It always seemed to me that there was a kind of contradiction between these two designations in the official catalogue: "Group III, furniture. - Class 14, luxury furniture".
Why only luxury furniture? Is there then for an industrial nation a great satisfaction of vanity in showing only fancy industries, in appearing to be concerned only with superfluities, with things of luxury, in giving the name of furniture only to beds worth at least a thousand écus, in classifying in the group of furniture only bookcases, dressers, sideboards worth six thousand francs? - Has France become the classic land of universal opulence, are all its inhabitants millionaires? Foreigners who wish to know French furniture and visit the third group must take away a high idea of the luxury and taste of our furnishings. And, thinking that all the French buy their furniture only in the artistic workshops of the Fourdinois, the Racault, the Beurdeley, the Quignon, they may wonder in what distant countries the beds, the cupboards, the tables, the chairs, the armchairs, which they find in the hotels, are made.
I do not forget that class 91 contains, among other objects necessary for life, furniture, "distinguished by useful qualities, combined with cheapness. "It is therefore here that the visitor will find the best made specimens of our ordinary furnishings. There mahogany, ash, walnut, oak, reign without having to fear the terrible neighbourhood of rosewood, ebony, rosewood, etc.
But I cannot approve of the decision to make a distinction between luxury furniture intended for a rather restricted public, and ordinary furniture that is more modest, but also of more general use, since it is intended for nine-tenths of the population.
There is, in my opinion, a middle ground between high-priced furniture and cheap furniture. It is this middle ground that is not represented at the Champ de Mars. Some manufacturers were reluctant to exhibit good furniture, carefully crafted, elegant and strong at the same time, but which was as far from inlaid ebony or rosewood rosettes as it was from ash and walnut. They would have been overshadowed by the magnificence of Group III; on the other hand, they did not meet the requirements for exhibitors in Class 91. And, in these conditions, they abstained, thus depriving our exhibition of the interesting show that should have been presented by an industry that is making progress every day.
We are indeed far from the primitive furniture that archaeology enthusiasts eagerly seek in the depths of the countryside. And if we are to confine ourselves to a review of the exhibitors of class 14, we shall still find a considerable difference between the luxury furniture they make and those charming relics of the past, those precious souvenirs of the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which we admire in some museums.
I would be very embarrassed, however, if I had to say where the real superiority lies and who prevails, the artists who preceded and followed Boule, the Johns of Verona, the Brunelleschi, the Benedicts of Majano, the Jean-Marie de Blois, the Kolping, the Vernet, etc., or the contemporary artists.
It takes only a slight effort of memory to find in modern creations the models that are so admired by people of taste. Except for slight differences in design due to the artist's whim, I can see again the sideboards, credenzas, chiffoniers and tables that the patient research of Du Sommerard and a few other enthusiasts have brought together in the Cluny Museum and in some private galleries. Imagination therefore plays a rather mediocre role in modern furniture, and invention has little part in the work of our manufacturers.
The artists of previous centuries could only use oak, rosewood, ebony and maple for luxury furniture. Oak was almost exclusively used for furniture intended for churches, monasteries, etc., because of its severe character. Boule, whose work attests to constant research, was constantly turning within the restricted circle of woods then known. In his impatience not to be able to modify his models, he used copper and tortoiseshell as ornaments, while Italy sent his beautiful ivory inlays. What would the art of cabinet making have become in his hands, if he had had the fertile resources that our manufacturers have found in the forests of Africa and the New World!
The list is growing daily of the species that provide cabinetmakers with the rich panels and multicoloured mosaics with which they decorate not only small marquetry objects but also large pieces of furniture such as beds, mirror cabinets, bookcases, sideboards, dressers, etc. And it is worth mentioning rosewood, mahogany, amaranth wood (a type of red-purple mahogany), ebony, sandalwood, rosewood, maple, thuja, ironwood, tabasco, oak, lemon, camacon, spa wood, camphor, etc. Some of these species are borrowed from our forests. But most of them come from America, Africa, Spain, Italy and Oceania.
For a long time, Santo Domingo supplied all the mahogany wood used by European cabinetmakers. This wood is, in fact, very beautiful, with a very close grain, a considerable specific weight, and its veins have those strange patterns that our artists seek for furniture panels. In recent years mahogany forests have been discovered in Mexico. But the wood is less hard, the colour is paler, the veins are almost straight, and the weight of a log of the same size is less than that of a mahogany log from Santo Domingo. Cuba also produces mahogany, and manufacturers seek it out, despite its rather high price, because of its dark colour and rich patterns.
