Despite having a PhD in Philosophy and Dr. of Divinity Degree I know very little art history. As a self taught artist, from an early age, I have had creative abilities in drawing and woodworking. I draw in pencil or charcoal. I learned tools and skills from my mother.
I was, therefore, immediately drawn to a style of art that is too often overlooked and taken for granted, an art form lost in today’s high speed computer and technical world but can and does last for generations – wood working and furniture making. The craftsman ship of this furniture is now created by computer controlled laser cutting machinery, with a mathematical precision, lacking the human touches of pride, skill, and accomplishment.
What I discovered at the Cincinnati Art Museum’s, Cincinnati wing, was a four piece bedroom set (bedstead, dresser, washstand, and slipper chair), ca. 1880, from the Mitchell & Rammelsberg Furniture Co. (1846–1881), Cincinnati, OH. Starting in 1847 and over the next three decades, the firm became one of the most successful and largest furniture manufacturers in the country. In 1876 Mitchell and Rammelsberg displayed their furniture at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, where it was highly praised and sought after.
The bedroom set consists of maple, hand painted and gilt panels, turned ivory drawer pulls, and onyx. Mitchell and Rammelsberg were able to offer furniture styles such as neoclassical, Japanese, Renaissance revival, Queen Anne, and Egyptian revival. The Japanese influence is quite apparent in the design, inlay, and hand painted panels used on every piece of furniture in the 4 piece set.
Modern and contemporary bedroom furniture are more functionally designed around sleep and simple function than the bedrooms of the past. Historically many bedrooms served as a family gathering place since some homes were too big to keep warm in the winter. During really cold spells the rest of the house would be closed off and only the rooms of pure necessity were heated; the main fireplaces were in the kitchen or the master bedroom. The family would gather around the fireplace for warmth, and around parents for comfort; the adults could sleep comfortably.
The highly decorative bed reminds us that bedroom furniture can be both functional and beautiful. The intricate detail of the inlay and angle wood cutting, prompted by a heavy Asian influence, shows pride in craftsmanship that parallels the owners’ prosperity and taste, reflective of grandeur and elegance.
While viewing these objects I could not help but fantasize about the people who owned such incredible furniture, and the different generations who lived with the furniture. The objects remain long after the people are gone.
As mirrors were newly conceived, I imagined the shock of looking into the new mirrored glass and seeing themselves for the first time. Modern bedroom sets change with the latest design craze. Most of today’s bedroom furniture is biodegradable, without a history, lacking in craftsmanship, holding no warmth, simple furniture for a disposable society. How many people today have ever heard of a “slipper chair”?
The bed with its straight horizontal lines that reflect a pyramid style head board, detailed inlay, and hand painted tile inserts, contrasts with the footboard where smooth curves were incorporated. Still the bed reflects a time of opulence reflecting the values and taste of the social classes for which it was designed. The dressing table with stair step bamboo design on both sides of the mirror would not be found in just any home. The design and craftsmanship were cultural markers of the radical changes brought by the Bauhaus – where form follows function, and simple design was introduced so more people could live in comfort, and, is still reflective in the contemporary IKEA look.In the 1880’s you could not go to a local depot and buy new sharp tools. You had to sharpen all of your tools by hand; no electric drills or saws existed, so if you needed to drill a hole, you drilled it by hand. You would have to saw, plane, chisel, and carve each piece of wood by whatever method your imagination could conceive. You sanded and stained until your hands hurt and they were the same color of the wood you were working on; this was how you displayed your craftsmanship, a badge of honor.
“By the 1870s the Cincinnati business included a vast factory complex and an impressive six-story retail building in the city’s fashionable Fourth Street retail district. The company continued in business until the 1930s. Most of the furniture manufacturers were clustered around Second Street where they were close to lumberyards, railroads and river transportation. Mitchell & Rammelsberg had the largest furniture factory in the world.” (Excerpt from: 1875 Kenny’s Illustrated Cincinnati)
In the mid 1800’s modern technology had arrived in Cincinnati furniture making in the form of steam-powered machines and saws used to increase production and make quick work of the larger pieces of timber. At the same time the new technology gave wood workers, inlayers, and carvers more time to concentrate on the intricate details for custom inlay and design. By mid-century, Cincinnati had become one of the leading centers for furniture manufacturing in the Unites States.
In 1881, the Cincinnati Board of Trade and Transportation secretary, J. F. Blackburn said: “Cincinnati is situated with the cherry and walnut regions of the South on one side, and the populous consuming region of the North and Northwest on the other side. Cherry and other native woods are coming into favor, and the imported wood, mahogany, is also rapidly coming into use…The tendency of competition has been to cut off the ragged edges of the manufacture from Cincinnati, and leave her manufacturers masters of the field in the production of the finer, more tasteful and costly articles, as well as the better grades of a medium style of furniture.” The virgin forests of the Midwest provided the golden oak that was so popular in Victorian homes. The demand for oak furniture was great in England because of a disease that killed off the English oak trees. Another factor for the Cincinnati based furniture businesses was the Ohio River, for transportation and the power to run factories. Cincinnati had at one time 150 such furniture factories.
One of the finest collections of Mitchell & Rammelsberg furniture is in the Abram Gaar house in Richmond, Indiana. Gaar was one of the founders of Gaar-Scott & Company, producing steam engines and thrashing machines. The house stayed in the family and was restored in the 1970’s. The parlor furniture was part of 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. At the Exposition, Mitchell and Rammelsberg were the only furniture company that exhibited furniture in the Eastlake style. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been restored to its original elegance and is open for tours.
These pieces of bedroom furniture affirmed my own love of woodworking, and appreciation for lost craftsmanship, and old-fashion techniques for hand wood inlay. I was reminded of the high quality of art and artisanship in late nineteenth century Cincinnati, and of the superb objects on display in the Cincinnati wing at CAM.
Dan Newman, aka “Myrix”, draws on the side. His next show “Archetypal Faces” opens at Below Zero Lounge, 1122 Walnut Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202, (513) 421-9376 www.BelowZeroLounge.com. Opens Friday November 4, 2011, 7 – 11 pm, and is open to the public.
- Dan Newman