to live with. I like pieces that are well-made, well-finished and emphasize form over flash. But mostly I want to take them home – not show them to my wife’s boss as proof of my good taste.

That approach will put you in the minority among the judges in a furniture competition.
Think about this when you fall in love with a piece of furniture in a magazine or book. It can be like a heavy crush on a Hollywood starlet. Something glandular. That’s fine when looking at pictures. But turn the page for a minute and think: Would I want to live with that every day for the next 30 years?

— Christopher Schwarz, an excerpt from “The Anarchist’s Design Book

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8 Responses to Seeing Red

  1. nrhiller says:

    A huge thumbs-up to this.

  2. Rachael Boyd says:

    I feel the same way. I have been to the show in Port Townsend a couple of times and walk away thinking wow really. the grain the wood colors the finishes. look nice but they all look out of place, and when I talk to builder they kinda make you feel well they are a group on primadonnas..I would much rather see a table or a chair or maybe a cabinet made with love with nice lines and a finish that invites the hand to touch it and feel the unseen tool marks in the wood. the kind of furniture I would be proud to own..

  3. denvergeorge says:

    I couldn’t agree more about red furniture. I love simple, I love milk paint, and I love visible tool marks all coupled with sturdy, no nonsense construction. That’s easy furniture to live with.

  4. Marilyn says:

    Agreed … that’s why I live in a 1906 farm house. And fancy furniture in that house would just look silly.

  5. richardwootton says:

    Maybe we should start a vernacular furniture show or competition?

  6. hbm-la says:

    I used to think that wild grain was a symptom of environmental poisoning; or, brain poisoning. At least, it represented the dregs of nature. What was left, and we just had to use it and make something of it.

    I have all this Western Bigleaf Maple wood, rejects from the guitar industry. Popcorn, quilt, flame, grain patterns. The drawers would be tiger maple. What secondary wood? In the other corner is CVG Doug fir. Ignore the obvious flaws. Will it work for Danish design simplicity? The traditional teak grain is patterned, however. Maybe some quilted maple will excite the piece? Should I paint the fir green? I remember Schwarz’ green from our house in the 1960s.

    You know I didn’t read the book … or, is it not published?

  7. charlie says:

    I can agree, but… one trip to a local crafts fair has convinced me that there is too much crap being made under the title of “rustic” or “country” or even worse, “industrial”. Most of this furniture is made by nonskilled workers using rotted barnwood with iron pipes for legs. Is it simple? Yes. Is it good? well….

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