My husband and I went shopping for a larger kitchen table. We found one that seemed to fit our needs - an extension table made from certified sustainable white oak from America that was shipped to Malaysia to be turned into a table that was for sale in an English shop for 600 Pounds. There was something terribly wrong with that.
Like the characters in TAKEN ABACK, British men and women sacrificed, struggled, and died to maintain an empire that stretched across the globe so that they might relieve the occupied lands of their finest and most coveted resources - spices and gems, lumber and dyes, minerals and metals.
Having cut most of their native hardwoods to build a navy to uphold that empire, Britain searched for a new supply of exotic woods for furniture making. Acacia, red cedar, redwood, rosewood, alder, basswood, teak, tupelo, chestnut, satinwood, cherry, ebony, hickory, ironwood, maple, red oak, and lesser-known and rarer hardwoods for inlays and veneers delighted the fingers of British carvers and joiners.
By the 18th century, artisans like Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton advertised their fine furniture in catalogues as "must-haves" for the new upper class whose wealth, most likely, was generated in the colonies. Any reader who has seen Antiques Roadshow can attest to the fact that survivors of these furniture makers are highly valued today.
But what of the more common mass-produced, but still amazing pieces from the 19th and early 20th century - the so-called "brown" furniture?
My grandfather wanted to be a surgeon, but fortunes changed in the troubling years between the world wars. He dropped out of his studies and ended up being a switch operator for the Pennsylvania and Ohio Railroad Company. During the Great Depression, he was laid-off from that job. Months went by with no paycheck and the family faced some desperate times. He had built his home from lumber that he cut from his own land and that gave him the confidence and the idea to make furniture to sell in order to generate an income. He had the tools and the trees. He cut walnut and cherry, went to the library to read books on early American furniture design, and built incredible cabinets, trunks, chests, tables, and beds. One big problem - the depression! No one could afford to buy his furniture. So, lucky for me, most of it remained in the family. They are wonderful reproductions of federal-style furniture. Even today, the finely finished surfaces feels like silk, the joins are solid, and the perfectly dove-tailed drawers move quietly with no effort. Growing up with that furniture taught me the worth of good quality!
Granted, some of the cheaper mass-produced "browns" are not worthy of this conversation, but many are quite sound, made from good wood, and in quality are light-years above the laminated chipboard junk purchased in flat-packs and held together by resin and plastic. Far from stuffy and boring, the "browns" often sport a patina that hums the secrets of its mysterious past - our past.
The British fought with blood and souls to keep the empire. Out of respect for them and for the citizens of those nations who gave up their resources - willingly or otherwise - we are bound to keep those magnificent and functional works of art. Would it not be better to fill a child's room with unmatched yet interesting antique furniture -- your mirror, darling, is framed in rosewood from China, and this chest is teak from Malaysia with ebony handles from Africa, and that lovely West Indian mahogany wardrobe is made from wood that is now very rare.
So, what did we do about our kitchen table? At Chippenham Auction House, we bid 100 Pounds on a lovely pine table with beautifully turned legs. The auction house delivered it for a nominal fee. We stripped it, sanded it, and slapped on a coat of varnish. Ta-dah!
I end with this plea: let's put British "browns" back in fashion! It may have been a wrong to take the materials from the colonies all those years ago, but it would be a double-wrong to see them end up in the recycling center!