For the Love of Objects

Not to belabor how much I loved The Goldfinch, but I LOVED The Goldfinch. It pulled together so many of my ideas about furniture, I felt like Donna Tartt must have lived my exact same life before I did, only I know she did not. Here, Hobie, a furniture restorer, speaks to the protagonist, Theo, about their business:

I suppose it’s ignoble to spend your life caring so much for objects…Where’s the nobility in patching up a bunch of old tables and chairs? Corrosive to the soul, quite possibly…Idolatry! Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only–if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things–beautiful things–that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?

And a thought from Theo:

As much as I’d like to think there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between “reality” on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

I’ve never really been a proponent of restoration. In fact, so much of what I believe is valuable in furniture, that connects us to the “larger beauty,” is its ability to show time in its slow wearing away. But Hobie and Theo value this too. They restore furniture, but they maintain the evidence of life that happened around it. They venerate the wear and decay that tells of the life the object lived, and this is why they care. They are drawn to the poignancy of the big picture, the delicate balance between loss of and tenacity to the past, and the way it affects our look to the future. Theo’s world of the middle zone is like John Dewey’s place where new meaning is created: it is not created from our experience of the past per se, but within a timeless, continuous adjustment of the past to the present, a place where reality and our experience of reality are forever changing and altering one another. In The System of Objects, Baudrillard speaks of furniture’s role in a way Theo would appreciate:

our environment is…a directly experienced mode of existence…[and the object] a humble and receptive supporting actor…beyond their practical function, therefore, objects—and specifically objects of furniture—have a primordial function as vessels, a function that belongs to the register of the imaginary.

The Goldfinch also introduced me to some old masters: Duncan Phyfe, George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton (the man behind The Cabinetmaker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book, a work that has shaped interior design theory and causes us to question how we use space), and Thomas Affleck. These are furniture makers from a golden age of craft. While their work is in no way an aesthetic I strive toward, there is no denying the mastery and impact they had on the objects we use and live with today (notice any of Hepplewhite in Maloof?). I’m thankful to this novel for opening my eyes to the beauty of these masters’ work.

Thomas Affleck

Thomas Affleck

Thomas Sheraton

Thomas Sheraton

George Hepplewhite

George Hepplewhite

Duncan Phyfe

Duncan Phyfe


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