The most popular furniture styles of all time originated in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In fact, this period of time is referred to as the “Golden Age” of furniture. The furniture of this period was made for the rich. These consumers were concerned with the beauty that furniture could add to their homes and had very little regard for cost. As a result, the furniture was magnificent and the styles have been imitated ever since. It is still the dominant inspiration for furniture and interior woodwork styling today.
A different sort of influence on style emerged as technology developed in the 19th century. Mass production made furniture affordable to the growing middle class. The development of machinery changed the way furniture was produced. This change included the opportunity to produce a certain form of carving referred to as “machine carving.” At one point, manufacturers actually competed on the basis of how much carving they provided on their furniture. This new economy in manufacturing became a major influence in furniture style creation and interpretation ever since.
When it came to finishing woodwork, a parallel evolution took place. Finishes of the “Golden Age” served to flaunt the beauty of the wood. The grain and figure of the woods took on a life of their own. The variation in color naturally inherent in the woods gave the illusion of depth and animation. The colors actually shifted as the angle of view or the source of light changed. Dyes were often used, not to make the colors more uniform or to mask variation but to enhance this magical quality. Wide boards were used and if several boards had to be joined on a large surface such as a table top, careful selection was necessary to ensure a subtle transition from one board to the next. Surface preparation was of the utmost importance as well since any defects would be magnified along with the natural beauty of the wood.
As furniture became available to more and more people, supplies of premium woods were dwindling. Cheaper woods with plainer grain were used, wide boards were less available, and careful selection was less economically feasible (as was meticulous surface preparation). Since the beauty of the grain was less spectacular and the preparation so expensive, the economical answer was to partially obscure the grain with semi-opaque colorants. You could still see that it was wood, but it lost a lot of its vibrancy. This trend has continued to grow today. So much so that many components of furniture are actually made from molded plastic. Dull monotone has become the predominant style in finishing. I've looking at kitchens in home stores lately and found that the finish on real wood was actually more muted than the photographed grain on melamine or thermofoil. Can the “popularity” of this type of finish be driven by a consumer preference for drab or has it been pushed by manufacturers because it’s cheaper and more affordable to produce?
This latter explanation may well have contributed to the demise of the furniture industry in this country and may be doing the same to the kitchen cabinet industry. When we make our products easy to produce, we invite imitation. Overseas manufacturers are great low-cost imitators and competing with them on this level has proven virtually impossible. We’ve unwittingly turned our wood products into readily reproducible commodity items. If we can reverse this trend, we might be able to prevent further loss of our market share and even bring some back. It will require an upgrade in skill level among woodworkers and even more so among finishers. This requirement can actually be an asset since it won’t be so easy to replicate by unskilled or semi-skilled workers and it can’t be accomplished by automation since it incorporates aesthetic sensibilities. It exploits the unique characteristics of woodworking that set it apart from most other manufacturing. The first thing that needs to be done is to educate the public on the potential beauty that wood can offer while pointing out that variation in color is part of that beauty. Exotic, highly figured woods may not be within the reach of most people but less dramatically figured woods still offer beauty far beyond that of decorated plastic.
Consumers also need to be educated so they will look at a wood product as an investment, not a disposable commodity. Since it's a long term investment, the cost can be justified. Wood products that celebrate the beauty of wood can be enjoyed for their lifetime and the lifetimes of their heirs. Since traditional styles continue to dominate the market, short-lived fashion is not a major concern to most people. Unlike appliances and other commodities, wood products will not only outlast their owners but the inherent beauty of the wood itself will actually improve with age.
The sector of the woodworking industry still surviving in this country is exemplified by companies that provide the extra effort necessary to make wood look its best. If we can expand this niche market, we can open up opportunities for our industry to thrive and grow again.