Thursday, June 24, 2010

The last antique...

A realization from the Greenhabilitator...

I love a piece of furniture with a story behind it...other than "We spent 6 hours in IKEA looking for this." Our dining room table is a huge, rustic farm table. The planks on top came from a tobacco barn in North Carolina. Tobacco leaves were laid out on this wood to dry.

The legs were posts from the front porch of an old house...

We have an antique armoire in our bedroom and another downstairs that houses our coats. Some of the kids toys reside in this old wooden beer crate from John Hauck's Dayton Brewing Company. DBC was founded in 1864 and ran through 1919 when it was shut down during prohibition.

I collect old pottery bowls like this one from the 1930's. Each time I use one I wonder how many other meals they've held, people they've fed and stories they've heard over decades of service.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of working an antiques show with my mom, who is a decorator by trade and antiques lover at heart. (She won the Show Stopper award, BTW. That's her on the right.)

Over the course of two days I heard her tell the stories of many items - a basket once used to carry ammunition by the Swiss army, a European suitcase from the 1850's, Ironstone pitchers that were over a hundred years old.

She had necklaces made with "charms" that were old skeleton keys and locker keys from a community swimming pool. The locker keys were numbered and came with a metal pin you'd pin to your swimsuit. One woman bought the pin for locker number E-4 because "E-4" happened to be the level her father was when he retired from the military.

Everything had a story. If it wasn't the history of the item, it was the story of how my mom found it. The buying trip she went on with girlfriends through the mid-west where they laughed until they cried, a trip to England, or the backwoods barn she searched for long-forgotten treasure.

And suddenly it hit me.

One day there will be no more antiques.

No more sweet little handcrafted wooden toys, because ours are mass-produced in China, made of plastic. No hundred year old dishes, meant to last several lifetimes. Our are made cheaply -- they're practically disposable -- because we like to change them out so often.

I recently reviewed the book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture in which the author describes IKEA's furniture making practice:
"...the 'cheap chic' style fills in for whatever quality goes lacking. There is nothing sinister in this, no deliberate planned obsolescence. These objects are not designed to fall apart, nor are they crafted not to fall apart. In many cases we know this and accept it, and have entered into a sort of compact. Perhaps we don't even want the object to last forever. Such voluntary obsolescence makes craftsmanship beside the point. We have grown to expect and even relish the easy birth and early death of objects."
I almost have to disagree with the author that there is no deliberate planned obsolescence in the manufacture of the cheap products we purchase today. Isn't the goal to make a trendy coffee table that we'll use for a few years, at a price low enough to use it and discard it, only to head back to Target or IKEA a few years later to buy the next new trend? And because the price is so cheap that we don't even mind when it gets banged up or a leg breaks. It's what we expect for the price. Not like the days when we paid a higher price for something because we knew it would last forever. In fact, we often knew the craftsman or woman who made the item with his/her own blood, sweat and tears.

These days, we demand cheap prices and the products we buy must be made of lower and lower quality - by people half a world away - to sustain those prices.

In a hundred years though, what will we hand down to our descendants? Plastic pitchers? Plywood bookshelves from Walmart?


concretenprimroses said...

You make a good point. Very thought provoking post.
I have been sucked in by cheap and fun many times even though I try not to be.
I've stopped watching HGTV like I used to because its disturbing to me when perfectly good things are sledgehammered and thrown away, until the next trend! Especially when its done in the name of green. The greenest thing you can do is work with what you have, not replace it with "green" new stuff. I expect that in a few years people will be breaking up those "dated" cold and impractical granite counters and using them for paths in the garden.
Do we need more and more? And even more important do our things really tell who we are? Or our actions? I ask myself.

Shona~ LALA dex press said...

Great post. We have spent the last few years replacing our old Ikea furniture with "adult" furniture, which is consists of pieces found at flea markets, Craigslist, etc. My style has not changed over the years, well designed clean lines, but the crazy thing that I never knew in all those years of shopping at Ikea (there are other stores too, not to harp completely on them) is that a lot of times the 2nd hand furniture costs less (we are not buying antiques or museum pieces), even on the front end, than the cheap Ikea furniture.

