Friday, May 27, 2016

From the Dawn of Man to the Roman Empire... A Short History of Chairs: Part I

Sometimes there are things that we take for granted because they seem so obvious and straight forward that we can’t imagine a time when they didn’t exist or at least weren't very common. One example… space. Not the kind of space with the stars and planets, but rather, the empty space between words. Believe it or not, that little space has only been around since the 8th century when monks decided that readingasentencewithoutspaceswastoohard… Can you imagine trying to get through War & Peace without spaces? Even Harry Potter wouldn’t have been much fun.

Another example is the wheel. The west has had wheels for thousands of years going back far beyond Egyptian and Roman chariots. In the Americas however, the wheel didn’t really exist until the Europeans brought it with them. Which probably explains why there’s no equivalent to “All roads lead to Rome” here…

Then of course there are chairs… The basic concept of a chair as we know it today was largely foreign to most people until the middle ages. It’s not exactly that chairs didn’t exist, they did, but the idea of a chair you can pull up to the dinner table or that you can crowd around a games table to play cards didn’t really exist for most people until after the Dark Ages.

Before that the notion of sitting did exist, but chairs weren’t really part of the equation. Archaeological digs suggest that seats existed in China as far back as 10,000 BC, but they were far from chairs however, probably just blocks of stone for one or more person to sit on. Indeed, although seating elements existed, most Chinese did not use them, preferring instead to kneel or sit on pillows or mats on the ground. Today this culture has been abandoned in much of the Far East, but it remains in some places, most notably in Japan where cushions and low tables are widespread.

Throne discovered in the tomb of King Tut
The Egyptians used seating as well, and did indeed actually have chairs. Early indications are that chairs evolved from simple backless stools to sophisticated chairs with backs over 5,000 years ago. By the time of King Tut in fact, chairs were nothing less than works of art unto themselves. His tomb included a number of dazzling gold plated benches and chairs.

Hieroglyphic evidence from ancient Egypt suggests that chair usage, while not as pervasive as in modern times, was found at all levels of society. This did not mean however that chair usage was common. In fact, chairs were often ceremonial pieces and were usually reserved for the head of the household. For those in the society's the lower economic strata, seats were usually little more than a stool with no back while those in the upper strata would have ornate chairs that bring to mind something closer to a throne than a chair. Interestingly, the root of the word chair actually means to sit or rest, which any common person could do, while the root of the word throne means to support, as in support the nobility or royalty.

The contributions of Egyptian artisans are said to have laid the foundation for all seating furniture: These early examples demonstrate basic woodworking skill, which gradually gave way to advanced techniques in woodworking, including sophisticated joints, veneering, ivory and precious metal inlays, and cushioning of virtually all available materials.

Throne and benches in the Palace of Minos
The use of seating was common in other cultures as well in the centuries before Christ. In Mesopotamia, where most citizens lived at ground level – resting on mats and rugs – nobility typically enjoyed seating of various sorts, particularly chairs. Interestingly, unlike the Egyptians, whose chairs evolved to curve to the body, in the various kingdoms of Mesopotamia they seem to have stuck with the rigid and straight construction which was much more formal.

On the island of Crete, the Palace of Minos at Knossos showcased 2nd century Minoan seating with a throne carved into the stone wall, and benches lining the remainder of the walls. Later the Greeks would develop an extensive array of seating, from stools to chairs to lounge beds, although seating remained elements of the daily life largely for – although not exclusively – the well to do citizens. Importantly, the Greeks seem to have elevated the notion of comfort in the area of seating, departing from prior civilizations where functionality was usually the driving force.

With the Romans however, the bed began to take primacy as the place where men would spend much, if not most of their time.  Indeed, between eating, reading, writing and entertaining there probably wasn’t a great deal they did outside of their beds other than maybe visiting the baths or the Coliseum. Everyone else, including women, children and servants were largely relegated to benches or stools. Eventually however women seem to have transitioned to the use of beds as the primary locus of the day’s activity as well.

After the fall of the Roman Empire seating virtually disappeared from the west as the conquering nomadic tribes had little use for carting around furniture they were unfamiliar with in the first place and which would needlessly weigh them down in the second. All was not lost however as the Church would keep seating from completely disappearing in the west so that it could emerge centuries later and achieve unimagined heights.

Among items found in King Tut's tomb were chairs, beds and stools.

A Pair of 19th Century Italian Painted Curule Chairs

A French Late 19th Century- Early 20th Century Louis XVI Style Marquise Chair

A chair found in King Tut's tomb.

An Exquisite Swedish 19th Century Neoclassical Painted Wood Upholstered Tub Chair

Fifth century BC Persian King Darius on his throne.  Notice the footstool to help maintain good posture.  

