Monday, April 22, 2013


How often have you told someone, “I  wish I hadn’t thrown out that old such-and-such, because now it’s a collector’s item. I could probably get big bucks for it.”
True, if you could put every trendy thing you’ve ever bought into a time capsule for fifty years, you’d have a pretty handsome retirement fund. No matter how cheesy a thing seems in retrospect, it eventually rises again. Just look at the current renaissance of pink plastic flamingos and Plymouth Valiants.

One of the interesting things about fashion trends is that the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and the bigger they are when they come back. In the mid-1950s, for example, cars with tail fins were the absolute pinnacle of style. Within a few years, finned cars were so ubiquitous that people got sick and tired of them, and they became an embarrassment instead of a fashion statement.  Today, of course, these same cars are valuable collectors items, and the more outlandish, the better. 

The same applies to architectural styles and domestic decorating trends. During the Sixties, for instance, no fashionable living room was complete without an ultra-square, ultra-uncomfortable sofa flanked by clunky table lamps with shades as big as garbage cans. Along with these went a sleek wooden cabinet combining a lousy radio, a lousy turntable, and four lousy speakers--an apparatus known as a “hi-fi”, for those of you weaned on iPods. By the Seventies, though, all of these swingin’ accessories were migrating to landfills by the millions.

This same holds true for every fashion cycle: Pretty much anything that’s coveted in one era will be despised in the next . We tend to think that our own time--that is, the present--has some kind of special immunity to bad taste, but that’s simply not true. What we find to be unassailably tasteful today will be hated kitsch soon enough. So, you Arts and Crafts aficionados--watch out.

Curiously, the same mysterious forces that create and then destroy fashions also invariably bring them back again, whether we like it or not. Hence, some of today’s hippest folks are outfitting Mid-Century Modern living rooms filled with just the sort of junk I was denigrating earlier. This means it won’t be long before my own particular nightmare comes true, and those incomparably clumsy, ugly and gross furniture designs of the 1970s start showing up in hipster magazines.

The fact that everything--even the stuff we hate--comes around again might suggest that we pack all our discards in Cosmoline and wait around for fifty years. Some of us might actually do this if we had the room. For the most part, though, we just learn to let go of things and assume that somebody, somewhere will keep a few examples.

Knowing this may help prepare you for the moment, fifty years from now, when you hobble into an antique shop and find that that crummy Ikea desk you took to the dump now sells for five thousand dollars.

Monday, April 8, 2013


The names of architectural styles are often invoked, but seldom used precisely. Even people who should know better conflate styles, whether intentionally or not. In real estate listings, for instance, nondescript old piles are routinely elevated to Victorians, Bungalows, or whatever else happens to be selling. Architects aren’t immune from such stylistic confusion, either: Many of us bandy about terms like Tudor, Elizabethan and Half-Timbered, or Mission, Mediterranean and Moorish without really knowing how they differ.

Still, you’ll never find more stylistic muddlement in one place than you will browsing vintage items listed on eBay. Casual descriptions from lay sellers are understandable, but the many others who represent themselves as antique or collectibles dealers really ought to know what they’re offering. Granted, the idea is to cram as many key words into these listings as possible so that they’ll show up under various search categories--but many examples go well beyond the pale. Here, for instance, are some actual listings for vintage lighting fixtures being auctioned on eBay:

• “1920s Victorian Fixture.” By definition, the term Victorian refers to things dating from the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 to 1901), making this object pretty much of an impossibility. What the seller meant, I suppose, was that the lamp was ornate, and perhaps he or she should have just said so.

• “Vintage Victorian Art Deco Lighting Fixture.” Here’s another time-warped descriptions. The Paris exhibition from which Art Deco took its name didn’t even take place until 1925, nor did the style get much traction in the U.S. until the early 1930s. This, you’ll recall, was long after poor old Victoria had joined the choir invisible. Perhaps the seller could have classified his lamp based on this simple test: Victorian objects typically have lots of floral and/or classical motifs more or less jumbled together. Art Deco objects, on the other hand, have stark geometric decoration in shallow relief. 

• “Circa 1920 Art Deco Ceiling Lamp.”  Once again, time runs miraculously backward. 

• “Art Deco Nouveau Ceiling Lamp.” If this description were accurate, it would be a  lamp worth seeing, since these two styles are just about diametrically opposed. The earlier style, Art Nouveau, spanned roughly the years 1890 to 1905. It made lavish use of sinuous plant motifs such as meandering vines and leaves, with hardly a straight line to be found. Art Deco, as we’ve just noted, caught on a generation later, and was uncompromisingly geometric.

• If you think the foregoing descriptions run the gamut, how about this one: “Art Deco Medieval Tudor Porch Lamp.” Let’s see--the Middle Ages, the early English renaissance, and the eye-popping modernism of Art Deco all in one lighting fixture. It turns out that the actual imagery on the lamp--a ring of three fretwork panels depicting speeding chariots, each separated by a flaming-torch motif--was Roman. I can say this with confidence, because the lamp is now hanging in my office.

• Lastly, amid all this stylistic hooey, here’s an accidentally accurate listing: “Rare 1910s Victorian Deco Pendant Fixture”. Yup--that’s a rare one, all right.