Kya deLongchamps wrestles between her love of worthy originals and her need for practicality.
I HAVE my eye out for a new writing table. Until now, my frantic tapping has been supported by a marble topped Victorian side table. It looks elegant enough despite heartless torture in the grandmother’s restoration chamber. Even shorn of a brass top rail, it’s worth €25 of anyone’s money. Still, its rocky surface is a freezing penance to the wrists. Having gone a bit demented over mid-century rosewood, I was intrigued to find that dealers here and in the UK, have made a sly discovery.
If you prise off the angular mirror from a fairly ugly 1970s knee-hole dressing table, and fill the supporting screw holes politely with a sawdust, wax and spit mixture, it can deliver a rather handsome if compact, shallow desk. Clearly uncertain as to how to describe these amputees, many vendors cheerfully offer a ‘matching mirror’. How kind.
As low-slung was the style, and most women were more petite than today, many dressers are lower than a standard table. The ankles must be clenched, the legs bent and put to the side to slide just the knees under a slender drawer. Generally, surgery on a dressing table like this just doesn’t work.
This re-imagining led me to thinking about the other period dinosaurs of vintage and antique furniture beached by time, habits and domestic behaviours. En-suite bathrooms have replaced spearing rollers in the bedroom. Drinking at home from a dedicated cabinet is regarded with downright pity or as silly pretention. Card playing and the ceremony of tea from a small table that tilted down or folded out like a stiff little envelope — these are lovely but largely redundant traditions and objects. And yet, we still love the furniture, we still buy the furniture and yes, we often still use the furniture.
Unlike an Edwardian silver-plated shaving kit, or a 1930s Remington typewriter, some pieces are born survivors. Diminutive tables that could be moved around the room were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries for a range of activities from needlework to letter writing. A piece that could be easily carried to the blessed relief of the fireside in winter was treasured. Many cabinets, sideboards, breakfast tables, tilt-tops and card tables are still the witty space savers they were designed to be. Well made with treacle deep patinas, glowing inlays and great lines, they have retired back to the wall. With a flap dropped a little gate-leg can sit so well behind a sofa as an occasional table to stage ornaments.
The trouble starts when we try to adapt something archaic with the wrong dimensions, height or materials to serve a 21st century task. I wandered for what seemed like three days around the ancient cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris this summer and to my amazement, many of the lofty, temple like tombs contained a firmly antique prie-dieu. This chair, low enough to be used facing backwards for knelt prayer that accommodated a wide Victorian skirt, stood on duty for rarely visiting mourners, dusty, shot with worm but highly available on the inside of the open wrought iron doors, in a city where your expression would be stolen off your face.
Then, I realised — what thief would really want one? What do you do with a low praying stool of no great merit outside of the confines of a convent? Let’s get back to something more secular — that writing desk: the Dickens’ style partners’ desk with a slope, all woody little castellated galleries guarding towers of surrounding drawers and tooled, beaten leather. The Edwardian tambour roll top — that shoves open in an undulating creak to reveal an oak fitted interior. Both are on my list, but moustached, masculine senior citizens like these have proven impractical unless all I wanted to do was delight in their weighty presence.
Determined on a massive knee-hole desk from about 1840s at a great price, I resolutely carried my laptop into the dealer’s premises and sat down on a torn leather captain’s chair. It shifted rudely on its swivel.
Placing the computer on the slope, I found with the screen open, I had two options. I could push the screen back out of my myopic reach, or I could adopt a Bob Crachit hunch and bend my fingers to an agonising angle to reach the keys.
I briefly considered going ahead and privately taking a flat-head screw driver to the slope. I recalled the 1970s dressing tables. My contempt for vandalising any worthy original wrestled my ego to the floor, and compassion prevailed.
That knee-hole desk should be found, loved and bought by someone who deems it utter perfection for 2013.
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