The price of mahogany, which in the last century was very high, has fallen rapidly since the forests of Santo Domingo were cut down.
Nowadays, the discovery of new production centres has further reduced the value of this wood, which has been able to compete, for the manufacture of ordinary furniture, with walnut, which is tending to disappear every day.
Nevertheless, the mahogany of Santo Domingo still retains superiority. Thus, while a log from Mexico City will sell for 20 francs per hundred kilograms, a log from Santo Domingo will sell for up to 4 francs per kilogr.
A manufacturer pays 750 francs for a piece twenty-five centimetres thick and thirty-five centimetres wide and two metres long.
Various industries contribute to the manufacture of a piece of furniture, and it is not without interest to take a simple look at the various operations which have prepared and finished the bed, the bookcase or the sideboard which we admire at the Exhibition.
Mahogany, rosewood, ebony, in a word, all the luxury woods are given to the sawyer who receives a log whose thickness varies from fifteen to twenty-five centimetres, and whose length from one and a half to two metres, and who has to cut it into strips of half a millimetre, one millimetre, and one and a half millimetres. This operation requires a certain amount of care. The log is placed flat on a sort of hardwood frame in a bath of strong glue that dries gradually. Strong iron pins hold the marble to the frame until it is fully adhered. The log is then brought into communication, in a vertical position, with a saw placed horizontally, and animated with a rapid back and forth movement, by a steam engine. An eccentric slowly raises the ball so that the movement is perfectly combined with that of the saw, which thus cuts the piece to its full height. In the gallery of machines I have noticed such implements which make certain improvements in detail.
The sheets thus cut are given to the cabinetmaker, who has only to glue them on the panels all cut, ready to be joined, and which are generally made of oak, beech, ash, and sometimes of fir. This operation presents a number of difficulties. And accidents are quite frequent. Glue that is too hot causes the veneer to warp, while a draught prevents the sheet from adhering and leads to blowing, cracks, etc. The furniture is not complete if the locks, mirrors, copper and steel ornaments are not fitted. Finally, the inlays of carved stone, wood, copper, ivory, tortoiseshell, terracotta, marble, etc., require skilled and special hands. If we move on from large pieces of furniture to seats, armchairs, chairs, sofas, we will find the intervention of several professions. After the work of the carpenter, the cabinetmaker and the turner, does the upholsterer not have to upholster the seat? And the type of upholstery varies infinitely. From plebeian straw and cane to velvet, from Neuilly tapestry to the beautiful and elegant creations of Beauvais, everything is used, silk, damask, wool, leather - Finally, the piece of furniture is finished, ready to be sold, and the cabinetmaker gives it a final touch, varnishing. After having polished each panel with a sharp tool or a glass, he applies a coat of that varnish which we still borrow from America, and which gives luxury woods that much sought-after shine.
Do you not see now the importance of this industry, of which I have only been able to show you a very limited side, that of luxury manufacture, and which nevertheless puts so many arms in motion, which feeds so many industries, so many professions? Also, in Paris, whole districts are almost exclusively occupied by furniture manufacturers, the Rue and Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the neighbouring quays, etc., while the upholsterers, ironmongers, cloth merchants, all the tradesmen who work for the upholsterers and furniture merchants, crowd into the districts of Saint-Denis, Saint-Martin, the Temple, etc.
While raising wages, while giving more care and more elegance to their furniture, the manufacturers have nevertheless lowered their average prices by quite a lot. In this, they more or less followed a company whose perfection of work, the extent of its operations, the numerous outlets it has opened up, and the large number of staff it employs, place it at the head of the industry in the faubourg Saint-Antoine. Still modest under the management of M. Krieger, the founder, this establishment has taken on, in the hands of M. Racault and his associate, M. Colin, all the importance of a factory of the first order. - But readers of the Illustrated World's Fair have not forgotten the few lines devoted by one of our contributors to the organisation and work of this vast factory.
It is difficult, when browsing through the furniture gallery, to establish a clear-cut difference between the merits of the many exhibitors. We are no longer in the days of manufacturing secrets, of special processes that were mysteriously passed down from father to son. The woods used are the same, the tools do not vary; test the design, the shape, the ornaments; here imagination and invention can manifest themselves and create serious differences. But, as I said, the imitation of established styles is almost imposed on manufacturers by their customers.
As in all industries, some houses rise above the others by the richness, good taste and elegance of their furniture. Thus, the houses of Fourdinois (which won the grand prize), Racault, Beurdeley, Grohé (out of competition), exhibited beds, hangings, and seats that were certainly not to be found among the competitors. But, after these important houses, which are beyond comparison, I could count about twenty establishments which are distinguished by similar qualities and deserve the same praise.
