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Where Does Function End and Art
Form Begin?

by Bob Brooke


The category of antiques is vast. It takes in every item ever created from the beginning of civilization. Experts call the oldest of these “antiquities.” Antiques as we know them in America today began more or less in the 17th century and extend to 100 years back from the present. So many consider age to be the primary ingredient of antiques.

But all these objects have two other ingredients—form and function. Arbiters of good design have long held that form follows function. But while that concept may hold up today with the design of a spatula at Target, antiques are quite a different matter, for many of them are nearer to art than many people realize.

Museum curators have created a category for these objects called the decorative arts. Items in their collections not only have a function but help decorate the homes of their owners.

Exactly what is form. The form of an object is its shape. What a person might use the object for is its function. Today, we speak of ergonomics. That concept isn’t new. Handles on tools have been shaped to fit the human hand ever since man was capable of carving wood. Cabinetmakers learned long ago that the finest wooden chair seats should have an indentation so that the backside of the sitter would set into the seat, thus making it more comfortable. It’s unfortunate that the Jacobeans didn’t practice this, for the seats in their chairs were as flat as a board and just as hard.

The function of objects have more or less always dictated their form. People sit at tables. They sit on chairs. Drawers hold many things, including clothes. Chests are basically stacks of drawers. Generally, drinking glasses are round. Pots are also round.

Only in the very beginning was furniture made just for function. People got tired of plain, simple pieces. Even if a piece lacked details, its lines flowed. But as far back as ancient Egypt, and perhaps before, makers of the objects used every day added something else to their pieces—decorative design.

While ancient cultures had their own sense of style, the style—that is the type of artistic design—of everyday objects didn’t really begin in earnest until the Middle Ages. The number of different objects wasn’t as great as in future centuries, but, nevertheless, makers adorned their pieces with carved images of saints, devils, angels, cherubs, all miraculously related to religion. At the time, religious objects were given the most artistic design. Objects used by peasants were still simple and as functional as possible.

A medieval chair in which an archbishop sat looked more like a throne compared to its common counterpart, a simple stool, in a serf’s cottage. As cultures and technology improved, so did the design of things. And as time marched on, more and more people were able to afford to own beautiful objects. And beauty is what separates what some call “real” antiques from all the other objects out there. But snobbishness aside, all objects, whether unique or common have their own design—their own style.

During the 17th century, the Dutch began to carve impressive pieces of furniture from oak. The pieces all had functions, but they also had a heavy, unmistakable style.

The French have always been style leaders. Each of the kings named Louis had their own style. While each built on the style of the former, the end result was an elegant design that remains popular today.

The Germans, always seeking to be as efficient as possible, came up with totally new designs for storage and ways of decorating their furniture and even their homes. Graining—the delicate handpainting of common woods to look like even better woods—became so popular that it influenced many furniture designs and interior decoration both in Europe and America.. This love of painted decoration went further to colorfully adorn all types of furniture.

The bottom line is that while function influences the basic design of all objects, it’s artistic decoration that takes many pieces to the next level—the level of antiques.

Many people think that if an object is old that it must be antique or at least worth something. The value that’s placed on antiques stems not from age—although this has some bearing—but from artistic design. A wooden bowl will certainly hold cooked vegetables. But one made of fine porcelain and adorned with flowers not only holds the same vegetables, but makes their appearance and the act of eating them more pleasing.

Antique collectors then seek the best of decorative design. To them the beauty of an object is far more important than just its function.

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How to Recognize and Refinish Antiques for Pleasure and Profit

Book: How to Recognizing and Refinishing Antiques for Pleasure and Profit
Have you ever bought an antique or collectible that was less than perfect and needed some TLC? Bob's new book offers tips and step-by- step instructions for simple maintenance and restoration of common antiques.

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