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Mid-century furniture is back, but which century?

Modernist furniture by designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Gio Ponti and Grant Featherston are, well, so last century. Yesterday at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, historian, engineer, artist and writer Robert La Nauze reminded his audience at a launch of the book that the craze for ‘designer’ furniture was alive and well in the prior century.

The author of Made to Order- George Thwaites and sons, colonial cabinet makers, published by New South, explained that the British immigrant setting up of trade in Melbourne’s Little Collins Street fortuitously precipitated the Gold Rush and the demand for elaborate Gothic Revival designs. His firm’s elaborate dining tables, desk, bookcases and chairs filled Melbourne’s new mansions and public buildings that included Government House, Melbourne University, banks, and of course the study of Sir Redmond Barry who was a prodigious acquirer of Thwaites’ bookcases.

As a cabinet maker and designer, Thwaites’ furniture – which was infuriatingly sent out from the workshop without a maker’s mark believing that ‘the furniture speaks for itself ‘, according to La Nauze – now can fetch in the hundreds of thousands of dollars when correctly attributed to him.

This is despite the world wide trend for ‘brown furniture’ being reportedly dumped as Millenials reject their parents’ and grandparents prized possessions for cheap and disposable furniture.

George xThwaites (1791-1865). Privat copy
George Thwaites (1791-1865)

Here are pieces of the work that Melbourne’s newly minted great and good went wild for in colonial Victoria. Imported and Indigenous timbers were used and often combined in intricate inlays to create bespoke furniture that for the most ambitious commissions could sometimes take a craftsman a year to create. However, one cabinet maker in the workshop could produce one relatively straightforward chest of drawers in a single day – which is roughly how long it can take some Millenials (and their parents) to assemble an Ikea eight-drawer Hemnes.

Pattern xor hall chair. 1853.
Pattern for hall chair, 1853
Desk, Australian cedar for the National Bank of Australasia
Chair c1860, Australian cedar, attributed to Geo. Thwai
Chair c.1860, Australian cedar, attributed to Geo. Thwaites. Carving by Daniel Livingstone



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