Thursday, June 29, 2017

An Empire Chest in Yellow

The height of refinement and elegance, at least in my book. Empire (seen primarily from 1830-1900) is my favorite. Empire has been my favorite for a good long time, and that's an eyebrow raiser when I tell my antiques friends. Empire is often the least popular period in American furniture design. Why? I couldn't begin to tell you. The only real reasons I can think that Empire doesn't get it's due is
 1. Empire often breaks quintessential design rules in its form and design. There's a top heaviness to an empire piece; the ogee molding on the apron of a card table will be overwrought, the top drawer on a chest of drawers will be larger than the bottom ones, or they'll reverse graduate, with the largest at the top and the smallest at the bottom. It is, in general a bulky time for furniture, every big, over done, and in mahogany veneer.

2. Speaking of big and overdone, Empire furniture is heavy, both visually *see #1 above*, and physically. There's nothing an antiques dealer will grouse about more than a damn heavy piece of furniture. The heaviest piece of furniture I've ever met was an empire desk made c.1820 in upstate New York. It had a big dose of Egyptian Revival character, all kinds of crazy contrasting woods. It was a beast, right down to its giant bear paw feet. It was a triumph, and to date, my favorite piece of furniture I've ever seen.

3. Empire furniture was the transition moment in American furniture. It's when everything changed. It reaches its height riiiiiiight around the Civil War, and that just happens to also be the moment when we first see furniture production move from small scale, local shops- one in every town, or every other town, overseen by a master craftsman, staffed by a few journeymen and a fleet of sweating, gangly apprentices. It's really the cut off point for most fine furniture antiques dealers. Unless the piece is marvelous for some very individual reason (provenance, a charmingly naive folk art effort, a killer original decorative paint surface), you won't find much post 1850 furniture in a good dealer's booth.

Soooooooo, all that being said. Empire is MY favorite. And I think my opinion should be worth something! I work with a lot of furniture, I love furniture, and I love Empire the most. So as counterpoint to items 1-3 listed above, I offer this beauty. I dare you to tell me you don't love it.
Two especially lovely things about this particular c.1870 mahogany, mahogany veneer, and eastern white pine chest that I want to highlight: The top is a single solid mahogany board, and the original cabinetmaker labeled the backs of each of the drawers in a bold, dancing script- 1 through 4. Funnily, the drawer assignments are labeled four different times in four different hands on four different spots of each drawer. I decided to give our original cabinetmaker the final say, and yes indeedy, that is the order in which these old drawers still run the smoothest.

You can only really see the chalk inscription when the sun catches in just right, almost like Tolkien-ian moon letters.

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