This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
Real art has no recourse to such tricks as these. It can accommodate itself to the simplest and most practical shapes which the carpenter or potter has invented, as well as to the most delicate and subtle forms of refined manufacture. There is no limit to the height of dignity which it can reach; there is no level of usefulness to which it will not stoop. You may have a good school of design for the art-workman - you may have a bad school of design for the art-workman; but you can have no grand school, for both the blacksmith and the goldsmith are bound by aesthetic laws of equal importance, and the same spirit which guides the chisel must direct the lathe.
In order to rightly estimate the artistic value and fitness of that superfluous detail which is called ornament, we should first ask ourselves whether it indicates by its general character the material which it enriches, or of which it is itself composed. If it does not, we may fairly question the propriety of such ornament; but if it suggests the idea of a different material, we may be sure it is bad. To a certain extent this principle is admitted by people of ordinary taste. No householder would think of allowing the panels of his cabinet to be painted like an Indian shawl, however beautiful the pattern on it might be. Nor would he tolerate a tablecloth of which the ornament was disposed in the form of door-panels. But his aversion to such examples of misapplied design would proceed from no deep-seated convictions on the subject; he would simply dislike to see a mode of decoration adopted for which he remembered no precedent. Show the same man a pink landscape at the bottom of a washing-basin, or a piece of bed-furniture printed in imitation of carved scroll-work, and, just because he has been accustomed to see such things all his life, they will seem right and proper in his eyes. Yet it is not a whit worse to give wood the appearance of textile fabric than to let chintz be stained and shaded like solid wood; nor is our supposititious tablecloth at all inferior in design to the pictorial absurdities which, not many years ago, we embodied in our crockery.
There is a general impression prevailing among people who are interested in the subject of art-manufacture, that well-designed furniture must necessarily be expensive. The upholsterers themselves are inclined to foster this notion; and whenever they bring out a new type of chair or cabinet which has any pretence to originality or excellence of form, they are sure to charge exorbitantly for it, because it is a novelty. Now it may, indeed, happen that what are called 'fancy' articles, being made with a view to attract the notice of individual customers, cost more than those intended for general sale, because the former are manufactured in small quantities at a time, whereas the latter are produced in wholesale lots. But it is hard that the public should have to pay for a commercial mistake due to the apathy of tradesmen. Good artistic furniture ought really to be quite as cheap as that which is ugly. Every wretched knot of carving, every twist in the outline of a modern sofa, every bead and hollow executed by the turner's wheel, has been the result of design in some form or another. The draughtsman and mechanic must be paid, whatever the nature of their tastes may be; and no doubt as much thought, labour, and expense of material are bestowed on modern upholstery as would be necessary to ensure (under proper supervision) the highest qualities of which the cabinetmaker's art is capable.
The drawing room chairs of which illustrations are here given were recently made from my design at a price which certainly did not exceed what would have been charged for such articles at any ordinary shop. I can at least testify to the excellence of their manufacture. They were constructed of oak, covered with velvet, and trimmed with silk fringe.
The truth is that even bad ornament is costly; and as there is a great deal of bad ornament in modern work, it is far better, while the present state of things continues, to choose the very plainest and simplest forms of domestic furniture procurable at the shops. These will, at least, be in better taste than the elaborate deformities by which they are surrounded. That they are not always cheaper may be judged from the following anecdote : A gentleman recently observed at one of the furnishing warehouses a light cane-seated chair of a very ordinary description, but the design of which, with the exception of a certain bit of ornamental carving, pleased him. He inquired the price, and was told, thirty shillings.
'And what would it cost if that ornament were omitted ?' he asked.
'Thirty-five shillings,' was the answer.
Here we have a crown extra charged for the superior intelligence required from a British workman - simply to omit a portion of his labour. This affords some clue to the extraordinary stagnation of art-impulses in this branch of manufacture. A certain shape is fixed upon - no one knows why - for the rail or leg of a chair, and, once executed, is multiplied indefinitely - whether by hand or by machinery it matters little. It is made, as it were, by rote, and doubtless contracted for at per gross. It would be absurd to expect furniture made in this way to possess any great refinement of design. But in general form, at least, it might be picturesque and sturdy, and these are just the qualities overlooked by cabinetmakers and joiners in their work, which is generally frail and uninteresting.