Monday, August 2, 2010


A few days ago in a post based on a comment I made to Mr Victoria and to some extent lamenting the lack of discrimination in modern design, I used phrases such as "inspired by...," "in the manner of... " and "an homage to..." which to me are all euphemisms for that well-known to-the-trade-over-a-drink phrase – not that anyone would impolitic enough to tell the emperor he's nekkid – "knock-off." I concluded by saying that authenticity is almost as slippery a notion as chic, and to my mind all the more interesting in a society where furniture designs cannot be copyrighted.

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.


  1. Yes, I agree. Good and "true" reproduction is fine by me, the better that it should not look any different from the piece it copies. There are many things that I would not want to reproduce, so again, having learned about a piece or its time is important, and I believe that discernment is innate, but one fine tunes it as you get older; and that applies to many things.

  2. Wonderful post, Blue - it touched so many corners of the issue that I don't know where to begin! But I will confine myself and say that it sounds like an intriguing essay which I agree with and stats it much more gracefully than I can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with quality reproduction furniture - especially as it allows more people to enjoy these designs than would be the case if we only had the originals. By far the greater number of our clients will opt for a contemporarily made piece if it means avoiding the premium put on an original for its provenance. The issue changes in my eyes though as the client becomes less aware/concerned with the quality of the piece and only its price, however. But the idea of looking down at "copies" is misplaced when they are well made and especially since it is from these originals that we learn about good design. Besides that; I loved the way the post touched on the evolution of US consumer culture, and MOST of all, that such a thoughtful piece was published in AD! Wow. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for this interesting post. The excerpts from the article seem relevant these days. What concerns me about reproductions (and here I speak of poorly executed ones) is the issue of the eventual blurring of lines between poor quality, value and intention. Artists speak of the same with regards to their work.

    Though I admittedly work in the antiques/art trade, I also truly believe that there is a sense of loss here. Just as the written word loses something on a kindle for example, so does an original lose part of its soul.

  4. Mr Victoria, thank you. Years ago I knew a decorator who supplied many a "cake left out in the rain" piece of furniture, urethane frames for mirrors and that dreadful object "art work", resin, or plastic as I first knew it, statuary and as long as his clients were convinced it was a good look at a good price he was successful.

    Van Day Truex used to take his students to the Metropolitan Museum and to French museums to study fine and decorative art - actually study, not just traipse by in a desultory manner. Luckily there is a good collection of furniture at the High Museum here in Atlanta and our Governor's Mansion has one of the best collections of American furniture - Lannuier et al - but it is difficult to work around the First Lady's schedule. Field trips are on the menu for the fall semester. Perhaps New York too. We'll see.

  5. Author, thank you. When too often "price point" is considered before the object itself, lines will continue to be blurred, in my estimation, and we are all increasingly the poorer for it. Discernment is not innate but it can only be taught - it's really a simple matter of study. More and more Dorothy Parker's "you can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think" comes to mind.

    We are at a point where the industrial revolution's effects are paramount - to the detriment of the environment both physical and moral. I think the sense of loss is enormous and not imaginary. As to the Kindle, I'm not the person to divest myself of a roomful of books for the so-called convenience of a sliver of plastic and e-paper for my reading pleasure.

    Oh, there is so much more to discuss - so, again, thank you.

  6. oh my! My head is spinning... will have to sleep on this! Wonderful, interesting, thought-provoking post as always!


  7. I know the expansive Gaylord sitting room in the photograph very well (and there was very scant change in the era of the successor tenant). It was a space of great warmth, superb groupings and circulation, but wholly devoted to the evening, as indeed was its designer. His explanation of choosing Louis XVI is exactly the way he would have put it, admitting that he would have given the chair the benefit of expectation, and tested very few others thereafter.

  8. Laurent, thank you. I've read your blog for a while and intended to put it on my blog roll, and I just did.

    You remark on Mr Gaylord's devotion to the evening and so it was with many of his contemporaries. In those years, less sedate than today (unless it is I who has grown sedate) social life began at sundown if not a little later. I fully understand William Gaylord's attitude to his chairs - if it is right then probably it will be right for a long time to come. Summed up in the phrase "if it ain't broke ..... "

    I have a friend who knew Gaylord when he was just beginning and to the end of his short life. A remarkable talent, I feel.

  9. I really detest gossip and indulged in it here only by way of substantiating great delight in seeing that space again.

    I admire your work (in this space) sincerely, and gladly consider the compliment of your readership to have a dimension framed, also, by a warm and inviting room on Russian Hill, created by a thoughtful host. This was his quite outstanding and heartbreakingly genuine gift.

  10. Laurent, thank you. There will be another Gaylord post coming up in the near future - about a hotel he decorated.