In order for my boys to roll their eyes and take a deep sigh, I only need to begin a topic of conversation with the immortal phrase, “When I was a lad…”
And there they go, both of them give me that knowing look of resignation. Their blank eyes betraying their emotion as they realize I am about to ramble on about yet another bygone time, a time before they were even “a twinkle in their Father’s eye.”
Recently I began to make comments about furniture construction, “When I was a lad,” I began, “my dad would scoff at modern furniture.”
“No style, no sense of craftsmanship,” he would say. “Look at the poor construction. It’s not even solid wood, it’s veneer!”
He would go on to express disbelief that anyone would pay what he called “good money” for things that would prove to be “just a fad.” How, he wondered, could the stores justify charging so much for such inferior items?
As a man who lived through the economically deprived dirty ’30s my dad well knew the value of a dollar; and to him, buying retail was an alien experience. Like most people of that era, “make do and mend” was his motto.
Without doubt make do and mend is a practical mantra that enabled many families to survive and having lived through those times it was all but impossible for them to change their outlook on life.
In the old days what we now call “antiques and collectibles” was simply secondhand stuff. These were things that others had used before, or as modern automobile dealers like to say, “previously enjoyed.”
There was no stigma attached to secondhand it was just economic common sense, after all if you didn’t particularly like something you could give it a coat of some leftover paint. For some reason, in the ’60s orange seemed a particularly popular colour, it was, as they say, trendy!
My old man would go on about the Scandinavians, the Dutch and the Germans who, following the destruction of the Second World War, began experimenting with new furnishing styles and using unconventional materials. Teak, stainless-steel, imitation leather, vinyl and acrylics to name but a few.
The old man regarded the modern designs as nothing more than, “mutton dressed as lamb.” Exasperated, he would say, “Fancy making a table out of teak, they use that cheap stuff to deck ships and build docks! What’s wrong with good old English oak? Look at it, it’s just a couple of boards with legs attached! No flippin’ style. Wouldn’t have it in the house if you were giving it away.”
And so, with such words of wisdom and learned teaching behind me, I began the journey to become a second generation antique dealer.
But things have a way of turning around. All that designer stuff from the ’60s and ’70sis going through something of a renaissance. People are beginning to appreciate, and pay top prices for, the beauty and austerity of the northern European designers.
Teak, in particular, is now sought out for its straight-grained beauty and warmth of colour. Far from being thrown together, the furniture of the ’60s was carefully crafted and the simplistic lines allowed for a “less is more” attitude.
The ’60s designers sought a look that was streamlined; they avoided unnecessary ostentation and decoration. Echoing the mindset of the North American Shaker and Eastlake designs of the early 1900s, the ’60s sought to combine form and function in a practical, yet aesthetically pleasing, form.
Gone were the ornate cabriole legs, the fancy moldings and curly-cues associated with the Victorian era. Elaborate heavy carvings vanished as sophisticated straight lines and gently flowing biomorphic shapes became the order of the day.
Until the end, my dad never did give credence for the new styles.
Instead, he remained “old school” and never for a moment did he consider the fact that his beloved Victorian and Georgian antique furniture was itself once new and in its day was considered as being cutting edge in terms of design and use of new materials.
So, whether new or old, how can you tell a good piece from a run-of-the-mill piece? As with all things in life, one word will suffice: Quality! A quality piece almost shouts at you. The style, the materials, the workmanship, they are all there in a good piece. With quality there is no need to consult the books. You don’t need the opinion of an expert. You simply need to “listen.”
Quality, from whatever era, will make itself known to you. If something doesn’t almost scream “quality,” pass it by and wait. If you don’t find it, it will find you.