Developing a Discerning Eye, Part II

I’ve only recently graduated from antiques-intrigued to antiques-obsessed. Since then, I’ve noticed that a healthy diet of books, auction catalogs, trade publications, museums, antiques shops, dealer websites, etc. has had a positive effect on my eye for form and quality. I still have a long way to go, but the fact that I’ve already achieved a noticeable difference gives me the confidence that with continued study, I can get to where I want to be. I thought I’d share with you what has worked for me so far.

To get you started, I highly recommend this book:

The New Fine Points of Furniture by Albert Sack

Albert Sack’s The New Fine Points of Furniture is actually the second version of this unique and invaluable reference. The original, called The Fine Points of Furniture, was published by Mr. Sack in 1950. Incredibly popular among enthusiasts of American furniture because of the effective approach it used to train the eye, the book is known affectionately as “Good, Better, Best.” In the original book, Mr. Sack showed pictures of “good,” “better,” and “best” examples of a given furniture form, and discussed each briefly. Similar to the examples we discussed in my last post (but written by a world-class expert in the field!!), these studies help you to discover what you should be looking for when evaluating a piece of furniture. In the second version (New Fine Points), rewritten with all new examples and slightly more in-depth discussions, he adds two more categories: “superior” and “masterpiece.” Although the “masterpiece” examples are the type likely to be found only in museums or in the very best of private collections, these pieces serve as useful benchmarks by which all American furniture can be judged. 

The New Fine Points of Furniture sample page

Here’s a sample page (on Chippendale mirrors) from New Fine Points

I actually have both Fine Points and New Fine Points in my library. Because there are so many “superior” and “masterpiece” examples in New Fine Points, there actually isn’t room for many of the lesser “good” examples. I find that studying what is not great furniture (and why) is nearly as important as studying what is. But if I had to choose just one of them, I’d pick New Fine Points because of the more in-depth discussions, and because many of the pictures are in color (the original is all black-and-white).

In my experience, reading “Good, Better, Best” produced an immediate improvement in my ability to judge furniture form. With just this book under your belt, you will be ready to practice on your own. Practicing will both hone your judgment skills and help you develop a sense of your own personal taste. However, you do need to continue your education by consistently referring to the best examples. Just like students of painting study the masters to learn what makes great art, we students of furniture connoisseurship study masterpieces of American furniture to familiarize ourselves with great form and quality. There’s no equal substitute for studying pieces in person, at museums and fine antique dealers. But if, like me, you are geographically challenged, there are many excellent books showcasing the best of the best. I’ll discuss some of my favorites in a future post.

When judging a piece of furniture, here’s a list of questions that I ask. You may find this useful in your own practice.

  1. How would you describe the energy of the piece? Personal preference will play a role here, but certainly some descriptors seem inherently more desirable than others (e.g. “elegant,” “stately,” or “lively,” versus “dull,” “lethargic,” or “weak”)
  2. How are the proportions? Do any elements seem to be too large or too small?
  3. How are the lines? Do they create a harmonious flow that carries your eye around the piece in a pleasant way?
  4. Is there anything out of balance? If so, your eye may be drawn to that spot in a negative way.
  5. Are any decorative elements integrated well into the whole? Especially in American furniture, decoration (carving, applied molding, inlay, etc.) should compliment the form, rather than simply be there for its own sake.
  6. Are the lines and shapes sophisticated? Simplicity done with elegance and sophistication is one thing, but crudeness resulting from limited skill of the designer/cabinetmaker is another.
  7. How is the quality of the craftsmanship? This is easier to judge in person, but you can get some idea of the craftsmanship from high-quality photos.
  8. Does the piece emphasize the vertical? A sense of elevation is not absolutely essential for success in every furniture form, but in general this is an important aspect of traditional American furniture as a whole.
  9. How does it compare with masterpieces? Here’s where your studying comes in handy!
  10. Do YOU like it? I can’t rule out that some furniture scholar somewhere disagrees with me, but I think connoisseurship definitely leaves room for personal preference, multiple “right” answers, and friendly debate and/or disagreement. After all, if we were all to simply parrot the opinions of those who have come before us, there wouldn’t be anything left to discuss. Even in Albert Sack’s masterful book, I found minor comments I disagreed with. Fine-tuning both my mastery of what’s inherently “better” as well as what my own preferences are is what makes studying (and collecting!) furniture rewarding and fun.

Finally, a great exercise that integrates all of these questions is: How would you change it to make it better? What would you add, remove, change, or move? You can do this in your head, but if you want you could also draw it out like the examples below:

how would you change this highboy?

Here’s the highboy example from the last post, with my suggestions drawn out

how would you change this dining chair?

This uninspired Queen Anne dining chair can be improved with some adjustments

You may find that with more and more practice, the question “how would you change it to make it better?” is the only one you really need to ask. Alright, it’s time to get out there and judge some furniture! (Seriously, when else do you get an excuse to be judgmental and call it connoisseurship?!) Let me know what you find! Or perhaps you have other suggestions for how to develop that discerning eye? What other questions would you ask when evaluating a piece? How do you hone your skills?

For Part I of this discussion, click here.

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