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.
I am now only treating of furniture in general terms; but under this head may be discussed two important points connected with its ordinary manufacture, viz., veneering and carved work. The former has been so long in vogue, and is apparently so cheap and easy a means of obtaining a valuable result, that it is always difficult to persuade people of its inexpedience. I am aware that it has been condemned by some writers on the same grounds on which false jewellery should (of course) be condemned. But I think this is putting too strong a case. Besides, if we are to tolerate the marble lining of a brick wall and the practice of silver-plating goods of baser metal - now too universally recognised to be considered in the light of a deception - I do not see exactly how veneering is to be rejected on 'moral' grounds. The nature of walnut-wood prevents it from being used, except at a great expense, in any other way than as a veneer; and when, for instance in piano cases, the leaves are so disposed as to reverse their grain symmetrically, after the manner of the marble 'wall veils' of St. Mark, the arrangement is not only very beautiful in effect, but at once proclaims the means by which that effect is attained.
There are, however, many practical objections to the mode of veneering in present use. To cover inferior wood completely in this fashion, thin and fragile joints must be used, which every cabinetmaker knows are incompatible with perfect construction. The veneer itself is far too slight in substance, and, even when laid down with the utmost nicety, is liable to blister, especially when used for washing-stands, or in any situation where it is exposed to accidental damp. It is never worth while to buy furniture veneered with mahogany, for a little additional cost may procure the same articles in solid wood. Not long ago I had a substantial oak table made from my own design at a cost which was much less than that I should have paid for one veneered with rosewood or walnut.
The most legitimate mode of employing veneer would be in panels not less than a quarter of an inch in thickness, and, if used for horizontal surfaces, the inferior wood should be allowed to retain a border of its own in the solid. By this means no thin edges would be exposed to injury, and the design might be treated in an honest and straightforward manner.
The subject of carved work is a more important question, because nothing but a vigorous and radical reform will help us on this point. It may be laid down as a general rule, that wherever wood-carving is introduced in the design of modern furniture (I mean, of course, that which is exposed for ordinary sale), it is egregiously and utterly bad. It is frequently employed in the most inappropriate places - it is generally spiritless in design, and always worthless in execution. The wood-carver may indeed be an artist, but the furniture-carver has long since degenerated into a machine. The fact is that a great deal of his work is literally done by machinery. There are shops where enriched wood-mouldings may be bought by the yard, leaf-brackets by the dozen, and 'scroll-work,' I doubt not, by the pound. I use the word 'scroll-work' in its common acceptation to denote that indescribable species of ornament which may be seen round drawing-room mirrors and the gilded consoles of a pier-glass. It is not easy to say whence this extraordinary type of decoration first arose. The most charitable supposition is that, in its origin, it was intended for conventionalised foliage; in its present state it resembles a conglomeration of capital G's. Even if it were carved out of the solid wood, it would be very objectionable in design; but this trash is only lightly glued to the frame which it is supposed to adorn, and may indeed frequently be removed with infinite advantage to the general effect. The carving introduced in other articles of furniture is, as a rule, of a very meagre description. In fact, under existing circumstances, and until we can get good work of this kind, it would be far better to omit it altogether.
It is lamentable to notice also how much the turner's art has degenerated. Even down to the middle of the last century it was employed with great advantage in the manufacture of chairs, tables, bannister-rails, etc. The judicious association of the 'bead, fillet, and hollow' for mouldings was a simple, honest, and frequently effective mode of decoration. It still lingers in some of the minor articles of household use which have been allowed to escape the innovations of modern taste. Among these may be mentioned the common 'Windsor' chair and the bedroom towel-horse. A careful examination of these humble specimens of home manufacture will show that they are really superior in point of design to many pretentious elegancies of fashionable make. Indeed, I have generally found that the most commonplace objects of domestic use, in England as well as on the Continent, are sure to be the most interesting in appearance. We have at the present time no more artistic workman in his way than the country cartwright. His system of construction is always sound, and such little decoration as he is enabled to introduce never seems inappropriate, because it is in accordance with the traditional development of original and necessary forms.
It is to be feared that the decline of our national taste must be attributed to a cause which is popularly supposed to have encouraged a contrary effect, viz., competition. It is a general complaint with those who have the employment of art-workmen, that, while a higher price is paid for their labour, its result is not nearly so satisfactory as it was before the Great Exhibition of 1851. That, however, is a point on which it would be beside my present purpose to enter. But it is very certain that if our ordinary furniture has cheapened in price, it has also deteriorated in quality, while the best furniture has become extravagantly dear. Some time ago I visited the establishment of an upholsterer, who announced that to meet the requirements of the public he had taken up the specialite of mediaeval ' art. I inquired whether he had any drawing-room chairs in that style, and was shown some examples - rich in material, but very simple in construction. I inquired the price, and found it was no less than six guineas! Their prime cost must have been about 2l. 10s. It would be absurd to suppose that while such profits as this are demanded for every article of furniture which does not partake of the stereotyped form in use, we can ever hope for a revival of good manufacture. Anyone can get drawing-room chairs designed by an architect and executed by private contract for six guineas per chair. What the public wants is a shop where such articles are kept in stock and can be purchased for 2l. or 3l. Curiously enough, in these days of commercial speculation, there is no such establishment. People of ordinary means are compelled either to adopt the cheap vulgarities of Tottenham Court Road, or to incur the ruinous expense of having furniture 'made to order.'