Musings - Kate Thurlow | Tony Bunzl


Solid Oak | Early Furniture in Modern Interiors November 14 2015

For years interior styles have embraced minimalism and the ‘retro’ look, but now designers are mixing real antique pieces with modern design heralding the return of early furniture.
For some the phrase oak and country may summon up dark, Wolf Hall style interiors but, these days, designers are increasingly embracing the colour and patina of antique solid country woods, including oak, elm, walnut and fruitwoods, to add warmth and originality to 21st-century interiors.
They appreciate that the addition of an antique country-made dining table combined with modern chairs, antique rugs and contemporary paintings looks stylish, welcoming and very modern. The interior illustrated  shows a contemporary house which has been furnished with a mixture of country furniture and modern art.
The 18th-century Normandy table has a large beech top supported on four oak legs mortised straight into the top, the metal chairs around it are from contemporary furniture retailers the Aram Store in London and the paintings are modern British.

Best Pieces

Just as top early oak continues to attract the highest prices, good country and folk art pieces will always command a premium. The finest English and European furniture from the 16th and the 17th century is hard to find and fetches increasingly higher prices, putting it into the domain of the collector rather than the interior designer or homemaker.
However there is still a huge opportunity to acquire good-quality, well-made pieces which do not fit into the ‘best of’ or the ‘rarest’ categories; pieces which have survived the centuries, remain robustly usable and which have been enhanced by the wear and faults of time.
During the 17th century the growing class of wealthy merchants commissioned local furniture makers to create new designs to reflect their prosperity. The resulting furniture is still buyable today, and often cheaper than ‘retro’ mass-produced furniture pushed out centuries later, which is so beloved of today’s lifestyle magazines.
It is ironic that good mid-20th century design pieces now command higher prices than good mid-17th century furniture. As well as looking beautiful, early furniture is functional and can, contrary to prevailing opinion, be very comfortable. Late 17th century French and Italian upholstered armchairs are better suited for an evening’s reading than their modern counterparts.
Ergonomically suited to the human frame, they give support to the back and encourage good posture. The fact that the design has been reproduced over the centuries is evidence that they got it right all those years ago.
At the moment there is not much price difference between original late-17th to early-18th century pieces and those that were copied in the 19th and 20th centuries. If an early armchair is in good condition and well upholstered it is worth choosing it in preference to a later version. Recently manufactured pieces, in my opinion, should be avoided as they are, in comparison, poorly constructed and usually made of an inferior wood. 


This pair of Italian late 17th- century walnut armchairs which have been recently upholstered in antique kilim, is a good example of comfort combined with looks. 




Investing in Oak

When buying antique furniture the first rule of thumb is never buy it as an investment. Instead buy something that you have fallen in love with for its quality, beauty and suitability of purpose. It will enhance your life; give you joy and if in the long term it turns out to have been a good investment then that’s a bonus.
Three basic rules for buying an antique item of furniture:

  • Always ensure that pieces have not had major parts replaced or major restorations. For example don’t accept replacement legs, tops, drawers or even drawer linings. 

  • Never buy anything that is made up or is an amalgamation of two pieces. 

  • When buying furniture made of solid wood (not veneered) choose pieces with good colour and surface. French polish on top of stain and, above all, polyurethane finishes should be avoided. These finishes bear no semblance to the natural patina which is acquired through centuries of care and use.

Antique dealers love to share their knowledge and it is not foolish to build up a good relationship with a dealer who will look out for the right pieces and often, for a fee, check out an item for you in the auction rooms. After all a small fee, even if you buy nothing, is better than spending money on a dud. Antique dealers such as those belonging to LAPADA and BADA have extensive specialist knowledge and as members they are bound by a strict code of practice. Many dealers are no longer shop based and have their own websites to show their stock. They are also using internet portals such as online galleries. However seeing an item in the flesh is always more satisfying. If geographically feasible, make an appointment to view in person and get to know the dealer and their stock. The vetted antiques fairs such as Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fairs, Antiques for Everyone at the NEC, Birmingham and the Harrogate Antiques Fair are also good places to buy with confidence. Vetting is a safeguard for the buyer as it checks that the items for sale are as described in terms of authenticity, condition, attribution and date. The pleasure of owning a piece of early furniture, with the marks of centuries of use, from the rounded edges of the mouldings to the rich colour and patina, is a simple one that embraces the quality of craftsmanship and materials.

The European Connection

We shouldn’t think of oak and country furniture as purely British. The design and decoration of British furniture in the 16th and 17th centuries was very much influenced by the Renaissance art of mainland Europe. Linenfold, Romayne portrait heads and parchment (parchemin) carving for example all occurred earlier on the mainland. Craftsmen belonging to the furniture-making guilds throughout Europe came to Britain to work, often by invitation, thus spreading the mainland fashions to provincial Britain.

For instance the magnificent ‘English’ early-16th century choir stalls in King’s College, Cambridge, were by repute carved by craftsmen from Burgundy overseen by a Spanish master craftsman. Stylistically everything flowed from Italy gathering individual, regional variants on the way. In the 15th and 16th centuries, furniture, woodwork and carving was very similar all over Europe. England was then a far-off province and stylistically an Italian piece might be 50 or a hundred years older than a similar English piece. Mainland European furniture is no more ornate or plain than British furniture as the styles were copied, just as fashion is today. Therefore when buying furniture from this early period, pieces made throughout Europe should be considered alongside their British counterparts.