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December 25, 2006

Furniture Frustrations

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

We wandered through two furniture stores the other evening while waiting to see a movie.

I saw almost nothing I considered worth buying.

This isn't new. Almost every time I've visited a furniture store in recent years, I've had the same experience.

And I find it disturbing. How can I be so far out of touch with the upper-middle class demographic represented by the Henredon (click on Furniture Gallery near the top to see examples) and Thomasville stores at Bellevue, Washington's Lincoln Square center, an extension of the posh Bellevue Square mall in the heart of Microsoft country.

Most of the items on display struck me as being either (1) fussy, (2) overblown, (3) too old-fashioned / traditional, (4) too delicate, or (5) uncomfortable. Many pieces score on several of those criteria along with others I didn't think to mention.

But the nub is that I really hate fussily over-detailed traditional style furniture, and that's what these stores featured.

Well, not quite. The Henredon gallery featured a (who else?) Ralph Lauren collection that really should have been called the "Donald Deskey Memorial Collection" after the noted Moderne designer. I made no effort to determine whether or not Lauren copied actual 1928-35 designs, but the items were certainly in the spirit of those times.

Actually, I'm very fond of industrial and interior designs of that era. But I wouldn't buy the stuff -- well, not more than a couple examples, maximum.

I fare no better in stores featuring contemporary designs. In October I came across a shop in Palo Alto that was solidly Modern. Many items were Certified Classical Modern carrying little tags or labels indicating that they were a van der Rohe Barcelona Chair or one or another Eames variety. Like Henredon, prices were way, way over my upper limit, instantly killing any possible deal. Plus there were contemporary Modern pieces. And the recent stuff struck me as generally austerely odd, unfriendly and uncomfortable.

So what do I like?

I prefer furniture that's basically simple and functional in form, yet has enough decoration to attract and hold interest. Craftsman and 1900 secession style items often fill that bill.

I also like Scandinavian Modern if it isn't utterly plain. This goes for a lot of the stuff I see in IKEA stores as well as the classic Danish varieties.

No doubt there are other kinds of furniture I would like if I knew about them; I have to confess (if it isn't already perfectly obvious) that I haven't paid much attention to furniture design for quite a while.

Nevertheless, it bothers me that my taste is so much at odds with today's various markets. Guess I'll just have to wait another 10-15 years till the world comes my way again.

Enough about me. What do the Henredon and Thomasville showroom contents offer in the way of Important Cultural-Artistic Insights?

I would say they mainly serve as confirmation that, while Modernism has won many battles, it has failed to win the aesthetic war.

This seems so where expensive items are concerned -- houses especially. In many larger metro areas one can find a few houses with strong earmarks of Corbusier, van der Rohe or Neutra, but my impression is that those are large, expensive dwellings. Other houses in that price class range from somewhat traditional (having at least a gabled roof, for instance) to being solidly in one traditional idiom or another so far as the exterior is concerned.

Furniture, being far less expensive than houses, is probably a less-skewed stylistic mix. Traditional houses might well contain several to many items of Modernist or semi-Modernist furniture.

(Thought: And how often do you find ultra-Modernist houses with Louis-the-whatever furniture?)

Okay. There are furniture stores in affluent suburbs offering traditional items to a presumably educated, sophisticated clientelle. Could this be a generation-related phenomenon? That is, what sort of furniture did buyers of traditional furniture grow up with?

To briefly return to me, a woman I worked with in Albany once claimed that tastes in furniture were pretty solidly set by age 25. I didn't grow up in a house with fancy, fussy French-style furniture. Moreover, Danish Modern was all the rage when a lot of taste-formation went on during my high school and college years.

Could it be possible that an IKEA-raised generation will be as impervious to traditional style as I am?



posted by Donald at December 25, 2006


Have you seen Thos. Moser furniture at Fine Furniture Gallery in Seattle?

I make my own, mostly built-in units. And, I like older Scandinavian designs updated such as Mora clocks and bed cabinets.

Posted by: Virgil K. Saari on December 25, 2006 8:39 PM

Here are two places I've browsed online; the 1st is in Seattle, the 2nd in Portland:
Velocity Art and Design
Hive Modern Design

I'm pretty poor, so I consider these pricey. Here are three good online places that are more affordable:

West Elm

Posted by: Agnostic on December 25, 2006 11:41 PM

Donald, as you can imagine, I can stretch on this topic indefinitely, but I'll control myself and just make few notes.
You are not the only one frustrated customer with means and let-down expectation on the furniture market, facing unappetizing choice of either faux traditional monstrosity or sterile chilliness of early modernism. [well, there are more equally unappealing varieties on retail market, but in relatively small percentage].

