Furniture Design – Is it old, new or stolen?

Happy Labor Day Weekend!

As promised, I am going to continue with an exploration about residential furniture design and scale.

In last week’s post, I was bemoaning that the scale of today’s furniture is often over-scale. However, much of what is in our world these days is excessively bloated.

That is not to say that all furniture is this way, for blessedly, there are some manufacturers who get it. And even if some of the furniture is portly, not all of it is.

In their defense, manufacturers are producing what the public wants– or thinks it wants.

I think it’s a lot like the health profession. We’re gullible to the latest “findings.”

Remember when we were told that butter is bad for you? And even though it tastes like vaseline with a little added salt, we should all eat margarine?

(30 years later) Oops. Sorry about that, it’s the other way around. Your arteries are clogged now? Oh well… that’s life.


One of my biggest furniture design irritants is the term “traditional.”


Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 2.31.26 PM

It’s one of those catch-all words that has come to mean something that to me is anything but traditional.

I will elaborate.


One of my favorite subjects at the New York School of Interior Design, was Historical Styles. I found it fascinating to see how traditional furniture design evolved through the ages.


For instance, we learned about the traditional furniture of Ancient Egypt.

papyrus chair


I also enjoyed very much the traditional furniture design of the 18th century.


18th century painting

(original image via Spencer Alley)

Yes, haha

Jacques-Louis_David_Madame Recamier

Jacques-Louis David – Madame Recamier 1800

Seriously though, what is commonly known as a “traditional sofa” is, well, I don’t know what it is. Actually, it’s a modern abomination. The closest thing to a sofa, some 200 years ago, except for a small settee was a chaise. Here is Madame Recamier in her Eponymous Chaise. This was the neo-classical period and Greek was all the rage back in the early 1800s.

And I’m not saying that in the 21st century we need to go back to the Greek Revival era where people sat in small not-very-comfortable chairs…


Greek Revival Room Metropolitan Museum of Art

That would be silly. But for a sofa, I feel that the 20th century interior design master, Billy Baldwin had it just right.

billy baldwin club chairbilly baldwin loveseat 32h x 51w x 26dbilly baldwin slipper chair largebilly baldwin studio sofa

These are all beautifully scaled pieces and I can assure you are immensely comfortable! This is the source for genuine licensed Billy Baldwin Furniture


Let’s go back to our Greek Revival Style in Furniture Design because it was wildly popular and has remained so. (in some circles) :]


This style had yet another come-back in the late 19th century/early 20th century with such wonderful French Art Deco designers as Emiles-Jacques Ruhlmann, Paul Iribe, Jules Leleu and a personal favorite Jean-Michel Frank.


I’m going to share some of their work, but first let’s play a little game.



Some of the pieces of furniture were designed some 60-200 years ago and some within the last two decades. Can you tell which is which? If you want to play, no fair peeking and please write down your answers. You can just write, old or new corresponding to the number. Everything here is either 1960 or before or after 1990. That tells ya something, doesn’t it?


spoonback chairs


The answers are a little further down.

Here are some more chairs

new chair old chair


Do you have your answers written down?

Top board.

  1. new and inexpensive chair found on Charlotte and Ivy
  2. regency circa 1810 and insanely expensive @$130,000.00 !!! found on 1st dibs
  3. 1960’s cerused oak spoon back found on 1st dibs
  4. Jean Michel Frank – early 20th century
  5. Barbara Barry – new
  6. 1950s on 1st dibs
  7. new from Avada
  8. new from Ralph Lauren
  9. Art Deco circa 1920
  10. Biedermeier – early 19th century
  11. French Art Deco 1930s and pretty darn gorgeous!
  12. Regency – early 19th century

The second group: They are all new on the left by Barbara Barry (from Henredon and Baker Furniture) and on the right are all from the 20s and 30s art deco.  From top to bottom, they are by: I don’t know, Jacques Ruhlmann and Paul Iribe.

Back in the mid 1990s when Barbara Barry came into prominence, I was obsessed with her work. (You can read more about Barbara here and here.) And one of the coolest collections was actually at a place that sold “business” furniture. Hickory Business Furniture or HBF as it is known.

Well, Barbara’s collection was the prettiest business furniture I’ve ever seen. In fact, I ordered several pieces for my first big job.

hbf chairs

Above are the chairs ten years later and that was ten years ago (yes, I got to do two homes!) reupholstered in a Donghia fabric. The solid oval back chairs are also Barbara’s design but from Baker Furniture.



This is an image from Barbara’s home in the mid-90s with her gondola chair by HBF – obviously influenced by Jean Michel Frank!


barbara barry dining room with gondola chair Vintage-inspired-furniture-contemporary-chandelier-create

And here it is again. What I love about Barbara’s work is her ability to mix old and new in a harmonious and classic way that feels fresh.

However, her chairs do look a LOT like those of the art-deco masters.

I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I applaud her for bucking the trends and recreating the gracious styles of a by-gone era for us to enjoy as well.

And lets face it. The Art Deco masters obviously copied their spoon back/gondola style from the Empire/Neo-Classical/Regency/Beidermeier era furniture designers.

And those 19th century masters copied their design too– from the Ancient Greeks!


houseappeal klismos chair

Ancient Greek Klismos Chair and a terrific post which details that iconic furniture design.

king tut chair

And the ancient Greeks (and Romans who pilfered everything) stole their designs from the Ancient Egyptians

They were the geniuses.

Everyone afterward is only imitating.


