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Comfort for the Apocalypse, November 2021
This newsletter is one vehicle for my writing interests and experiments, an exploration of brief-essay style and content. To that end, “object biographies” are my focus at the moment. I am interested in function, aesthetics, and histories attached to the objects we possess - why we choose to display or use some things over others, how we tell stories through the artifacts of our material culture.
The Eastlake Chair
I saw the chair on Craigslist one afternoon while drifting idly between work and scrolling the Internet. It was shortly after we moved to Gabriola, and while I can’t remember what exactly I was looking for, it is likely I was searching in order to fill some sparse rooms in the much larger home we had traded our city bungalow for. Our new home was built in the late 1990s, but has a somewhat old-fashioned layout with an entrance hall opening onto a parlour and dining room, quite separate from the living room attached to the kitchen. Though I wasn’t in a hurry, I did spend quite a bit of that first year looking at second-hand sites and inspecting furniture left on curb sides.
On this particular afternoon, I found myself looking at an antique chair for $50, its upholstery badly frayed with stuffing spilling out the front. Advertised, “As is. A project I never got around to,” it was one of many such pieces found on the buy-and-sell sites. That is, a project requiring more than amateur re-upholstering; a piece of furniture easily destroyed by taking it apart with the wrong tools.
How many of us have taken on such treasures only to discover that the materials for restoration are cost-prohibitive, or we do not have the patience for peeling back layers of fabric and horsehair that we thought we did? I am among this number, having taken on dining room chairs with intentions, a bookshelf that “just” needed a light sanding and new stain. By this point I knew my own capacities better, and wasn’t fooling myself for one second about restoring this object on my own.
But I was captured by the chair, unlike anything I had seen before. It sat low to the ground (authentically Victorian-era), was upholstered in sections (backrest, armrest and seat), and had only one arm by design. The padded sections were held within a frame built of mid-toned wood, lightly etched and carved, the arm rest and seat separated by spindles on which floated wood balls. The stylistic elements were not uniform across the whole of the chair, and had the charm of folk art as opposed to something very polished and refined. Despite its layer of grime and the terrible condition of the fabric, I felt almost desperate to possess it on first sight.
I made the arrangements and picked up the chair in a brand-new suburb full of identical houses, the owner unearthing it from a garage packed with belongings that wouldn’t quite fit in a brand new home. It was as though the people living there had come from some other life in which they owned shabby antiques but in their new modern dwelling, they had replaced them with mass-market furniture from The Brick. The man handed over the chair a little sadly, “It’s a very special piece,” he said, “I’ve had it for years and never found the time to fix it up.” I didn’t share with him my secret worry that the chair might also languish in my possession, but I promised if I did have it fixed I would share a photo with him. He didn’t have any provenance on it, had picked it up somewhere along the way in the poor condition I now found it. I felt a kind of care pass between us as I loaded the chair into the hatch of my car; it was now my responsibility to figure out what next for this strange piece of furniture.
A few weeks later, I took it to the family-owned antique restoration shop in town where I learned a few things.
“I almost bought that chair,” said one of the brothers coming out of the back for a look, “It’s a nice example of Eastlake, but I really couldn’t find room for another piece of furniture in my house.”
Appraising it, he told me that beyond the re-upholstering, it needed a little more help. “You can see here and over here, the wood has been repaired, but not so well. Also, this probably would have had small wheels at some point.” He flipped the chair over to show me the holes in the bottom of the straight legs where a wheel post would attach. “I think I have some that will fit and are authentic to the era.”
Ultimately he declared the chair structurally sound and worth fixing though he warned me, “Restoration will cost far more than you could ever sell the chair for in this market.” This wasn’t news to me. However after I had followed the sister upstairs to choose the upholstery fabric, I was a little surprised to discover the deposit amount of 50 per cent was as much as I had hoped to spend on the whole project. I rationalized it on the spot, figuring that because the payment was split into two amounts eight weeks apart (the estimated time it would take to get the chair back), I could scrabble some money out of several paycheques to cover it without letting anything else lapse.
Before the furniture restoration specialist mentioned his name, I had never heard of the architect Charles Eastlake, though he was very influential in the Victorian era, and his ideas were taken up in the “new world” with some fervour. Despite this, a search for “Charles Eastlake quotations,” turns up little as he is not an oft-quoted figure in these times. And with reason. Having now read long sections of his book - Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details - I note that he was rarely pithy and not much for wit either.
What Charles Eastlake had by the truckload was opinions, centred around the intolerability of modern manufacture, the problems of hard-to-clean woodwork, and the “cheap vulgarities of Tottenham Road” by which he was referring to the Rococo and Renaissance Revival styles popular among furniture-sellers during his time. Although he was not a furniture designer or maker, he had a high-opinion of his own taste, and set out to “…show my readers how they may furnish their houses in accordance with a sense of the picturesque which shall not interfere with modern notions of comfort and convenience.”
