Stylistic and decorative processes and techniques

Constructional style and stylization

In general, furniture can be designed in two styles, one of which is constructional in that the appearance of the piece reflects the way it is put together, and the other of which is stylized in that the appearance of the piece conceals the way it is put together, the principle being to make the joints flush with adjoining members so as to give the impression that the object is made in one piece.

Examples of furniture made in a purely constructive style are forms employing wickerwork or bamboo, in which even the greatest display of imaginativeness in design and pattern serves to make the construction stronger and more resilient.

Constructional details and joints are not normally visible and are, therefore, seldom of aesthetic importance to the external appearance, but joints can be emphasized artistically. The Greek form of chair known as the klismos demonstrates its joints boldly in the form of solid junctions holding the legs, seat, and stiles together. The curvature of the legs and of the backrest suggests elasticity. Extremely delicate joinery with invisible joints can be deliberately indicated by means of inlay work, examples of which can be seen in ancient Egyptian furniture.

Stick-back and tubular steel chairs are also examples of constructional styles. The stick-back chair consists of a solid seat into which the legs, back staves, and possibly the armrests are directly mortised (joined by a tenon or projecting part of one piece of wood and mortise or groove in the other piece). Furniture of bent steel tubing, particularly tables, chairs, and stools, was manufactured in Germany in the 1920s. In this fashion a new constructional style arose, for the steel tube, which makes smaller dimensions possible, was so strong that it opened up the possibility of completely new designs. Bent steel tubes form a resilient structure.

In contrast to the constructional style is stylization, in which there is no internal conformity between the motifs and the strength of the joints. There have been any number of examples of stylization throughout the history of furniture. In both Egyptian and Chinese furniture the joints might be deliberately concealed by painting or lacquer. Chinese furniture can also appear stylized in the sense that it gives an impression of having been put together in a more constructive manner than is actually the case. (In other words, stylization attempts to make joints flush with adjoining members so as to give the impression of an uninterrupted, harmonious, or sensitive contour. When two pieces of wood are joined together with a modern, strong glue, the resulting joint will be so rigid that, in the event of a severe shock to the piece, the wood itself will be more likely to break than will the actual joint.)

A good example of stylization is to be found in French furniture made around the middle of the 18th century. In French Rococo commodes, only the back is straight. The serpentine front and sides meet in sharp corners, at which the joints are covered by brass mounts. The number and position of the drawers is concealed by an overall pattern of veneer and bronze ornament that disregards the edges of the drawers. (In a number of cases the bronze mounts on the front consist of fanciful handles and keyhole escutcheons but are never emphasized the way they are in corresponding English commodes, even in the case of false drawer fronts or drawers provided with moulding to protect the veneer.) The fully developed French Rococo armchair has no visible joints. The back, arms, and frame form a continuous whole; the difference between supported and supporting members is concealed. There are no stretchers (horizontal rods) between the legs to strengthen the construction, which is solid enough by reason of the thick dimensions of the members that meet in the seat frame. To counteract the impression of heaviness in these essentially thick dimensions, the wood is moulded to give a sensation of lightness without in any way weakening the construction. A chair of this type when painted or gilded looks as if it had been made in one piece.

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