I will quote, among others, MM. Guéret frères, who exhibit a very beautiful dining room sideboard, surmounted by a stag's head, and decorated with a beautiful panel carved in relief. All in oak. This piece of furniture won a gold medal; M. Roux, who won a similar award for a beautiful bookcase with four glass panels, in rosewood, and a table with copper inlays, in the style of Boule's marquetry; - M. Lanneau (silver medal), whose seats are both original and elegant; - M. Deville, who exhibited a very beautiful bed decorated with marquetry and richly draped in red velvet; - M. Buffet, for his rosewood and ebony mirror cabinets, and an oak bookcase, with three sections, of a very fine style; - M. Quignon, whose fine tapestry work has established his reputation; - MM. Mercier frères, who have brought together in their compartment the furniture of a bedroom, bed, mirror cabinet, chiffonier, armchairs, low chair, etc., all stretched in blue silk and white silk, all upholstered in blue silk and very harmonious to the eye.
The jury gave Mr. Semey a silver medal for a bookcase in carved ebony with five glass panels, which all lovers of fine furniture have noticed.
Mr. Bontung is one of the first in France, I believe, to use camacon wood, recently discovered in Manila (Oceania): This wood, of a rather beautiful red colour, reminds us by its patterns of the veins of the thuja. Mr. Bontung uses it for his panels, framing it with amaranth wood whose violet shade brings out the red of the camacon.
I don't like the sideboard by Messrs Allard and Chopin, which is full of painted earthenware and terracotta medallions in relief. The pale yellow of the oak does not harmonise sufficiently with the dark blue paintings of the earthenware and the colour of the terracotta. Perhaps time, by browning the oak, will give this harmony of tones, which I seek in vain today, and it is, I think, with this assurance that Messrs. Allard and Chopin, whose exhibition is distinguished by good taste and the happy choice of models, have built this piece of furniture.
An interesting exhibition from several points of view is that of the association of armchair carpenters. Under the direction of Mr. V. Baron, this association, a true type of cooperative society, had already won a bronze medal in 1850. And in 1867, a new award came to encourage the efforts of this meeting whose example will certainly be followed.
The Société des Beaux-Arts appliqués à l'industrie, whose members include distinguished artists, first-rate manufacturers, publicists, and people of the world, exhibits in a salon-library, organised by M. Guichard, the works or reproductions of the works of several members. Thus, next to photographs reminiscent of the paintings of some artists, next to a very beautiful ebony library decorated with bronze statues, by Messrs. Mazaroz-Bibailler, Mme. the Countess de Dampierre exhibits pretty cut-out paper screens and some terracottas, which are a counterpart to the beautiful painted porcelains sent by Mme. the Countess de Saint-Albin.
I know of no nobler use of the leisure that a great fortune makes for these ladies than this active and direct cooperation given to this Society, whose action can be so fruitful for the development and progress of many industries.
To my great regret, it is impossible for me to mention all the names of the exhibitors in class 14. I must confine myself to pointing out those whom the jury found superior to their competitors, and when I have named Mr. Lemoine, who obtained a gold medal for his sculpted furniture decorated with enamels, copper inlays, and ivory, and Mr. Roudillon (gold medal), whose bed exhibited in the large hallway is well known to visitors, I will have to close this list.
And now, if I take a general look at the products of our exhibitors, I notice what is noticeable in all the arts, that we have not come very far since our ancestors. - Modern manufacturers have at their disposal many of the raw materials that artists of previous centuries lacked, their means of manufacture are faster and less costly; - the use of many luxury woods, many fabrics, silk, wool, velvet, damask, tapestry, not to mention horsehair, leather, etc., allow them to vary the colours and appearance of their furniture, to increase its richness. Is this furniture more beautiful? No, it is more luxurious, that is all. But compare modern oak furniture with the credenzas, the prie-Dieu, the sideboards, the dressers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; compare marquetry furniture with the bonheur du jour, the chiffoniers, the tables of the eighteenth, and you will be convinced of the sad truth that the question of art has not made a step forward. Is there at least progress from the industrial and economic point of view? Class 01 will answer yes. But I say no for class 14. - Mr. Munz exhibits a piece of bedroom furniture, consisting of a bed, a wardrobe, a chiffonier and a night table, and gives the whole thing for a mere 8000 francs! How much would we have paid for it a hundred years ago?
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée