Friday was a reading day – beginning about six-ish with The Private World of Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Bergé, Elizabethan Architecture, and Mark Hampton: American Decorator. Van Day Truex and I landed together on the library sofa sometime in the afternoon.
In Van Day Truex: The Man Who Defined Twentieth-Century Taste and Style it is mentioned that Truex had written an article about Jean-Michel Frank for Architectural Digest in 1976. I remembered that amongst my stack there were some issues, two in the event, that had essays by Truex but neither turned out to be the one I was looking for. What I did find was an essay Van Day Truex on Design subtitled Reproduction Furniture: The Pros and Cons - an essay definitely grist to my mill.
"There is no question that those of us who are interested in our own times in design prefer the contemporary solutions. We usually prefer to possess a contemporary design and, if we select from the past, we prefer the original, not the reproduction.
"There are certain situations that justify reproduction. I quote William Gaylord in Architectural Digest, May/June 1977, concerning the four Louis XVI armchairs in the living room of his San Francisco apartment: 'The only reason I have Louis XVI armchairs is that I have never sat in a chair more comfortable.' He possessed two signed original examples and he has expertly reproduced two more to fill the need of a dominating group of four in his eclectic apartment. I wish he had added to his reasons: 'and because they are subtly designed, so excellent in their restrained use of moldings and other architectural motifs.' In other words, so successful in function, form and embellishment."
Van Day Truex also mentions a David Adler house the dining room that contained eleven reproductions of one original Chippendale chair and that for him, "The original possessed such bold style and comfort, I did not question the urge to reproduce, because the reproductions gave a strong rhythmic emphasis to the room."
Further, he opines, "I wonder if our dislike of a copy in furniture, when we cannot possess the original, stems from the sorry state of too much reproducing and too many inferior examples - a choice not determined by a designer's eye but one that is mainly and plainly promotional in character."
"I would like to see a list of furniture designs from the earliest production to the present moment, selected by a top-ranking designer - the choice determined by a highly sensitive objective eye choosing models of lasting, timeless merit. Herein would appear examples that are purely functional, such as an Egyptian folding X-stool, an early Chinese console, simple chairs and tables from the eighteenth-century - excellent in proportion and function, with the minimum of superficial decoration; certain Shaker designs, some Thonet models. There has been too little production of such expertly selected examples and far too much of badly selected designs."
Towards the end of his essay, Truex asks why we should be deprived of good furniture design from the past just because we can't have the original. "We use beautiful Edwardian chintz patterns, we continue to enjoy Morris wallpapers, we copy from primitive African fabric patterns."
He continues with what I think the most interesting thought of all in light of the growth of interior design marketing since the 1980s: "As furniture becomes more edited, as we use more built-in storage space and more upholstered pieces, we are eliminating more and more unnecessary furniture. This means there is all the more need for the remainder to be well-designed. The criterion should really be quality of design."
Perhaps one aspect of design that Truex did not foresee was the alliance between manufacturing, marketing, morality and mindset - the you deserve it approach, for example. That he foresaw modern America "eliminating more and more unnecessary furniture" is of the greatest irony – for nowhere in contemporary design is that to be seen, either in fact or as an idea for discussion.
On reading Truex's very polite biography, it becomes clear his aesthetic and by extension that of his friends, Billy Baldwin and Roderick Cameron, is as straightforward as his food and clothing – the one simple, fresh and moderate, served on restrained, but not necessarily undecorated, china; the second lucid, elegant and well-tailored. To put it another way, there should be neither physical gluttony nor aesthetic greed. Somewhere along the line, the phrase the elegance of refusal has become attached to my memory. It is a concept with which we no doubt all would agree – provided we do not have to practice it.
I'm not writing a polemic here, but surely to discriminate is to have learned, to have trained not only the eye but also the wallet; to have understood basic principles of proportion, space and even time. To chose is to not uncritically accept brand as signifier of quality. To distinguish is to think. To think, to know, to discern, to be critical, is to be educated. I do not believe in innate taste; however, I do think a predilection for exercising critical faculties is both innate and something that can be enhanced by practice and training. Education is all.
So what is authenticity? If a chair is made using the same methods and materials as its antique prototype, is it any less authentic for being a copy? Of course, pedigree plays an important role, especially when one draws near to the border between authentic and counterfeit. In that word authentic lies a whole world of assurance of quality yet I wonder if that very assurance is in itself a mere counterfeit.
Quotations from an essay entitled Van Day Truex on Design, subtitled Reproduction Furniture: The Pros and Cons published in Architectural Digest October 1977.
Photo by Russell MacMasters from Architectural Digest, May/June 1977.
Van Day Truex: The Man Who Defined Twentieth-Century Taste and Style, Adam Lewis, Viking Studio, Penguin Group 2001.