Fine Furniture in Context

It is not uncommon to come across a piece of fine furniture in terrible settings such as dark cluttered rooms full of execrable pieces of furniture and odds-and-ends. This sad state of affairs has become all the more prevalent since the explosion in the availability of cheap or indifferent factory-made furniture. People don't think twice about buying a piece of furniture that catches their fancy and bringing it into already stuffed rooms in our small contemporary homes. The result is an eclectic collection of often terrible furniture, a hideous mishmash amidst which at times a piece of fine furniture languishes, completely overshadowed, diminished and robbed of all dignity.

Fine furniture must be viewed in context, in a setting. Just as one would not normally place a great painting, or even a fine reproduction of one, between say two cupboards in a dreary bathroom or in one dark corner of a room, a piece of fine furniture needs a decent setting, like a great painting needs a good frame and an open well lit wall.

The Empire Hall is one of the numerous rooms at the Winterthur Museum. Each room represents a period, style or region in American furniture history. This room represents the Empire style in furniture that became popular during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. This style, which was dominant in the period 1795-1830, was heavily inspired by Roman and Egyptian motifs. In England it was known as the Regency style. In the United States, the great cabinetmakers Duncan Phyfe and Charles-Honore Launnuier were its chief proponents. All the furniture in this room belongs to that style and the room's décor matches that period, thus determining the room's elegance and splendour. Photograph: courtesy Winterthur Museum

Moreover, a single or a couple of pieces of fine furniture cannot determine the aesthetics of a room or setting. Rather, fine furniture ought to be a part of a larger harmonious whole. The aesthetics of a room is defined by its overall decor, furniture style, accessories, palette and so on. Compatibility and harmony are key.

Ana Lopez, the Houston based designer, metalsmith and teacher, points out that this is the concept behind gesamptkunstwerk - the total work of art. "This ideal, begun by Otto Wagner and a central precept of the Weiner Werkstatte, idealised a fully designed home from flatware to the architecture", she explains.

The ultimate objective of an aesthetically pleasing setting is to create a sense of emotional wellbeing in its user. Humans like beautiful, harmonious settings and go to great lengths and spend vast amounts of money to enjoy pleasant settings, whether it be a swanky restaurant, a holiday spot or a hotel. An aesthetic setting at home can be a great asset and generate mental repose and gratification.

Memorial Library at the Winterthur Museum. Painted in a shade of green and panelled, this room houses chairs of the Chippendale period and upholstered chairs of the Federal or late Chippendale periods. The palette of greens, browns and reds creates a calm and pleasing atmosphere. Photograph: Indranil Banerjie

The du Pont Dining Room at the Winterthur Museum was where Mr. du Pont entertained and dined. The décor and furniture are of the classical style. The sideboards and table are typical Federal period pieces. The carpet too matches the setting. Photograph: Indranil Banerjie

The importance of setting is well appreciated by furniture connoisseurs, architects and interior decorators. During my visit to the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, USA, I discovered the importance of setting. The Museum's founder, the late Henry Francis DuPont recreated period rooms in his museum corresponding to different American styles and periods. Furniture viewed in a larger, congruous context and in keeping with a particular style rises to another level, revealing its full glory,

A room need not be stuffed with great or expensive pieces of furniture; even a sparsely but tastefully furnished room with compatible pieces and matching décor could be a good setting for fine furniture. Arts and Crafts Movement founder William Morris had once remarked: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."

In an aesthetically pleasing but unadorned setting, even a single piece of furniture could serve as a accent piece elevating the entire mood of the setting.

But the key is harmony and setting. Even the Kohinoor in its original earthy settings knew no splendour. It achieved lustre only after it was polished and set in a crown.

Indranil Banerjie
29 January 2020