A Pair of Italian "Dante" Style Wooden Chairs

Athenian politician Xanthippos sitting on a klismos chair.

An Italian Early 19th Century Wooden Chair with Animal Feet and Semi-Circular Back 


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Totally True Secret History of Antiques

Antiques are, by definition, old. Of course the definition of old is relative. My Nokia 5110 phone, which I stumbled across just last week, is an antique and it’s less than 20 years old. In Georgia you can get a special “Antique” license plate if your car is 25 years old. In the world of furniture and furnishings, for a piece to be designated antique, it usually must be 100 years old. Indeed, that is exactly how the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency defines antiques.

One of the great things about an item being old is the fact that it has a lot of history... which can often be quite interesting. As we have many pieces that are quite old, we wondered what stories they might have to tell. Below are some totally true, completely plausible, possibly embellished narratives from various pieces we have. Did we mention that they are totally true?

First we have a Swedish Karl Johan drop front painted wood desk with many tiny drawers and cubbyholes. Dating back to the 19th century, this desk has almost 200 years’ worth of history associated with it. If we look closely we can see a scene from its first installation into the home of its original owner, who appears to be a Stockholm merchant. He may well have used this desk to do the books for his business or maybe record his winnings and losings at the baccarat tables. He may also have used it to write love letters to his Spanish wife who was born and raised in Barcelona and refused to spend her winters in Stockholm. While the winters were long without her, the nine months she spent with him each year more than made it worth the annual parting.

Later, somewhere in pre WWI America the desk was found sitting in the den of an American industrialist whose family immigrated to Pennsylvania after famine struck Sweden in 1866. There it mostly gathered dust as it held black and white photographs of his family, including his favorite, a picture of his father and mother riding in a carriage.

Chandeliers, unlike desks, which are generally used by one person at a time, can brighten the world of dozens or more people at the same time. This Italian crystal Empire style chandelier, hanging in a palace overlooking Lake Como, brightened the room of countless balls and galas and dinner parties during its lifetime. Indeed, it once illuminated the room where ballerina Pierina Legnani found herself somewhat wobbly while entertaining a small group of friends after a long evening of wine tasting. Later it would brighten the evenings in a private school library in Connecticut, where the students who should have been studying were spending most of their time writing mischievous notes to one another, usually about one of their teachers.

Chests are wonderful pieces of furniture as they hold many of our worldly… and most intimate possessions. This particular 18th century French five drawer chest appears to have belonged to one of Queen Marie Leszczyńska's (Louis XV's wife) ladies in waiting. In the middle left drawer, behind her delicates, she hid whist cards she would “appropriate” from time to time during evenings spent in Versailles’s Games Room. She would invariably bring the cards back and would smile and feign ignorance as confusion ensued when someone noticed there were too many cards in the deck.

Later it belonged to an upscale Paris haberdasher who employed a barber for just one special customer, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who would soon be elected President of the Second French Republic. Crowned as Napoleon III after his coup d'etat in 1851, Louis-Napoléon enjoyed having his handlebar mustache and chin puff goatee trimmed and waxed every Thursday afternoon.

Eventually the chest would make its way to London and found itself in America in April 1915, having traveled on the RMS Lusitania’s final successful transatlantic crossing before she was sunk by a German U-Boat later that month off the coast of Ireland.

Of course we can’t be sure that any of these stories are actually true, but who knows? They could be... But whatever the case, one of the beautiful things about antiques is that they let us dream about the secret stories they have to tell. Maybe we can’t yet travel back in time to discover the real stories, but it’s a lot of fun to imagine what they might be while we’re busy making stories of our own today that people will dream about tomorrow.

A Vintage Italian Gilded and carved wooden mirror... Is it possible that this mirror was the one Sophia Loren used to use when setting her hair as she was growing up in Pozzuoli, a little village not far from Naples?

This pair of 19th Century French Louis XVI Style wingback chairs could be from a smoky back room at Les Deux Magots, where regular guest Hemingway might have had long meandering conversations with Picasso or James Joyce or Bertolt Brecht  as they tried drink one another under the nearest table.  

A richly carved French wooden drop-front nightstand that might have been used by Jules Verne to keep his notes for ideas as he was writing "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" or "Journey to the Center of the Earth" or "Around the World in Eighty Days".  

This exquisite 18th Century Spanish two-drawer console  could very well have been a table upon which famed architect Antoni Gaudí sketched out his designs, its simple lines and dark colors providing a stark contrast to his Catalan Modernism.

This 19th Century English settee could have been part of the furnishings of Blenheim Palace, where a young Winston Churchill might have rested from his busy mornings of conducting war games with his collection of 1,500 toy soldiers.