Unclutter Your House ? Lessons from Pilgrims

Court Cupboard, Plymouth Colony, MA, Treasure of Wallace Nutting Collection at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of ArtCourt Cupboard, Plymouth Colony, MA, Treasure of Wallace Nutting Collection at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

At the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, I finally got the chance to see Wallace Nutting’ pilgrim furniture donated by J.P. Morgan. Geo had his reserved opinion on the proportion of some cupboards or chairs. Some do look rather oppressive. They semi-circular patterns and the use of black with dark red color reminded me of Medieval times. But they also look anew. The center piece, a  court cupboard from the governor Prenze’s house 400 years ago features elaborately decorated drawers which were new in the 17th century America. Chairs became lighter, airier and more comfortable with the introduction of splat and caning. In the age when uncluttering is an everyday topic, they challenge the modern household on how possible these chunky furniture could fit in those early small houses.

The Jan Martense Schenck house at the Brooklyn Museum was built probably a few decades before the Prenze cupboard. It has only two rooms with no specific purpose although one is furnished slightly better than the other. At one time, it is estimated that probably more than eight people living in these two room and the storage area on the second floor. Although Schenck’s house is modest in scale and the fancy cupboard would be beyond his means, the two rooms are nevertheless furnished with some voluminous furniture. The most prominent are the kas in one room and the linen presser, table and forms (i.e. benches) in the other room. They are both utilitarian and show-case of family affluence because linen was the most expensive product back in the 17th century. But one would never call the rooms cluttered. The secret? Less stuff. The Dutch knew it is the quality, not the quantity, that makes a great home.

Jan Martense Schenck House at the Brooklyn Museum
Jan Martense Schenck House at the Brooklyn Museum

Other period rooms of the 18th century in the Brooklyn Museum, even if from wealthy families, all share a feeling of spaciousness. One would be drawn immediately to the proportion and architectural details of the rooms before he or she can spot unused furniture lined along the walls, a common practice of the colonial time. Multi-functionality of rooms and mobility of furniture helps to create, in the words of Wallace Nutting, “the reposeful colonial setting” with the kindness, comforts, and perfect absence of temptation.

Lot 5 (left) and Lot 282, two chair tables offered by Thomaston Place Auction Galleries on August 22
Lot 5 (left) and Lot 282, two chair tables offered by Thomaston Place Auction Galleries on August 22

Walking into the main galleries on the second floor at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, we also noticed a folded chair table. Once the top is tilted to the vertical angle, it reveals a perfect chair although the back of the chair probably need a pillow to ensure comfortableness. “We need that!” Geo commented. We live in a one bedroom apartment with four cats (two are overweight if you don’t take it seriously). I imagine a first-time sitter would feel a little awkward with a giant table top behind his head, yet the relative grand size of the arms will actually raise the sitter’s status in a group conservation. “At least,” Geo said, “our cats will love to sit on it.”

To place such 18th century chair tables in modern New York apartments needs not only the bravery of embracing the balance of functionality and aesthetics regardless of the age, but also the opportunity of finding appropriate ones within a reasonably price range. Thomaston Place Auction Galleries will auction at least two chair tables on its Summer Fine Art and Antique Sale on August 22. Lot 5 features a table with a round tilt top set on maple and birch square base with scroll end arms, on plank box seat. I would get rid of the white paint which makes it too southern country-ish. Lot 282, my favorite, has a squared top. The picture clearly shows the scroll arms with beautiful curves. In both cases, the top is made of pine wood, probably European-favored hard yellow pine, which became scarce at the end of the 18th century. With the estimation between $1000 to $1500, both are probably more affordable than brand new tables made of real wood you find in a store.

Cluttering or organizing?
Cluttering or organizing?

By the time this blog is written, another seemingly irrelevant blog has raised some criticism at twitter. The Daily System from Pottery Barn looks dizzy and complicated not to mention it is also expensive. The point here is not about its design or price, but to use it as an example of uncluttering the house seems lack of logic. Unclutterring can hardly be achieved by adding another system on top of what has existed: The wall-attached daily system, by uncluterring items from drawers or tables, makes a declaration of modern clutter on the kitchen wall. As furniturlgirl (Alison Heath) on twitter has said: Products do not make for an uncluttered home. Uncluttering does.

True, buying an antique furniture is still buying product, not uncluttering. But there is a big difference.  Although cupboards or chair tables do not have the modern sleekness or fresh summer colors, they possess the virtues of what Pottery Barn lacks: the enduring value and permanence symbolism. By choosing enduring furniture, we are essentially committed to filter what can fit in and what cannot and make small adjustment around things stable and treasured, thus limiting ourself from impetuous shopping for “uncluttering” system.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

Leave a Reply

*