George Smith: the "Cabinet-Maker's & Upholsterer's Guide"
Recently, we have been designing elaborate curtains for a current project and I am reminded of a historic book, George Smith’s “Cabinet-Maker & Upholsterer’s Guide” published in 1826.
A copy of it was given to me when I opened my office; I took over the premises of a retiring decorator who left me this volume. The “Cabinet-Maker & Upholsterer’s Guide” is considered to be the most important British pattern book from the first quarter of the 19th century, and for me was a marker of the junction between my scholarly work and decoration. I also felt this gift was something of a passing of the baton from a veteran to a novice, and was very glad to give it a home on my office’s library shelf.
My knowledge of this book came via Nerida C.A. Aylott’s concise entry for Smith in the “Encyclopedia of Interior Design” (edited by Joanna Banham and published in 1997 by Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, London/Chicago—a great addition to any design student’s library) which explained how pivotal Smith was in broadening the reach of the Regency style to the general public. Smith’s was the first to focus a pattern book of furniture to the general reader’s interests instead of the scholarly elite’s and to create a volume that might have application in houses of all scales. He was a cabinetmaker first, so his detailed drawings were also useful in the construction of furniture instead of just serving as a general ideal. In an era before shelter magazines and design guides, his book was multi-purposed, showing the reader the potential range of designs and articulating how classic Regency motifs could be adapted to their purposes.
The book is subtitled “Drawing Book and Repository of new and original designs for household furniture and interior decoration in the most approved and modern taste.” The furniture section shows a very diverse group of types including the basics: commodes, side boards, card tables, and pier tables. Smith was best known for his designs for pedestal tables with fanciful animal feet and encouraging the use of the sofa, his particular version built with carved wooden frames. Both are still widely known and reproduced in old and updated forms.
The curtains represented in the book are of the very complicated type with many layers of draped fabric finished off with multiple swags and intricate trims. They are quite dramatic and almost impractical—flights of fancy rendered in fabric. Interestingly, I began my career at the end of the 1980’s in the age of big curtains, soon after this book came into my possession. Many of those robust window treatments were styles adapted from books like these, alas, often to ill effect. They were too often superimposed on modern or streamlined architecture that could not support this enrichment, over elaborate curtains pasted on weak architecture always look clumsy and are a recipe for trouble. Of course, it goes the other way as well: some rooms are built for elaborate curtains and look poorly without them.
Since the start of my career, the pendulum of curtain making has swung several times. I think we are on the cusp of a revival of the more involved curtain making styles. For example, the curtains for a new house we are decorating in the Hudson Valley with classically proportioned rooms are very much infused with the spirit of the “Cabinet-Maker’s & Upholsterer’s Guide.”