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Painted Furniture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The love of color which is strong in human nature is shown in the welcome which has been given to painted furniture. If we turn back to review the past we find this same feeling cropping out in the different periods and in the different grades of furniture. The furniture of the Italian Renaissance was often richly gilded and painted; the carved swags of fruit, arabesques, and the entwined human figures, were painted in natural colors, or some of the important lines of the furniture were picked out with color or gold, or both. As the influence of the Renaissance spread to France and England, changed by the national temperament of the different countries, we find their furniture often blossoming into color—not covered by a solid coat of paint but picked out here and there by lines and accenting points. During the time of Louis XIV everything was ablaze with gold and glory, but later, during the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, a gentler, more refined love of color came uppermost, and the lovely painted furniture was made which has given so much inspiration to our modern work. The simpler forms of the Louis XV period, and the beautiful furniture of the Louis XVI period, were often painted soft tones of ivory, blue, green, or yellow, and decorated with lovely branches of flowers, birds, and scenery where groups of people by Fragonard and other great painters disported with all their eighteenth century charm. These decorations were usually painted on reserves of old ivory with the ground color outside of some soft tone. Martin, the inventor of famous "vernis Martin," flourished at this time, and the glow of his beautiful amber-colored finish decorated many a piece of furniture from sewing boxes to sedan chairs. In England the vogue of painted furniture was given impetus by the genius of the Adam Brothers and the beautiful work of Angelica Kaufmann, Cipriani, and Pergolesi. In both France and England there was at this time the comprehension and appreciation of beauty and good taste combined with a carefree gaiety which made the ineffable charm of the eighteenth century a living thing. There are some of our modern workmen and painters of furniture who feel this so thoroughly that their work is very fine, but the majority have no knowledge or understanding of the period, and, although they may copy the lovely things of that time, the essence, the true spirit, is lacking. Cabinet making and painting in those days was a beloved and honored craft; to-day, alas, it is too often a matter of union rules.

Chinese lacquer, while not strictly coming under the head of painted furniture, was another branch of decorated furniture which was in great demand at this time. The design in gold was done on a black or red or green ground and was beautiful in effect.

While the upper classes were having this beautiful furniture made for their use, the peasant class was serenely going on its way decorating its furniture according to its own ideas and getting charming results. The designs were usually conventionalized field flowers done with great spirit and charm. From the peasants of Brittany and Flanders and Holland have come down to us many beautiful marriage chests and other pieces of furniture which are simple and straightforward and a bit crude in their design and color, but which have done much to serve as a help and guide in our modern work.

The supply of painted furniture today is inspired by these different kinds of the great periods of decoration. There are many grades and kinds in the market, some very fine, keeping up the old traditions of beauty, some charming and effective in style and color, but with a modern touch, and some very very bad indeed ; "and when they are bad they are horrid." I have said a great deal in other chapters on this subject, but I cannot too often urge those of my readers who have the good fortune to live near one of our great art museums to study for themselves the precious specimens of the great days of genius. It will give a standard by which to judge modern work, and it is only by keeping our ideals and demands high that we can save a very beautiful art from deteriorating into a commercial affair.

When selecting painted furniture, one can often have some special color scheme or decoration carried out at a little extra expense; and this is well worth while, for it takes away the "ready made" feeling and gives the touch of personality which adds so much to a home. One must see that the furniture is well made, that the painting and finishing are properly done, and that the decoration is appropriate. If the furniture is of one of the French periods, it should be one of the simpler styles and should be painted one of the soft ground colors used at the time, and the decoration should have the correct feeling—flowers and birds like those on old French brocade or toile de Joey or old prints. The striping should be done in some contrasting color or in the wonderful brownish black which they used. The design may be taken from the chintz or brocade chosen for the room, but the painting must be done in the manner of the period. This holds true of any English period chosen, such as Adam furniture or the painted furniture of Sheraton. There are several firms who make a specialty of this fine grade of furniture, but it is not made by the car load; in fact it is usually special order work. The kind one finds most often in the shops is furniture copied from the simpler Georgian styles or simple modern pieces slightly reminiscent of Craftsmen furniture, but not heavy or awkward in build. This furniture is painted in different stock colors and designs, or can be painted according to the purchaser's wishes as a special order. These "stock" designs are often stenciled, but some of them have an effective charm and are suitable to country houses, and also many city ones. When there is much chintz used, the furniture will often be more attractive if it is only striped with the chief color used in the room. The designs which are to be avoided are of the Art Nouveau and Cubist variety, roses that look like cabbages gone crazy, badly conventionalized flowers, and crude and revolting color schemes. It sounds as if it should not be necessary to warn people against these monstrosities, and I have never heard of any one who buys them, but some one must do so, or they would not be in the shops.

Attractive and inexpensive painted furniture can be made to be used in simple surroundings by buying slat-backed chairs with splint seats and a drop-leaf pine table and having them painted the desired ground color and then striped and decorated with a motif from the chintz to be used in the room. A country house dining-room or bedroom could be most charmingly fitted up in this way, chintz cushions could be used on the chairs, and candle shades could be made to match. One can sometimes find a bed or chest of drawers or other piece of furniture which is a bit shopworn and can be had for a bargain. Old bureaus can be made to serve as chests of drawers by taking the mirror off and using it as a wall mirror. In many houses there are old sets of ugly furniture which can be made useful and often attractive by having the jigsaw carving removed and painting them. In a set of this kind, which I was doing over for a client, there happened to be two beds with towering headboards, quite impossible to use, but I combined the two footboards, thus making one attractive bed. The furniture was painted a soft pumpkin yellow, striped with blue and with little, old-fashioned nose-gays, and a lovely linen with yellow and cream stripes and baskets of flowers was used and turned a dark and dreary room into a cheerful and pretty one.

One can find some kind of suitable painted furniture for nearly every room in the average modern house. People everywhere are turning away more and more from the heavy, depressing effects of a few years ago; but unless they know the ground they are walking on they must tread with care. The style chosen must be appropirate and in scale with the style of house. The fine examples would look quite out of place in a bungalow or very simple house, and the simple kind founded on peasant designs would not be suitable in rooms with paneled walls and lovely taffeta curtains. In Georgian and simple French designs there are fascinating examples of chairs, settees and tables, corner cupboards and sideboards, beds and dressing-tables and chests of drawers, mirrors and footstools and candlesticks, everything both big and little which can be used in almost any of our charming rooms in the average house, with their fresh chintz and taffeta and well planned color schemes.

Lacquered furniture is more formal than the average painted furniture, and often one or two pieces are sufficient for a room. A beautiful lacquered cabinet with its fascinating mounts and its soft, wonderful red or black and gold tones is a thing to conjure with. Lacquered furniture is lovely for some dining-rooms and morning-rooms. The tables should always be protected with glass tops, which also applies to other painted furniture.

One or two pieces of painted furniture may be used in a room with other furniture if they happen to be just the thing needed to complete the scheme. A console table, for instance, with a mirror over it and sidelights, might be just the touch needed between two windows hung with plain taffeta curtains. Like all good things there must be restraint in using it, but there are few things that have greater possibilities than painted furniture when properly used.



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