THE transient tenure that most of us have in our dwellings, and the absorbing nature of the struggle that most of us have to make to win the necessary provisions of life, prevent our encouraging the manufacture of well-wrought furniture.
We mean to outgrow our houses - our lease expires after so many years and then we shall want an entirely different class of furniture ; consequently we purchase articles that have only sufficient life in them to last the brief period of our occupation, and are content to abide by the want of appropriateness or beauty, in the clear intention of some day surrounding ourselves with objects that shall be joys to us for the remainder of our life. Another deterrent condition to making a serious outlay in furniture is the instability of fashion : each decade sees a new style, and the furniture that we have acquired in the exercise of our experienced taste will in all probability be discarded by the impetuous purism of the succeeding generation.
At present we are suffering from such a catholicity of taste as sees good in everything, and has an indifferent and tepid appreciation of all and sundry, especially if consecrated by age.
This is mainly a reaction against the austerity of those moralists who preached the logic of construction, and who required outward proof of the principles on which and by which each piece was designed.
Another cause prejudicial to the growth of modern furniture is the canonisation of old.
That tables and chairs should have lasted one hundred years is indeed proof that they were originally well made: that the conditions of the moment of their make were better than they are now is possible, and such aureole as is their due let us hasten to offer. But, to take advantage of their survival and to increase their number by facsimile reproduction is to paralyse all healthy growth of manufacture.
As an answer to the needs and habits of our ancestors of one hundred years ago - both in construction and design let them serve us as models showing the attitude of mind in which we should meet the problems of our day - and so far as the needs and habits of the present time are unchanged, as models of form, not to be incorporated with our vernacular, but which we should recognise as successful form, and discover the plastic secrets of its shape.
With this possession we may borrow what forms we will - shapes of the Ind and far Cathay - the whole wide world is open to us - of past imaginations and of the dreams of our own.
But without this master-key the copying is slavish, and the bondage of the task is both cruel and destructive.
Cruel, because mindless, work can be reproduced more rapidly than thoughtful work can be invented, and the rate of production affects the price of other articles of similar kind, so that the one dictates what the other shall receive ; and destructive, because it treats the craftsman as a mere machine, whose only standard can be mechanical excellence.
Now, all furniture that has any permanent value has been designed and wrought to meet the ends it had to serve, and the careful elaboration of it gave its maker scope for his pleasure and occasion for his pride.
If a man really likes what he has got to do, he will make great shifts to express and realise his pleasure ; he will choose carefully his materials, and either in playfulness of fancy, or in grave renunciation of the garniture of his art, will put the stamp of his individuality on his work.
An example of living art in modern furniture is a costermonger's barrow.
Affectionately put together, carved and painted, it expresses almost in words the pride and taste of its owner.
As long as we are incapable of recognising and sympathising with the delight of the workman in the realisation of his art, our admiration of his work is a pretence, and our encouragement of it blind - and this blindness makes us insensitive as to whether the delight is really there or no ; consequently our patronage will most often be disastrous rather than helpful.
The value of furniture depends on the directness of its response to the requirements that called it into being, and to the nature of the conditions that evoked it.
To obtain good furniture we must contrive that the conditions of its service are worthy conditions, and not merely the dictates of our fancy or our sloth.
At the present moment modern furniture may be roughly divided into two classes : furniture for service, and furniture for display. Most of us, however, have to confine ourselves to the possession of serviceable furniture only; and a more frank recognition of this limitation would assist us greatly in our selection. If only we kept our real needs steadily before us, how much more beauty we could import into our homes! Owing to lack of observation, and of experienced canons of taste, our fancies are caught by some chance object that pleases - one of that huge collection of ephemeral articles which " have been created to supply a want' that hitherto has never been felt - and as the cost of these fictions is (by the nature of the case) so low as to be of no great moment to us, the thing is purchased and helps henceforth to swell the museum of incongruous accumulation that goes by the name of a " furnished drawing-room."
A fancy, so caught, is soon outworn, but the precept of economy forbids the discharge of the superfluous purchase, and so it adds its unit to the sum of daily labour spent on its preservation and its appearance. This burden of unnecessary toil is the index of the needlessness and cruelty with which we spend the labour of those whom need has put under our service.
And the sum of money spent on these ill-considered acquisitions which have gone to swell the general total of distress, an ever-widening ring of bitter ripple, might, concentrated, have purchased some one thing, both beautiful and useful, whose fashioning had been a pleasure to the artificer, and whose presence was an increasing delight to the owner and an added unit to this world's real wealth.