Editor’s note: I was reviewing some notes from 2012 and stumbled on this abandoned introduction to a book that I rewrote entirely. When I write a book, I usually end up writing about two books worth of material and then winnow the ideas down until it doesn’t make me want to vomit when I read it (the mark of quality literature).
“The Anarchist’s Design Book” started out as “The Furniture of Necessity” and then I switched gears somewhere while working in the village of Sheepwash, Devon. The original thrust of “The Furniture of Necessity” is still interesting to me, and I might come back and tinker with it in the future. Note that the below is unedited. And there are some missing parts here and there.
But you’ll get the idea.
— Christopher Schwarz
Furniture of Necessity
It’s Wednesday night at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, and I’m thinking about quickly stealing some images from the Ethan Allen web site.
Steve Latta, a fellow instructor at the school, is at the front of the room showing the students photos of his work. Projected on the wall and bigger than life, each orchestration of mahogany, inlay, carving and perfect form elicits “oohs” and “aahs” like we’re at a fireworks show.
In a few minutes, Steve will wrap up his orgy of pateras, cartouches and ogee bracket feet, and I’m going to show pictures of my work. Ahem. Here’s one that’s a box – kinda boxy, I know. Here’s a cabinet design I stole from the Shakers – yes, the door is built clenched using nails. And a workbench I made from framing lumber.
This moment feels like a turning point in my furniture-making career. If I am going to be taken seriously as a designer and builder, then I need to step up my game and build the high-style 18th-century pieces from New England. It’s time to get in bed with Queen Anne. Learn the moves of the Chippendales. Do some wife-swapping with William & Mary.
As I make this private resolve, Steve ends his presentation by showing an astonishing cabinet with glass doors above and inlaid doors below. It took a year to build.
I think to myself: “I can do this.”
Then Steve interrupts my thought. “While I really love this stuff,” he says, pointing to his final image on the wall, “I could never live with it. Our house is filled with much simpler stuff.”
And… my jaw goes slack.
I get up and give the lamest presentation of my career so far. But I don’t feel bad about it. In fact, all I can think about is Steve’s last line. “While I really love this stuff, I could never live with it.”
In the years since that evening, I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about the history of furniture and its role in society. I’ve been looking at tens of thousands of pieces of furniture from the 1500s to the present – actual pieces in museums, image databases maintained by museums and an endless stream of auction results maintained at Prices4Antiques.com.
At first I looked for the proportional rules that governed individual forms of furniture. I really liked anthropology in college, so I thought I would look for the genetic ancestor for all chests of drawers, all chairs, all tables – that sort of thing. I wanted to show that high-style and low-born pieces had the same bones, and their differences were just material, ornament and surface finish.
There still might be something to that idea, but I became sidetracked and then obsessed with a style of furniture that doesn’t really have a proper name. But it is something we can all live with.
As I scanned through all these images and built spreadsheets (yup, that’s the secret to my writing), I noticed things that surprised me. When looking at six-board chests, I was amazed at how hard it was to date them from their appearance. Chests from the 1700s looked a lot like chests from the 1900s. The only real difference was the wear and tear – the older chests looked older because they’d had 200 more years of use.
What if I could remove the age from all these pieces and present them like they looked when they were new? So I started sketching these pieces, both old and new. And on the computer screen it became even harder to assign a date to these chests.
This exercise worked only with certain pieces that had remained consistent for hundreds of years. High-style tall chests are easy to date because of all their ornament – experienced auction houses and researchers can even recognize a single carver’s work. Plus, if you have ever studied furniture history, you know that furniture was very much a part of fashionable life in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Furniture styles changed rapidly and radically at times, just compare the XXX with the XXX for a taste of this change.
The differences between fancy pieces doesn’t interest me, nor is it an area that lack scholars. There have been thousands of careers built upon discerning the fine differences between periods of fine furniture built for fine individuals.
Instead, I would like to make the case that there is an often-ignored tradition of furniture that has been with us for centuries that has been right under our noses. It consists of generally well-made, well-proportioned and unornamented pieces. This is the furniture that was in the warming room of the slave quarters in the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, S.C., the meeting house of the White Water Shaker Village in Ohio and on the green shag carpet of 2019 Wedgewood Blvd., where I grew up.
I call this the “furniture of necessity” because I don’t care for the other names people use. “Country furniture” is one name, but you can find these pieces in the city. “Vernacular” furniture is a better term, as it is supposed to describe the stuff of domestic life. But too often the word is innocently applied to pieces that were made by an unskilled hand, or are bizarre low-style adaptations of high-brow stuff (someone who made a bonnet-top highboy out of bottle caps, for instance).
So I’ve decided to make up a name and write the definition as well.
The goal of this book is to identify about a dozen different forms of the furniture of necessity, from the six-board chest to the Windsor stool to the chest of drawers. I want to show you historical pieces from many time periods for each of these forms so you can see they are indeed consistent and begin to understand their language. And then I want to explore the variations in their proportions and joinery.
Why? This isn’t a project book. While I’m certain you could build replicas of the pieces in this book using the dimensions provided, I would rather teach you the language – for lack of a better word – of each of these furniture forms so you can build your own versions. Here’s how:
As I’ve been collecting images of furniture, I’ve also been recording their dimensions. So when we discuss drop-leaf tables, we’ll also discuss their dimensions that are nearly immutable (such as the height of the tabletop) and those that vary (such as the length and width of the top). I want us to understand the envelope of space that these pieces typically occupy and still look good. Why are chests of drawers typically about 40″ wide and 40″ high? They look good to our eye.
If we can understand the spatial limits of these pieces, then we will know how to avoid designing pieces that are awkward – without having to go to design school.
With the outside shape drawn, we need to design the joinery. These pieces used simple joints for very particular reasons. For example, six-board chests are traditionally nailed together, even though the chest’s front and back are oriented cross-grain to the end pieces. This is usually a joinery no-no when making furniture.
But thousands of these chests have survived. And I would argue that it is actually because of the nails that these pieces are so robust. A six-board chest that was dovetailed together would actually be weaker.
Next comes the ornament. I argue that most furniture has some ornament – even a simple bevel on a tabletop or a quirk between the base and top – is ornament. A tapered leg on a table is ornament. Six-board chests, for example, usually have two points of ornament: a cutout on the end pieces that turns a slab into two legs, and perhaps a simple moulding or two. These pieces aren’t devoid of ornament, they just use it with restraint.
And finally, the finish. Furniture that is designed for use and not for show should have a finish that is simple, easy to apply, easy to repair and durable. That is why so many of these pieces were painted. So we’ll discuss paint at some length, but we’ll also discuss how to make your own film finish from inexpensive materials (it’s as easy as making a shaken martini).
Before we get down to business, I want to make an apology. This book encompasses pieces from the Western world only – mostly North American and English. I’ve done some research on these same forms in Europe, but it is not extensive. The Eastern world and its furniture forms are still a mystery to me.
So this book is about the furniture of necessity as seen from the Western world. And it begins in my sister’s room with her Barbie collection.