THIS EXCERPT from an old post at Veritas & Venustas comments on some of the same issues that Witold Rybczinski just wrote about in a post and a Tweet:
Good, Better, Best
(originally published February 2004)
.. The concept is a way of grading things qualitatively, as Good, Better or Best. I first heard of Good, Better, Best when I owned a store called America’s Best Traditional Designers and Craftsmen. From my architecture practice, I knew a number of craftsmen who made wonderful traditional furniture, windows and paneling, and other types of cabinetry and woodwork. I also knew how difficult it was to find these woodworkers — who usually worked out in rural workshops — and how much more exposure greatly inferior craftsmen had. So I started a store to sell their work.
Once I was selling 18th-century-style American furniture, I had to learn more about it, and I learned all sorts of things I never heard about in architecture school. That included the secrets of traditional finishes, the qualities of various woods, how traditional joinery differed from contemporary practice, and knowledge of how construction details varied from region to region.
I went to museums and looked at the best American furniture collections, which trained my eye to see subtleties I hadn’t noticed before then. And I found lessons that applied to the design of architecture and urbanism.
The dimensions of the 18th-century chair embodied hundreds of years of experimentation. By 1700, chair makers had discovered the proper angle for the back, the perfect height for the seat, and the ideal depth for a cushion that would support the leg without cutting off the flow of blood behind the knee.
Chair makers perfected the form for the comfort of the human body and then used that form to make supremely beautiful art from functional objects. Sheraton chairs, Chippendale chairs and Hepplewhite chairs all had the same basic dimensions, and yet they looked very different because both their forms and their elaboration were very different.
The chair makers knew where to put their energies in making those elaborations. All the best chairs had several carvers working on them: The best carver would work on the top rail, the next best would work on the carving around the seat, and the apprentices would carve the feet. Not because the feet were less important than the top rails, but because they were farther away from the eyes of the beholders.
In 1951, the leading dealer of 18-century American furniture wrote an interesting article for Antiques magazine in which he ranked many pieces of antique American furniture as Good, Better or Best, and showed how to make those judgments. He later turned that into a book of the same name, which became one of the most influential books in the world of antiques.
The criteria for the judgments were simple: 1) design and proportion, 2) construction and detail, and 3) materials and finishes.
There are some obvious comparisons with the Modernist principles of architecture and urbanism, which swept away traditional design. Even though they invented “the science of Ergonomics,” many of the Modernist designers who made furniture only paid lip service to the functional paradigms for the comfort of people sitting in their chairs.