The Georgian Effect

Friday 6 July 2018

Design is talked about freely in everyday conversations and I will wager you know more than you think about the subject. Line up half a dozen pieces from different periods or makers and you would most likely be able to identify them with their respective movements or styles. Whether you place them in chronological order is something quite different and not what this series is about. The aim is to demystify the subject by identifying historical influences that are present in modern-day design.

History has never been my strongest subject especially where dates are concerned, so early on I developed a language to help me identify furniture in an historical sense based largely on first impressions. By getting up close to furniture, information is absorbed almost by osmosis and I would encourage this wherever possible, whatever the period or style.

A familiarity with methods, materials and proportions makes appreciation of certain styles possible in a way that pure aesthetics cannot. In the same way that empathy gets you closer to understanding people than sympathy, first-hand experience of techniques is better than standalone knowledge.

Contemporary or traditional

Today makers by and large identify themselves and their work as being either contemporary or traditional, with a few sub-categories in between for those awkward folk who cannot bear to be labelled.

I do struggle a bit with this concept because there are so many parallels and lessons to be learned from these opposing schools of thought. I cut my teeth in the antiques business where furniture was the stock-in-trade and was taught that the Georgian period accounted for most of the 18th century. Looking back, that meant very little to me, as I was more interested in being able to spot a genuine article a mile off before anyone else could.

We refer to Georgian furniture and architecture as if they are one and the same, and in a way they are, but they rarely display their identifiable characteristics side-by-side or even at the same time. By its very nature, change in architectural style has a longer gestation period than furniture design so the shift from one form to the next is slower by comparison but far more incremental.

When I think of Georgian furniture I picture simplicity of form and a sense of balance and proportion that comes from an awareness of symmetry. Now that is not to say that Georgian furniture is plain. Nor is it rigid in its composition, for Georgian furniture is often decorative and embellished in a way that at first appears to be somewhat tawdry and in conflict with the period.

Fashionable decadence

The 18th century was a period of controlled exuberance defined by gracious living among some of the finest interiors ever conceived.

Selective ignorance of a world beyond the gated enclosures made decadence not only permissible but fashionable. Showing off was done in the best possible taste in a period that set the benchmark for furniture-making excellence ever since. It was the first time furniture could really be described as being refined in both concept and execution.

Appreciating all styles of furniture requires both a visual and mental dexterity that few of us can ever master. As a result furniture-making today has become fragmented by comparison as techniques from a bygone age get passed over or are considered out of date. Craftsmen throughout the centuries have been practical and inventive exponents of the art of consolidating technique and material to achieve ever-increasing standards. So should techniques ever be considered as vernacular and therefore irrelevant to contemporary makers or is there life in the old dog yet?

The pieces I associate primarily with this period are the tripod table and cabinets with glazed doors. Chests-on-chests were also prevalent with drawers a-plenty, all subtly graduated down in size, which is still one of the hardest things to get absolutely right.

Visit any gallery or exhibition of contemporary furniture today and you will find examples of Georgian craftsmanship spilling out of every dovetailed drawer and veneered carcass. They probably will not thank me for saying it, but Philip Dobbins, Toby Winteringham, Waywood and Timothy Mark have displayed pieces this year that exemplify all that is traditional about modern furniture. I call them 21st-century mavericks with 18th-century values.