1 June 2010

Buying antiques: thoughts on my number two rule

What are the correct proportions for a chest of drawers or a bookcase?

I believe the answer should be that there are no hard and fast rules. Over the years certain shapes and sizes have become established for various pieces, and they will help confirm their age and country of origin.

A matter of scale, in the matter of antiques…

For example, the classic Louis Philippe French commode is typically not much different from 50 inches wide, 22 inches deep and 35 inches high, and has a marble top slightly larger than that of the commode. Any bigger and the commode would look oddly overscaled. My perfect example can bee seen by clicking here

But you can scale up if you change the proportions, as in this early 19th century French walnut buffet, where the balance of the two doors and the single drawer above is complemented by the extra chunky moonlight marble top.

Yet in country pieces a quirky shape can provide a special charm, or a chest with an unusual configuration of drawers can have an appeal all its own. View here this 19th century bank of drawers.

Searching for “antique furniture” visual perfection…

The search for visual perfection has always been fascinating. Many designers have believed that ideal proportions could be mathematically calculated and the world’s greatest architects have often led the quest.

The hugely influential 16th century Italian architect Palladio devoted himself to studies of classical ancient Roman architectural proportions, as did the English architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837), who collected countless examples of antique design so that he could demonstrate to his students the elusive elements of perfect proportion and balance.

I always think that the 19th century French gueridon table is a great instance of design that transcends the centuries. The design is geometrically simple. A round top, usually with a circular piece of marble on it; a single, tapered central stem and three legs, sometimes plain, sometimes claw-footed. But always the diameter of the circular top is slightly greater than that of the feet and the stem is sized to achieve a harmonious overall balance. This gueridon illustrates the point magnificently.

You can also see elegant proportions in this 19th century pine breakfront bookcase, where the central sections steps out, almost architecturally, from the sides in a way that lightens the large piece of furniture and even gives a sense of movement…

…by comparison, the 1930s French bookcase is potentially heavier with its neoclassical styling, but thanks to the use of large sections of glass, subtly brass framed, is pleasingly balanced in appearance.

What of scale and visual perfection! – does the furniture look good where you want to put it?

Finally, what about the best proportions of furniture to use in a room? This is really what it’s all about, and my advice is, don’t be frightened to use large, strong pieces.

Imposing mirrors, in particular, are never risky to use. When you step back you will always be pleased by the way strong mirroring will reflect the room and the pieces in it.

At the end of the day, maybe, probably? – beauty and proportions are in the eye of the beholder!

Come to Brownrigg and put my rules to the test!