I will say that I do still have a really fantastic solid wood bookcase I bought at Plummers years ago (Plummers Furniture is like Crate + Barrel or Pottery Barn) + it is this amazing bookcase in that it has fit perfectly into one spot in every house I have lived in. It actually has a story behind it. I bought it after all my cheap melamine bookcases were destroyed, literally torn apart, in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Billie said...

I priced getting a large entertainment center that was made to last forever (because I will buy good quality furniture and keep it forever) and I have to say that my pocketbook would have taken forever to save up for it. It was 10x times the price of what I bought from IKEA.

I am not sure how long I have had it but I suspect that I have had it for about 10 years and it is still going strong. I actually find IKEA to have pretty decent quality for the price. It might not be hand me down worthy but I don't have anyone to hand it down to anyways.

Some people might buy then trash furniture from IKEA but you don't have to and it can last quite a bit of time if you take care of it. IKEA has its place for people who can't afford the hand-me-down type and don't have a large Craigslist community to select from.

swiggett said...

We recently bought our first house, and by the time all is said and done, it looks like it will be furnished with about 80% family pieces that my parents and sister are dieing to get out of their closets and basements. This makes me so happy because not only am I being a bit green about it, but I get to keep family (potential) heirlooms (like furniture my grandfather made), and save $$ in the process.

Hopefully, antiques or at least decent hand-me-downs won't disappear completely.

Ivy said...

I'm torn on this. It's a great point--and one of my life goals is to replace my predominantly Ikea-furnished furniture with higher quality stuff.

At the same time, Ikea has allowed me to have furniture, as someone starting out. Plus, one of the best thing is that it's designed for smaller spaces. I look at Craigs List and so much of what's there is wonderful, but far too big for an apartment. And some of it has held up quite well. I got my table there because it's rather ingenious in the way that it expands (sadly, they don't sell this one anymore) and it's held up very well and is super useful. So I don't think it's always horrible and disposable.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Good points all...and yeah, you've got me thinking!

Honestly, my main "yay!" for Ikea was that it gave many of us something between laminate and Too Expensive that we could go for--and the fact that it's designed for small spaces, which sometimes it's harder to find resold furniture that fits into one's extreme space limitations. I actually kinda dig Ikea. And the Ikea pieces we have--except maybe for my son's kid-style loft bed--are ones I pretty much plan to keep and use for the next 40 years or so.

On the other hand, we do have a few cool "antiques"--the kind that are antiques to us and hopefully will remain as antiques to future generations. The colonial spool bed my grandfather found in his mother-in-law's attic and refinished so I could sleep in it through my whole childhood, which my daughter now has. The Grandfather clock he built. (THAT'S an heirloom!) Even the nice-but-nothing-special dining room set my folks gave us as a wedding gift--hopefully that'll stay in the family too, and one of my kids can use it in their house.

But I'm with concretenprimroses--it makes me CRAZY when people throw away perfectly good stuff just to be trendy, (especially if the "trend" is to be more green!) (unless MAYBE it's about toxic chemicals in what they've got) or even to "replace it with something more permanent"--if it's still working, it's not done yet! (we still have about 7 laminate bookcases in the basement, ugly but functional, that I've had through literally 20 years and 4 moves. We've been careful with them, and they still HOLD BOOKS, which is their function.)

GREAT post!!

Nana Sadie said...

I love my antiques! But like most folks, I have some of the "cheap" stuff, too. I think we'll be surprised in 50 years (if some of us are still here) to find out what's become "collectible."

Once upon a time, my mom felt the same way about Depression Glass - it was cheap and no one would want it. Well, it's highly collectible now.

But pray tell, how on earth did Tupperware get to be collectible? That one is just wrong on so many levels...

Patty said...

