Furniture design has come full circle, from the time the ancient Egyptians pioneered most of our construction techniques up to our post-modern era. Most of us are either ensconced in traditional styles or struggling with typically less comfortable sculptural abstractions, known as modern furniture. Unlike technology, furniture design reached zeniths in the past and has not progressed in quality or style recently. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” is an appropriate expression, whether applied to Classical European masterpieces or 1920's Art Deco. However, sometimes I see eye-popping decor that makes me say, “Wow! I never liked that, but here it really works.” This article reviews why many people cherish traditional European styles, what went wrong with these styles and how one Israeli client redefined for me the battle between traditional and modern décor.
Let’s begin after World War II, when mass production progressed from armaments to consumer industries like furniture to satisfy an exploding population’s needs. 1950’s furniture design can still be found in many Israeli homes, because the good stuff was built to last, used quality materials and had a timeless appeal. Clean lines, exotic veneers over a plywood construction and bentwood chair bases are all hallmarks of what many now call the Retro Look. By the 1960’s and 70’s, Scandinavian designs reigned on the upper end of residential décor, made popular by Israeli companies like Shomrat Hazorea. However, the fine Art Deco inspirations of the 1920’s were more and more replaced by cheaper furniture that could be called “Dreko.”
Because so many immigrants came with no furnishings at all, modern furniture simply invaded many Israeli homes. However, American homes were often stocked with traditional furnishings and became modernized over time. The first casualty in this battleground of ideals was the rocking chair, or the old wing-chair. In order to control his turf in front of the television, the man-of-the-house installed the recliner. Some models resembled upholstered hospital beds, while others were more akin to upholstered wheel chairs. Other innovations crept in according to needs; for the masses, the futon, a formless, inexpensive but comfortable sofa-cum-bed, was just fine, while the convertible sofa was reserved for more exclusive homes. Naturally, children preferred the bean bag, unaware of its subversion against traditional décor (or is that decorum?).
By the 1980’s and 90’s, people who were not brought up to appreciate truly fine furniture, but could not feel comfortable in a modern, boxy environment either, opted for hybrids; faux modern-bland traditional. This non-style commonly minimized the use of traditional fabrics with colors and patterns in favor of rather monotonous pastels or black and white. Even natural wood grain became an enemy of the sterilized and uncluttered environment, requiring it to be masked with paint.
Some designers led a retreat to the ‘good old days’ of Eames Chairs and Lawson Sofas, but most people did not really notice, perhaps because computer and movie screens were more interesting and critical in their lives, and they felt esthetically complacent. Even for many who could afford to invest in quality furniture, disposable furniture conquered the market with its convenience and quick-fix feeling.
Fortunately for this furniture restorer, enough true-believers in fine furniture survived to keep his 35 workmen busy in New York City, until his aliya in 1996, where a growing clientele in Israel does the same. In fact, as more and more people realize that disposable may be cheap now but expensive in the long term, the trend is back to fine furniture that can be restored.
As life is Israel is always full of surprises, I discovered a
proof of that trend when I was hired to reupholster many furnishings in a unique penthouse in Tel Aviv. Always a fan of classical styles, I was confronted with a client and a designer who demanded that I cover a fine European reproduction armchair with gold and black leopard skin, exquisite Empire dining chairs with bright red chintz with clowns and outstanding Italian lounge chairs in metallic silver and gold fabrics! Here was an extraordinarily talented homeowner with extremely original and expensive taste who was brave enough to contrast here and balance there traditional with modern design. It was waaay over the top, but it worked according to her rules! I encourage everyone to break out of the routines of traditional decors, be they traditional or modern, and express a new, personal style that has both.