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Brown Furniture - the myth

Tuesday 5th February 2008

Brown Furniture - the myth

Over the last few years a myth seems to have grown up that ‘brown furniture is out of fashion’.  My aim in this article is to disprove the theory and expose the myth.

We hear so much about how we must recycle everything to save the planet, and there are so many advertisements for ‘eco-friendly this’ and ‘environmentally friendly that’, but when furnishing our house, how can we be more environmentally friendly than by using antique furniture?  Is it not the height of fashion today to have something that is both useful and has not cost the earth to make?

The best antique furniture is not only a pleasure to use, beautiful to look at, and an investment to pass down through the generations, but no trees have to be cut down to make it as it has been around for over 100 years!

Of course it is true that there have been too many antique shops of the ‘dark brown, stuffy and boring’ category around, and certainly some of these have stocked a lot of junk which in turn has led to the ‘unfashionable’ theory. This is slowly changing though and the discerning public are beginning to realise that good and genuine antique furniture is anything but boring and unfashionable, anything but stuffy and anything but dark brown.

On the contrary, as I look around my shop I see the rich & interesting tones of a flame mahogany Tallboy with its deep drawers to hold all the jumpers and shirts you could possibly own.  I imagine the lovely Georgian house it was made for over 200 years ago, and wonder how many families have filled its drawers over the years and who will buy it next for their family home.

I look round again and see the beautiful honey coloured tones of a satinwood card table.  Brown?  Well yes, actually, but it’s the pale golden brown of hay glistening in the sun after a shower of rain.  When you touch it it feels like silk.  It’s surrounded with a banding of subtly different shades, in this case Goncalo Alves wood – and my mind wanders to the eventful journeys of the sailing ships that brought this wood back for furniture makers to work their magic on and turn into beautiful pieces that would then give pleasure for hundreds of years to come.  When this table was made in about 1790, the French Revolution had been raging for 2 years, Mozart wrote Cosi Fan Tutte and George III was on the throne of England.

I think of the evenings of card playing on the table and at the same time imagine it in my own little house with a couple of photos of my children and a vase of flowers on it.  All these things were made to be used and are just as functional today as they were then.  Evenings of card playing and music-making, Jane Austen style.  My eye lights on the Canterbury.  You don’t need to have piles of music to put in it now – you can use it for all the magazines & newspapers that clutter up the house.  It’s brown, yes, but a completely different brown from any of the previous pieces.  Mahogany this time, which reminds me that no two pieces of mahogany are the same. 

Take the bureau for example.  The fall and the front are beautifully figured with a time-bleached mellow honey colour, and when you open it you are surprised by the attractive fretwork cleverly carved into the deep red wood of the inside which has not been exposed to the light in the same way as the outside.  What was hidden in the secret drawers?  Love letters?  Jewellery?  I can’t stress enough the usefulness of this piece.  Whenever I have a bureau in the shop I store so many things in the drawers that I have to go through a major re-organisation when I sell it!  I also have to find somewhere else to write the invoices!

Another case in point with regard to functionality is the Wellington Chest: another wood - a completely different colour.  This time the beautiful shades and figure of walnut.  The colour and patina on this chest are to die for.  Apart from that, not only does it house an exquisite little secretaire with pigeon-holes behind two of the drawer fronts, but it has five more graduated drawers for filing papers and documents.  

Talking of chests, what about the Camphorwood?  Brown?  Well, pale brown I guess, with shiny brass corners that have withstood the battering on journeys from India, maybe, or China?  I have to own up to my love of the smell of the camphor and like to get the odd ‘fix’ when I open it to show potential customers.  I have sold these chests for coffee tables, window seats, toy boxes…..the list is endless!

I go upstairs and notice a layer of dust on the oak dresser.  The ‘brown’ oak dresser.  As I start to dust it I see the deep rich chocolate shades of brown and the interesting figure of the oak. I see the patination from centuries of loving care and polishing.  I see the marks from spillages over the years.  You wouldn’t have to worry if you spilt coffee on it.  You would just wipe it off, give it a polish and it would blend into the network of colours that have built up over its life.

Being surrounded by beautiful pieces every day makes me look forward to coming into work.  People often ask me if I get attached to particular items and if I am sad when they are sold.  The answer is yes, I get attached to them, but I always find that each piece finds its way to the right home and I know it will be loved and looked after, so no, I am not sad.

I could go on for hours about the beauty and functionality of antique furniture and its subtle shades of “brown”, but I stress again that its crowning glory in this crucial time of saving the planet from over-exploitation is, of course, that NOT A SINGLE TREE HAS TO BE CUT DOWN to make it as it has all been around for centuries.  This has to be the ultimate in recycling.  The derogatory adjective ‘brown’ is a complete misnomer and should be replaced with ‘green’ and prefixed by the words ‘interesting, eco-friendly, environmentally friendly, functional and inherently beautiful’.  Antique furniture is back in fashion!


Caro Brewster,
February 2008

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