If you have time, I'll advise you to browse through archives at Look at their "open threads", and into the "products" section->furniture items: you'll see what majority of participants want and how they proposed to fill the void. Control group: educated active urbanites, which means: age - from 25 to 55, mostly college-modernist-indoctrinated, but reality-corrected later in life. In short: majority came to conclusions similar with yours (Danish Modern, early 70's and recent more or less knock-offs of the period) or decided go combination custom-built/eclectic. Exceptions allowed.

The age of the Henredon clientèle, in my opinion, doesn't matter that much. I'd say it's mentality of nouveau riche , itself a respectfully old American tradition. What's more, it's an international phenomenon; I can't tell you how many Russian emigrees I seen that fit this model: as soon as they earn enough to buy the house and furnish it according to "status", they fall into gold tassels, cornucopia carving and fluted columns - with occasional glass tabletop set on top; in other words, domain of Architectural Digest.

Why do you thing all those preposterous "home makeover" shows are so popular? There is a void, and somebody has to fill it.

God, I'm glad to be an interior designer.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 26, 2006 5:47 AM

There is no finer furniture than that produced in France for the aristocracy between about 1720 and 1770. As Kenneth Clark noted, they not only contrived furniture that was beautiful, but also comfortable. After two hundred years, as might be expected, it's still popular.

Posted by: Bob Grier on December 26, 2006 9:48 AM

This may be apropos of nothing, but it seems as if every other weekend I see people selling (mostly living room) furniture out of trucks parked in vacant lots and similar places. The trucks often bear the logo "Direct from North Carolina," or something to similar effect, as if production in the Tar Heel State is somehow a guarantee of quality.
I can't think of any other examples of costly merchandise being sold in such an informal manner.

Posted by: Peter on December 26, 2006 11:45 AM

Recently, I fell in love with non-linear shapes, particularly in furniture. Finding furniture without right angles culminated in the couch of my dreams, a 10K 1950s-duplication of Noguchi's freeform sofa. At that price, I got creative. I went to Home Depot, bought some one-inch plywood, ordered expensive foam and sculptured legs online. I had a metal guy weld a frame out of steel and the whole mess went to an upholster last week. In a month or so, I'll get it back.

For less than a fifth of the original price, I used Noguchi as an inspiration, substantially added my own ideas, and created a couch for much, much less expense.

Try it! You'll get the exact object of your imagination, in the proportions that fit your space. Quite nice, really.


Posted by: Kris on December 26, 2006 11:55 AM

The shelter mags seem to reflect the confusion described above. The "Country Home" crowd clings to "shabby chic" and the Bonded Gays produce marvelous and extremely expensive show-houses while the Cowboy&Indian slicks tout massive handmade sets for beams and stone walls. I stick pretty much to Mary Emmerling (white canvas slipcovers on overstuffed furniture, old stripped chests, massive library tables, lots of shelves and wicker) but she seems to be drifting herself of late.

Pottery Barn and the like have gone sombre and leathern lately. Around here the farm&ranch crowd likes dark-colored squashy recliners and monstro flat-screen TV. Everything else is just storage for music, movies and strange collections.

I suppose that if a person could get a real bead on demographics it would be helpful, but the factors (marriage, children, income, education) that would have impact mostly seem to be in flux. Today a single mother with two kids making a modest income -- tomorrow married with five kids and two big dogs -- day after tomorrow a divorcee with a cat and a Ph.D. The furniture surges around among ex's, neighbors, and relatives like flotsom and jetsam. I would bet there is as much furniture in storage as in use.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 26, 2006 3:58 PM

Gee, I'd say that if you can't find anything you could live with, or would want to live with at the Henredon store, you've led a pretty rarified existence. Admittedly there's nothing that stops you in your tracks; but there are some awfully handsome, solid, comfortable pieces. Many of us would salivate to live with such furnishings; but there's the slight problem of dollars, the lack thereof.

Posted by: ricpic on December 27, 2006 3:28 PM

After looking through the Henredon stuff, I can see Donald's point. I've never been a fan of the curved, ruffled Olde Worlde look, and too much of their furniture seems to fall into that category. But I know people who went out and bought into that sort of thing as soon as they could afford it - sooner, in a couple of cases.

The Moser site looks more like my speed, from what I've seen of it. The Craftsman/Arts and Crafts/Mission style is fine by me, as long as it's not too stark.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 27, 2006 8:19 PM

Oh, and as regards Tatyana's comment above, I've seen the same thing hit in other ethnic groups (Iranian, etc.) There really is a large industry devoted to fulfilling the expectations of people who come into money.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 27, 2006 9:57 PM

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