I’m awaiting the hurricane which isn’t a hurricane anymore, they say. But they can call it whatever they want. 70 mile an hour winds are no joke.  Hurricane Sandy was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced. I lived in a heavily wooded area and I heard huge trees crashing to the ground. A few miles from me, two boys were killed when a tree struck their home.

But I’m all prepared. I went to the farmer’s market near me which I’ve been enjoying every Saturday.
I stocked up on some necessities.

balanced diet

I’m a firm believer in having a balanced diet. haha.

And yes, the banana cream pie is the most heavenly thing I’ve ever eaten.

I think I need to go and have another piece.










32 Responses

  1. Billy Baldwin remains the ultimate design authority, decades after his demise. His unerring sense of beauty, comfort and appropriateness should guide us all! Thank you for the great post, Laurel. Good design IS timeless and you have proven this once again!


  2. Great post Laurel. One of my favorite design books is The Enclyopedia of Furniture by Joseph Aronson. It’s amazing to look at the early pieces and then see them recreated or reimagined for today. It gives me such a bigger appreciation of design ( and the high cost of some of the pieces) when I understand a bit of the history behind the design.

  3. Laurel, I’m so happy you wrote about Jean Michel Frank, the gifted French furniture designer (and cousin to Anne Frank) whose work from the 20s and 30s continues to inspire today’s designers. I recently learned about Frank and how he was, in turn, inspired by the classic 18th century French styles (Louis XVI) which he then streamlined for the modern era. Frank developed the Parsons table and designed Nelson Rockefeller’s iconic Fifth Avenue apartment.

    Decorating is my hobby, and I work on a tight budget, so I was thrilled to find a small scale dining chair, obviously inspired by Frank, for under $100 on wayfair clearance. A few weeks ago, I stripped off the polyester fabric, painted the wooden frame, and reupholstered the seat and chair back. I like to think of this chair as my small tribute to this great man.

    If you have the chance, I think it would be wonderful if you could profile each of the 20th century giants. The more we know, the better our work will be.

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Thank you for this interesting comment. I did not realize that Jean-Michel was related to Anne Frank.

      I love how you found a diamond in the rough and created something special out of it.

  4. ….. and A HAPPY LABOUR DAY WEEKEND to you as well Laurel. Re, ‘Furniture Design — is it old, new or stolen’ if you ever studied Fashion Design I think the same question can apply as recall many years ago when my son was studying Haute Couture one of his assignments was to outfit two Barbie Dolls one of which was in a period costume and one that could be worn today and needless to say the similarities was a no brainer. Now back to the subject of furniture, such a fun quiz and I agree that the 1930 French Art Deco chairs (#11) are gorgeous!!! Thank you so much for another informative read.

    1. Hi Brenda,

      Well, interesting point about fashion, because I noticed a long time ago that there are distinct parallels between fashion, interiors, and for that matter, art and music in every era.

  5. I too am a fan of Barbara Barry! I have 3 chairs, a table, and two lamps, all BB from Baker. I learned of her a few years ago when I saw one of her slipper chairs in House Beautiful and knew immediately that I just had to have it. We have two in our living room, upholstered in apple-green velvet. I’m not sure I would choose velvet again, but they are gorgeous and so comfortable. I see all of her pieces as works of art. Of course we threw in a few other furniture items so as not to look like a Barbara Barry showroom. 🙂

  6. That was such a fun post but I have to say that your reference to margarine tasting like vaseline with salt had me weeping with laughter! Stay safe if the storm hits. I know up here in Toronto we could use a little rain (not a hurricane though).

  7. Great post. Always very entertaining and with great design ideas. Really liked that dining room table and love the oval back chairs. I know what you meant about Sandy. Its why I moved to FL 6 months later…FLORIDA, my friends asked? Yes, but 8 mi inland and then this storm went inland all the way across the state. Thankfully far north of me! Flashbacks of Sandy might have been soothed by you banana cream pie.

  8. Have always loved Billy Baldwin, inventor of the slipper chair, and devout believer in skirted furniture. One interesting note about BB — he hated the term interior designer and called himself — and asked to be called — a decorator (also the preference of Carleton Varney, btw.) Fun post, thanks for sharing. ~Jo

    1. Hi Jo,

      Sorry for the late response. Somehow this one fell under the radar. That’s interesting that he and Carleton Varney didn’t like the term interior designer.

  9. I really enjoy your blog and have learned a lot. Here is my question: I am not a huge fan of painted cabinets in kitchens. Is there a way to have stained wood cabinets in a kitchen that looks fresh? What type wood/stain do you think would best accomplish this? Thanks so much!

      1. Thank you! I have mahogany currently and they are actually stunning, but I was wanting to lighten up a bit in the new build. You are totally en pointe about ditching the uppers!

  10. LOVE Billy Baldwin furniture and use it whenever possible from the factory in New Jersey that makes the Real Real. And save me a slice of the Banana Creme Pie…my FAVORITE! Love the blog…one of the few design blogs that actually has content, is amusing, and relative. Super job!


  11. Morning, did you ever notice none of us sleep? You certainly have some early birds reading your wonderful blog. I absolutely love #11 from the first group – beautiful … that color (sigh) and the Art Deco console table fabulous. I love Art Deco, it always brings to mind Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man series lounging on their blonde furniture with martini glasses held high. I didn’t do too badly on the first group, I basically thought if it has wheels its new(er). I didn’t attempt the second group because I thought don’t press my luck. Take care and be careful storms are pretty scary, but you have that pie to take the edge off.

  12. Stay safe in the storm! This was such a fun post – I guessed many of those chairs wrong and am glad I did – good design is timeless 🙂

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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