Talbert's Work-Revival of Marquetry
One noticeable feature of modern design in furniture, is the revival of marquetry. Like all mosaic work, to which branch of Industrial Art it properly belongs, this kind of decoration should be quite subordinate to the general design; but, with the rage for novelty which seized public attention some forty years ago, it developed into the production of all kinds of fantastic patterns in different veneers. A kind of minute mosaic work in wood, which was called " Tunbridge Wells work," became fashionable for small articles. Within the last ten or fifteen years the reproductions of what is termed " Chippendale," and also of Adam, and Sheraton, designs in marqueterie furniture, have been manufactured to an enormous extent. Partly on account of the difficulty in obtaining the richly-marked and figured old mahogany and satin-wood, of a hundred years ago, which needed little or no inlay as ornament, and partly to meet the public fancy, by covering up bad construction with veneers of marquetry decoration, a great deal more inlay has been given to these reproductions than ever appeared in the original work of the eighteenth century cabinet makers. Simplicity was sacrificed, and veneers, thus used and abused, came to be a term of contempt, implying sham or superficial ornament. Dickens, in one of his novels, has introduced the " Veneer " family, thus stamping the term more strongly on the popular imagination.
The method now practised in using marquetry to decorate furniture is very similar to the one explained in the description of Boule furniture, except that, instead of shell, the marquetry cutter uses the veneer, which he intends to be the groundwork of his design, and as in some cases these veneers are cut to the thickness of 1/16 of an inch, several layers can be sawn through at one. Sometimes, instead of using so many different kinds of wood, when a polychromatic effect is required, holly wood and sycamore are stained different colors, and the marquetry thus prepared, is glued on to the body of the furniture, and subsequently prepared, engraved, and polished.
This kind of work is done to a great extent in England, but still more extensively and elaborately in France and Italy, where ivory and brass, marble, and other materials are also used to enrich the effect. This effect is either satisfactory or the reverse, according as the work is well or ill-considered and executed.
It must be obvious, too, that in the production of marquetry the processes are obtainable by machinery, which saves labour and cheapens productions of the commoner kinds; this tends to produce a decorative effect which is often inappropriate and superabundant.
Perhaps it is allowable to add here that marquetry, or marqueterie, its French equivalent, is the more modern survival of " Tarsia " work, to which allusion has been made in previously. Webster defines the word as " Work inlaid with pieces of wood, shells, ivory, and the like," derived from the French word marqueter, to checker, and marque (a sign), of German origin. It is distinguished from parquetry (which is derived from "pare," an enclosure, of which it is a diminutive), and signifies a kind of joinery in geometrical patterns, generally used for flooring. When, however, the marquetery assumes geometrical patterns (frequently a number of cubes shaded in perspective), the design is often termed in Art catalogues a " parquetry" design.
In considering the design and manufacture of furniture of the present day, as compared with that of, say, a hundred years ago, there are two or three main factors to be taken into account. Of these the most important is the enormously increased demand, by the multiplication of purchasers, for some classes of furniture, which formerly had but a limited sale. This enables machinery to be used to advantage in economising labour, and therefore one finds in the so-called " Queen Anne" and " Jacobean" cabinet work of the well-furnished house of the present time, rather too prominent evidence of the lathe and the steam plane. Mouldings are machined by the length, then cut into cornices, mitred round panels, or affixed to the edge of a plain slab of wood,- giving it the effect of carving. The everlasting spindle, turned rapidly by the lathe, is introduced with wearisome redundance, to ornament the stretcher and the edge of a shelf; the busy fret or band-saw produces fanciful patterns which form a cheap enrichment when applied to a drawer-front, a panel, or a frieze; and carving machines can copy any design, which a century ago were the careful and painstaking result of a practised craftsman's skill.
Again, as the manufacture of furniture is now chiefly carried on in large factories, both in England and on the Continent, the sub-division of labour causes the article to pass through different hands, in successive stages, and the wholesale manufacture of furniture by steam, has taken the place of the personal supervision by the master's eye, of the task of the few men who were in the old days the occupants of his workshop. As a writer on the subject has well said, " the chisel and the knife are no longer in such cases controlled by the sensitive touch of the human hand." In connection with this we are reminded of Ruskin's precept that " the first condition of a work of Art is that it should be conceived and carried out by one person."
Instead of the carved ornament being the outcome of the artist's educated taste, which places on the article the stamp of individuality - instead of the furniture being, as it was in the seventeenth century in England, and some hundred years earlier in Italy and in France, the craftsman's pride - it is now the result of the rapid multiplication of some pattern which has caught the popular fancy, generally a design in which there is a good deal of decorative effect, for a comparatively small price.
The difficulty of altering this unsatisfactory state of things is evident. On the one side, the manufacturers or the large furnishing firms have a strong case in their contention, that the public will go to the market it considers the best: and when decoration is pitted against simplicity, though the construction which accompanies the former be ever so faulty, the more pretentious article will be selected. When a successful pattern has been produced, and arrangements and sub-contracts have been made for its repetition in large quantities, any considerable variation made in the details (even if it be the suppression of ornament) will cause an addition to the cost which those only who understand something of a manufacturer's business can appreciate.