I agree and disagree. So many products are made now and are 'replaceable' that less care is taken for the items but remember that our parents and grandparents had that Sears catalog where they could order avacado green appliances too. As Nana Sadie pointed out some things were trash 50 years ago are antique treasures now. I think IKEA and Target do sell cheap junk but I think they also sell neutral, versatile and durable products. For example at IKEA you can get a great set of white dishes then splash it up with accessory napkins. The thing is that one has to choose this over paper or plastic 'dishes'. These stores sell various levels of products and when setting up our home we chose to spends a little more for the sturdier bookshelves. In some cases we chose to shop elsewhere to find better things for a better price for higher traffic areas of the home or for pieces we knew could be repurposed around the house (sideboard to dresser to credenza) but we did use these stores for many items as well. I will also point out that a huge percentage of items on craigslist are IKEA and get used and reused for years through homes, apartments and dorm rooms. Its all about making choises and realizing that even the dollar store has some great things but not everything at the dollar store is great.
side note-IKEA is very conscious of packaging waste and efficient distribution to be 'green'.
additional side note-I agree with concretenprimroses above about how annoying it is to see people "remodel" via sledge hammer. Take the time to properly take it apart and if nothing else put it on the curb, it will quite possibly walk away to a new happy home.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I found the chapter on Ikea in Cheap really fascinating because on the one hand, the author is right that furniture from places like Ikea have for the most part replaced well-crafted solid-wood furniture. But at the same time, as she describes in the book, Ikea honestly makes an effort to care for the environment. I think the author meant to make her readers dislike Ikea, but I finished the chapter thinking that they weren't as bad as I thought.

One problem I've found with cheap Ikea-type furniture is that it's hard to tell what's going to last and what's not. As others have said, some Ikea furniture is pretty well made and does last a long time, other things we've bought are total crap but seemed fine when we bought them. On the other hand, if you invest in a good solid piece of furniture or especially an antique, you know it's going to last.

I love your table!

Melanie said...

Everyone's got their own perspective on style. I grew up in a house full of antique furniture and now I don't buy furniture unless I know I'll never have to replace it. That's been a concious choice including living without if I can't afford it and budgeting until I could.
My grandmother, on the other hand, used to tell my parents to get rid of their beautiful Canadian antique furniture and buy new things. Different styles.
Now, I live in Korea and the term "antique" doesn't mean furniture that has passed the test of time, has a history and character. Instead, it is the "style" of mass, reproduced, factory made furniture that imitates Louis IV or something equally as ridiculous. If I buy "antique" in Korea, it was probably made last month. Different style.
Having said that, when people come to my home, they are impressed by my traditional and authentic antique Korean furniture. But I think I'm more of an oddity than anything else.

Daisy said...

One of my favorite "finds" was a cedar chest. My sweaters and other winter clothing reside inside this lovely piece, safe from the moths. How do I know that? Inside the top cover is a "moth guarantee" from the company. The chest was made in a nearby town (Sheyboygan, WI) in 1930.
I love it. It's 80 years old now, and I expect it will last a long, long time.

Anonymous said...

I think my avocado green carpet might qualify as an antique... and at the rate I'm going, it will still be here many generations from now!

The real question of what we'll be leaving for future generations makes me too sad to really contemplate.

Anonymous said...

Great post for generating thoughtful debate. My comment grew a bit lengthy and morphed into a post of its own ;)

Rosa said...

There was plenty of cheap mass-produced stuff in the recent past -ever since industrialization, so most of our "antiques" are from that era.

The old hand-makers made a lot of stuff just barely good enough, too - quick cob or branch houses designed to last a few seasons or at most one generation, wooden shoes, rough linsey-woolsey that was warm enough and strong enough but not comfortable or made into well-constructed clothes. Corncob or clay pipes that were never cleaned because they broke or burned through before the pipestem clogged up.

The real difference is that our stuff isn't really disposable - the plastics will be around long, long after we are, and even longer after they have broken and become unusable.


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