We chucked it out along with the chintz, but Georgian and Victorian furniture is being tipped for a revival. It’s elegant and offers great value
Twitter is a special place. Home to cats with cucumbers and esoteric beard topiary, it also attracts passionate single-issue campaigners like the auctioneer Jeremy Lamond. After 30 years in the antiques and fine-art trade, the director of Halls of Shrewsbury noticed that brown furniture — everyday Georgian and Victorian household staples, from chests of drawers to dining tables — had never been cheaper.
He thought the furniture-buying public was missing a trick in choosing flimsy particleboard cupboards (“with zero resale value”) over Victorian mahogany chests for the same price. So he created #bringbackbrownfurniture to persuade a new generation of homeowners of the benefits of brown.
Earlier this month, Lamond’s campaign was boosted by an unlikely voice. Ikea’s head of sustainability, Steve Howard, said “we have hit… peak home furnishings”, and suggested “repair and recycle” as a solution. “It’s interesting to hear Ikea recommending recycling,” Lamond says. “Antique furniture is the ultimate ecofriendly product, from its low carbon footprint to its enduring quality.” So is it time for us all to forsake
the flatpack and fall in love
“Brown” is unflattering trade shorthand for furniture, often in mahogany, walnut or oak, of the kind made in quantity in the 18th and 19th centuries. Several factors have driven prices steadily south over the past two decades. It can be too bulky for the smaller home; it isn’t from an era made trendy by high-street pastiche, such as midcentury; and it’s still fairly plentiful. “It doesn’t pander to the instantism we’ve introduced into our lives, where you expect a new look with every season,” Lamond says. Indeed, he wonders whether brown’s main virtue has restricted its appeal: this is furniture for keeps.
It’s not as if there’s no call for antique furniture. Interior designers including Ben Pentreath, Paolo Moschino, Harriet Anstruther, Todhunter Earle, Retrouvius, Victoria Meale and Tanya Leech routinely use antiques. While design insiders frequent events such as the Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair at Battersea, for most homeowners, brown has fallen off the radar. But there are signs it is about to stage a comeback.
Lamond’s Twitter crusade has played a small part in its rehabilitation; Lady Mary Crawley had a larger role. Downton and Abbey are two words antiques dealers have learnt to listen for and love. And the most recent indication that the furniture-buying public is ready to embrace brown again comes from Bonhams auctioneers, where a new series of monthly sales, Home and Interiors, starts on February 23 in Knightsbridge.
The auction previews will showcase a rich mix of antiques in room settings, so newbies can visualise how elements of different styles and eras might cohabit. Mark Wilkinson, the saleroom’s director of decorative arts, says: “The auctions are for people who feel uninspired by mainstream shops. It does take a little more work to buy antique furniture, and you have to decorate around it. What jumps out at me is how reasonable the prices are. If you buy antique furniture, in a way you are getting a bargain — and everyone loves a bargain.”
Joseph Trinder, valuer and auctioneer at Wotton Auction Rooms, in Gloucestershire, specialises in antique furniture fit for smart Cotswolds homes. Search his catalogues and you can often find plain, square-fronted Victorian chests of drawers, veneered in mahogany, with oak-lined drawers and turned timber handles, estimated at £100-£150. Georgian oak chests of drawers might be had for £200.
For those setting up home on a budget, the best approach is to find a local auction house or take a day trip to one of the out-of-town trade fairs beloved by decorators — the markets at Newark, Ardingly, Lincoln and Sunbury.
Of course, value for money is not brown’s only attraction. Though Lamond’s campaign concentrates on the inexpensive workhorses of the domestic interior, the most coveted antique furniture is as attention-grabbing as artworks. A handful of dealers are renowned for supplying absurdly picturesque examples of brown — plain but timeworn, sometimes patched up, they look wonderful in a contemporary home. These heroes of eclectic cabinetry include established names such as Robert Young and Spencer Swaffer, and youngsters are now joining the gang.
James Gooch, founder of Doe & Hope, is a leading light of a group called Antiques Young Guns. He says his post-minimalist generation are the perfect customers for brown furniture. “They are realising how fruitful it is to mix and match styles and periods to create an individual aesthetic,” he says. Sounds to me as if Gooch and his ilk are about to turn the tables on fast furniture.
How to buy brown
Take a tape measure “A lot of auction houses have big rooms and high ceilings, so you can get quite confused about scale,” says Mark Wilkinson, of Bonhams.
Keep it simple Spencer Swaffer says: “Everyone is asking for plain English country furniture in warm woods such as elm, oak and fruitwood. Customers are applying the restrained, clean lines that have been so fashionable to good old English furniture.”
Think outside the (white) box Darker timber furniture works well with rich colours, says Wilkinson. “People are putting them against bold greens and purples.”
It doesn’t have to be perfect “Funny, characterful old repairs are no longer frowned on, they are positively encouraged,” Swaffer says.
Place antiques in a contemporary context The Great Interior Design Challenge judge Daniel Hopwood says: “I take a leaf out of the New York designers’ books. They do extremely modern interiors and have one beautiful piece of antique furniture — it’s like a piece of art.”
Georgian is not the only era Ben Pentreath, of Pentreath & Hall, says: “Bridie [Hall] and I fill our shop with good bits of William IV and Victorian furniture, which I find are valued less than Georgian examples, but are often rather more robustly made.”
Make sure it doesn’t smell “Beware of wobbly tables or old wardrobes that smell as if someone died in the room,” Pentreath warns. “Thinking about it, they probably did.”