Specifically, Eastlake prescribed a move away from high-relief carving, classical elements, and the excessive use of curves (“a detestable system of ornamentation”) found in the popular styles of his time. He was a proponent of “careful craftsmanship," and called for the manufacture of "simple sturdy furniture" to be made widely available at prices that did not ruin people. It is perhaps this last point which made his ideas so popular in the United States from the 1870s-90s, as he clearly expresses an interest in democratized access to smartly-designed goods. Moreover, he believed it was not possible “to sustain anything like a real and national interest in art while we tamely submit to the ugliness of modern manufacture,” which elevated the common home into a portal for interest in the arts elsewhere.
In England and the United States, custom designers used Eastlake’s principles to design and develop furniture unique to the time. Geometric ornaments, spindles, low relief carvings, and incised lines are hallmarks of this style. Furniture is light and without veneer or excessive curvature, designed so as not to collect dust and germs and making it easy to clean. Ironically, it was these features that made the style replicable with machine manufacture which lead Eastlake to exclaim, "I find American tradesmen continually advertising what they are pleased to call Eastlake furniture, the production of which I have had nothing whatever to do, and for the taste of which I should be very sorry to be considered responsible."
Nevertheless, “Eastlake” home architecture and furnishings can still be found throughout the United States and Canada 150 years later, a testament to the popularity and ubiquity of this style in its day. Charles Eastlake stood at the crossroads of craft and manufacture, an industrial age that that cast the slower, more painstaking traditions aside to the detriment of society as a whole. However futile the crusade was, “Eastlake” was more than a style. It was a call back to a time in which attention to detail and quality of materials mattered.
Two months after depositing my chair with the restoration shop, I returned to pick it up and discovered the beauty it had become in the interim. It came home with me to take its spot in the parlour where it is frequently in use when we have dinners or house concerts. Antique or not, precious objects belong in everyday use.
A few months after I had the chair restored, a friend from long in my past stopped by the house unexpectedly. Upon getting the grand tour, his eyes alighted on the Eastlake chair and he asked me about it. I was rather sheepish when I told him the story of having it reupholstered, how it had been expensive and a somewhat unnecessary thing to do even though I was in love with how it turned out.
“Community service,” he said. “Sometimes you have to think of this kind of thing as a community service, keeping beautiful objects alive and in use for the future. It’s something we give forward to whoever comes next.”
November recipe: Barley Vegetable Soup
Another month, another soup recipe. Apparently comfort these days comes out of my Instant Pot. You can also make this recipe on the stovetop with a bit more cooking time.
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup diced yellow onion
3 cups diced mushrooms
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2 cups diced carrot
2 cups diced celery
2 cups diced potato
2 cups of canned, diced tomatoes
2 dried bay leaves
6 cups vegetable stock
¾ cup pearl barley
2 cups of shredded cabbage
salt and pepper
Whether using the Instant Pot or a Dutch oven on the stove, heat the oil and sauté the onions and garlic until starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, potato, carrot, and celery. Continue to cook, stirring often for about ten minutes.
Add the tomatoes, bay leaves, vegetable stock, and barley. Give a good stir and add a couple of pinches of salt.
If using the Instant Pot, put the lid on and set the pressure cooker function to 15 minutes. Once the timer goes off, quick release. If using the stovetop, bring everything to a boil and then turn down to a simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes (until the barley is cooked to your liking).
Add cabbage and let the soup sit for a few minutes with the heat off. Remove the bay leaves from the soup and season to taste with salt and pepper. Nourishing and super tasty!
In the workshop
Someone I knew in childhood recently approached me and asked if I would do a weaving commission – a table runner to the length of a table her husband has recently built. She is a pottery-maker, and an interior designer herself, and I was honoured that she wanted one of my weavings in her home. I finished and delivered this piece last week and have to acknowledge that weaving for someone else made me much more attentive to the small details of the cloth than I normally am.
It’s been a hard couple of weeks in BC. There are a lot of questions about the long-term repercussions of the flooding and its impacts on humans and wild creatures alike. I really love this video made in the aftermath of the flooding – A Glimmer of Hope For Salmon – by Rodney Hsu (aka Fishing with Rod), a meditation on a salmon spawning channel and a reminder there are still helpful ways we can support the wild world around us.
The lessons ‘Moby-Dick’ has for a warming world of rising waters seems appropriate given the events in British Columbia last week. How do we face the inevitable day after day anyhow?
How Will the World Order Change in the Next Century? by Alfred McCoy examines the shifting geo-politics we can expect as climate change unfolds. A taste of his new book To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change which promises some interesting analysis of our emerging world over the next several decades.
After nearly two years of pandemic and a catastrophic weather event that made international headlines, many folks in BC are living in their tenderest places, feeling them like bruises we fear will never go away. I am in the Princeton, BC community Facebook group and have been heartened to watch the people there coming together to support each other in profound ways. Equally, I am saddened by stories from the folks on Highway 8 who have no homes or even land to return to. May we all find our way in these difficult times, figure out how to help one another, and detach from what was in order to navigate what will be our future together.
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