Developing a Discerning Eye, Part I

Have you ever seen an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow look at an unmarked object and pull an origin story out of thin air? He does a brief once-over and says something like, “Well, this dresser was made in Connecticut around the 1780s” while the owner looks on, thinking, “How the heck does he know that?” He knows that because he has a discerning eye.  It isn’t magic, but rather the result of study and experience. Though the appraiser has consciously trained this eye, it’s not unlike discerning the difference between a car from the 90s and one made recently. We see cars every day and thus have become subconsciously aware of stylistic details that differentiate one design period from another.

But there’s a second aspect of the “discerning eye” that has nothing to do with identifying an object’s origin: instead, it is chiefly concerned with aesthetic qualities. It’s about evaluating the design, proportions, and execution that contribute to the overall merit of an object. What makes one example of a particular form inherently better (and probably more expensive!) than another? This aspect doesn’t come up as often on Antiques Roadshow, probably because only the really great stuff makes it to the cameras in the first place.

I’ll start off this discussion with the caveat that there is certainly much room for personal preference when comparing one piece to another, but just as there are some basic properties that make a good composition in a painting or a photograph, furniture too can be designed well or can fall short. How about some examples?

Newport candlestand copy   Ikea candlestand

Consider these two candlestands. The one on the left obviously has a more sophisticated shape to the turned shaft, the legs, and the dished top, but it also has perfect proportion and design. The widths of the top and the shaft are well balanced to the size of the legs.  And the legs have a great vertical energy to them: the curve of the cabriole leg is elegant, yet conveys boldness and strength. If that sounds quizzical, compare with the example on the right. Here, the curve of the legs is too shallow, making it appear as if the legs are sinking from the weight of the table. It reminds me of the scene in Bambi where his legs are slipping out from under him on the frozen pond. Small wonder that the left table is a Kittinger copy of a Newport masterpiece, while the one on the right is a dumbed-down Ikea version. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art Newport highboy   Poor reproduction highboy

How about these two highboys? One is a masterpiece (again from Newport) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while the other is an ill-executed modern “reproduction” being offered at an upcoming auction (The sarcastic quote marks are there because I have no problem with high-quality faithful reproductions. But crappy reproductions only loosely based on fine antiques aren’t really “reproducing” anything). First off, the drawers on this repro are not well proportioned. See how the upper case drawer heights gradually get smaller towards the top on the Newport piece? On the repro, there are three huge drawers and then one tiny one at the top—not visually pleasing.

Also, most of the drawer pulls are too close to the edges. It seems they positioned all the brasses to match vertically with the ones on the two little drawers at the bottom, but this causes the placement of the upper brasses to look off-balance in relation to their drawers and the piece as a whole. The arrangement of the drawer pulls on the Newport highboy, on the other hand, is masterful. Not only are the brasses on each individual drawer perfectly placed, but look at how the gently curved vertical line created by the leftmost brasses (and mirrored in the rightmost brasses) echoes the line of the cabriole leg! These lines move your eye upwards and create that wonderful sense of elevation so characteristic of the best highboys. Finally, the pediment top and the lower case skirt are poorly done on the repro.  The curves of both are too harsh—the gentler curves on the Newport piece make it more elegant and more stately. And proportions on the pediment in particular are off.

 windsor chair comparison

Let’s move now to an example with a little more subtlety than “museum masterpiece versus crappy repro.” These two Windsor chairs, being sold together in an upcoming auction, are both nice period pieces, and on first glance they appear to be quite similar. But look a little closer and see if you can decide which one is better. It is a little tricky because the chairs are at slightly different viewing angles, but if you said the one on the right is better, I would have to agree. First, the arms on the right chair flare out gently to the sides, whereas the left chair’s arms are too rigidly perpendicular to the back, giving the design a more tense feeling. Second, the legs on the left chair are attached a little too close to the center of the seat. If they were moved outwards just a bit, like the one on the right, the chair would look sturdier and better balanced. Finally, this may just be personal preference, but I think seven back spindles (right chair) feels like the right number here, rather than nine (left chair), which feels a touch crowded. Do you agree?

Stay tuned for Part II of this discussion in my next post. I’m by no means an expert yet myself, but I’ll go over some suggested strategies that I use in my own ongoing pursuit for a discerning eye. And hopefully get some additional suggestions from you!

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