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Years ago, I saw a 1920s Ruhlmann Macassar Ebony bedroom set, similar to what you see here, at a furniture auction at Christie's. This big double bed with a tigerskin throw had belonged to some Paris "bachelor"—it was flanked by a matching armoire and nightstands and featured a headboard in the shape of a giant sunburst. My thought, and I imagine the first thought of all who passed it, was "I want to have sex on this bed." The sales estimate was about a quarter of a million dollars, and worth every penny if you ask me.
In my opinion, that's one embodiment of great design. The bed's form is functional, and the look of the set reinforces, I imagine, the message that bachelor wanted to tell visitors to his bedroom.
When you make or buy a piece of furniture, it has to fulfill its function and be a good value, but to be really successful, the piece ought help with the owner's "personal branding." The fancy furniture, antiques, and carvings in J. P. Morgan's office library says, in no uncertain terms, that you are standing in the presence of a rich, educated man of the world, who is solid and reliable. Like all branding, we buy it even if we don't want to.
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The sad part comes when I cannot produce pieces that match my idea of my personal brand. One reason for this is that my skill level isn't that great. But the real reason is that I don't try to stretch myself, or dream big enough, to want to try to learn new skills.
Most of the furniture I've made has been within the Arts & Crafts style. I like it, but let's face it—one of the reasons A&C furniture is so popular, along with Shaker designs, is that they're pretty easy for hobbyists to make. Colonial Revival furniture, which is also pretty popular, is harder to make, but a lot simpler than what rich people of that time really wanted (I didn't make the pieces pictured below, they are just examples of the styles mentioned).
Arts & Crafts Shaker Colonial Revival
The bottom line is, if you want to make a living building furniture for rich people—the only people who can afford custom furniture—you have to design and make stuff that they want.
George Walker has written some excellent material on design for Popular Woodworking, revealing the construction elements of complex pieces. What he doesn't talk about, presumably because it's unknowable, is how to make stuff people want to buy. The popular designs published in the magazine aren't the ones that were popular in their time amongst bespoke furniture buyers. The Colonial Revival furniture that we reproduce today had a heyday in the 1920's—about the same time our Frenchman bought his bedroom set. The really rich people in the United States at the time might have liked the idea of Colonial Revival furniture harking back to traditional American values, but what they actually bought for their mansions and public places was far more gaudy, far more European in design, "modern looking,"and much more sexy.
Stickley and other A&C designs were meant to be made in a factory by machine, or made by hand by amateurs. Rich people did buy Greene & Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Charles Rennie Mackintosh furniture, but those three designers were far more decorative than the simple lines of more universal A&C designers.
Greene & Greene Wright Mackintosh
Going back even further in time, Shaker furniture might be very popular as a modern project, but it's joiner's work, not what a cabinetmaker of the early 1800s strove for. The illustration below is an 1836 plate from The Practical Cabinet-Maker with Numerous Illustrative Engravings by Peter and Michael Angelo Nicholson:
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That's a sexy divan—just perfect for pitching woo to Mrs. Divinia Parson's daughter. The Shakers were celibate, and their sofas and beds were austere and frankly not as much fun.
Don't get me wrong, I like all of the genres of furniture I mentioned here, but I feel my desire has outgrown them—even if my skill level hasn't, and I need to stretch on my next project.
For those of you designing and creating bespoke furniture, my suggestion, from a commercial standpoint, is to get good enough so you can make fancy furniture that is difficult to clone in factories and that rich people have historically wanted to buy. In some sporadic follow-ups, I plan to write about ways of achieving luxurious work using neglected techniques and materials.
________________________________________________________This "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.