Friday, May 25, 2007

Furniture built to last

In our home we have antiques. Not the kind that you find in an expensive emporium nestled in among Persian rugs, dusty books and cases of Confederate cavalry swords. Our antiques have stories – Great aunt Sallie Chambers’ china cabinet; the sideboard that Aunt Barbara swears my grandmother hated; my father’s grandmother’s rocking chair; my mother’s father’s bookshelves. I love these pieces of furniture because they give me a sense of rootedness to the family, but also because I find them quite lovely. Not to mention, these are pieces that have held up for generations and are still functional, for the most part.

I never quite understood those who had to completely change furniture every 5 years or so. I realize that tastes change and develop over time, but I’ve always considered such change as organic development – move this one piece, reupholster this, switch this piece out for that other, give this one piece away to someone else in the family, etc. But for a couple of decades now, I’ve had the impression (justified or not) that furniture was a disposable commodity, switched to suit the mood.

This month’s issue of Fast Company gives hints of winds of change. An article profiles Jerry Helling, a creative director at Bernhardt Designs. He expresses frustration with the concept of buying a suite of matching furniture. Helling simply “…loves furniture too much to see it purchased like a Happy Meal. ‘These mega-lifestyle collections don’t represent true long lasting design,’ he says, ‘They’re paint-by-number solutions.’” Helling’s goal, along with several of his contemporaries, is to design furniture that is aesthetically pleasing, comfortable, and built to be an heirloom.

Helling has put together a line of furniture, each piece designed by a top player in the field, that would be able to stand the test of time. The main unifying design characteristic is “timeless simplicity” (think shaker furniture). In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that the photos of the furniture left me unimpressed (save for one piece). Realize that I’m not a high end designer nor am I educated in the intricacies of what makes for good design. Yet, as an end consumer, I can say that I only saw one piece that interested me.

That’s not to say that Helling has failed. His aims are to have people shop diligently for that piece that really suits them and add it to their collection. That being the case, I fully expect that there will be lots of work that doesn’t appeal to me. What I admire is Helling’s motivations: “Helling hopes buyers will grow so fond of their purchases that they’ll hang on to them, handing them down to their children as cherished heirlooms. That would satisfy his desire to create not only a lasting design legacy but an environmentally responsible one as well. In the furniture trade, ‘we’re still to focuses on recyclability and cradle-to-cradle,’ he says. ‘We should spend our effort creating things that will last and that we will want to keep forever.’”

I love this mindset. It puts me in mind of the church I heard of that did long range planning not on the five year basis, nor on the ten year basis, but on the hundred year basis. That church had hopes and dreams for being a blessing to the grandchildren of their children! It puts me in mind of the great cathedral builders of Europe who began work on a building that they would never see completed. It puts me in mind of the covenantal promises to the patriarchs – blessings for generations to come. It seems that a significant part of building culture that is good and Godly and a blessing is to shift our focus to building all kinds of things that last, even our furniture.

Soli Deo Gloria