Look at that chair in the photo above….pretty bad, right? Into the dumpster and order a new one? Well, why not? Embodied energy, that’s why: “…the sum of all the energy required to extract, process, deliver, and install the materials needed to construct a building.” or in the case above, a chair.
If you care to engage your imagination into a sort of reverse “butterfly effect” of how any chair or table arrived through time to your home, you’ll be able to understand that even a humble side chair required a not insignificant investment of resources over the years, to reach the present moment in time (as embodied energy) sitting there, in front of you.
Whether you consider it ecologically responsible or purely remunerative or a happy marriage of both, saving a piece makes far more sense in most situations than simply chucking it into the trash bin, which helps no one.
Many, or perhaps very many years ago, a worker walked to a bench with rough lumber in hand; both leaving (in their span of life) an exhausted trail of resources behind, which allowed them to reach this purposeful point of fusion, when further energetic efforts were invested; so that chair, or table or chest-of-drawers became realized. Whatever generation it was that produced the furniture, if all went as planned, the piece found its way to a home where it was treasured for some time. But often, after a while, it was piled in the attic with benign neglect or chucked thoughtlessly into the barn, there to sink into itself. With luck, these forgotten pieces may find their way into the hands of a competent restorer and be returned to proper use.
Any piece of furniture that arrives at the bench, however humble, has a story. With patience, some of it may be interpreted, much cannot. That worker we noted above? They got up one morning long ago, went to the manufactory and produced this wooden article. They may have hated their work, loved it or been indifferent, but those materials and that work survived. It arrives to me as a bit of a history lesson, it carries a story of creation, use and so very much more if you care to see. So, when I look at a piece of furniture I am looking at problems, sure, and also interpreting numerous aspects of its existence; what was required to produce it and maintain it long enough for it to reach me? Sometimes that’s 20 years, sometimes 200 or more. The older the piece is, the more likely you are to find evidence of the owner’s status and habits, the maker’s hand, in written notes, drawings, the marks of a compass or even fingerprints. As you disassemble a piece you may ever so briefly be transported to the birthplace and time of that desk, or bureau, or chair; and just for a second you’re allowed a glimpse into another persons mind and physicality, their reasoning for doing a particular thing, their mistakes, you stand for a moment in their shoes. This tactile interpretive process is beyond what you can experience from the written page of a journal, and its a privilege.
And those older pieces of furniture, let’s say any made before WWII, were built with materials, adhesives and joinery that lent them to regular repair and maintenance, likely because the makers of the time had few options; but they kept an eye out for the main chance, and usually embraced any shortcut or cheaper material that presented itself. So, not too much later, expedient methods and materials became available, allowing planned obsolescence to become an engine of the economy. I have had to repair many of these pieces of mass produced furniture produced in the last 70 years; very few pieces are made with even a nod to longevity. They are made to satisfy temporary fancy, but not to endure; and that is the nicest possible way I can put it. These too may be saved, but often require additional stabilization to compensate for their manufacturing or material deficiencies. It speaks to the qualities of wood that this furniture stayed together at all, despite the “quality” of the construction. An exception to these disappointments is the genuine Danish Modern furniture of the mid-20th century, which is usually of excellent quality in every respect.
It’s Easier Being Green
And to answer the question at the top of the page, ordering a newly made, solid walnut, upholstered, ceremonial chair with hand carved, architectural elements will cost you substantially more than the restoration, this I can assure you. And, restoration and repair are simply environmentally responsible, or to paraphrase an architectural trend “The greenest furniture is that furniture already built.” The original creative energy already expended, a modest (or yes, sometimes strenuous) restoration effort can send the piece forward another 100+ years.
I am an avid genealogist and student of history, so I have a respect for the chain of lives that built and kept these pieces from the bonfire. That’s why I choose to repair and restore; it can be both a thorny puzzle and a detective story with each new piece another chapter in the series. Its also why I am grateful to those knowledgeable and enthusiastic clients, who are willing to invest in our past and onward into our future.
© 2019 Joseph Hoover. Sticks and Glue. All Rights Reserved.
Catalog illustration from “Catalogue of parlor furniture, church and lodge chairs, marble top tables, &c.” by M. Grossman & Son (New York, N.Y.) ca 1885 from the Winterthur Museum Library Collection Online
Photos: © 2019 Preservation by Design LLC All Rights Reserved.