Furniture Goes Back To Basics

Sydney Morning Herald

Thursday February 25, 1988


THE uninitiated may think it quirky to pay out good money for old furniture constructed largely from packing crates.

Surely, they say, you'd have to be eccentric to part with your hard-earned cash in return for mismatched chairs, roughly made from mulga roots and scrap building materials.

Not so. Packing Case furniture - an area that has been largely overlooked by the antique-hunter-at-large - is now being recognised as eminently collectible.

Examples range from simple occasional tables, perhaps made from an upturned fruit crate attached to four tapered legs, to more complex items, like meat safes with zinc mesh doors, wardrobes with kerosene cans for drawers and cotton reels for drawer pulls, and kitchen dressers made from piano packing cases.

The basic frames, tables and seating of packing case furniture were commonly made from an assortment of timbers and hewn logs, and lining boards from walls and ceilings. Nails were often hand-forged and wooden toggles were used to keep cupboard doors closed.

Such items are sometimes referred to as depression furniture - not because their manufacture was confined to the Depressions of the 1890s or 1930s, but because of the depressed circumstances and isolation that forced people to improvise in this manner.

But what was once seen as depressing is now being hailed as "art".

"It's true to say that these pieces belong with the nation's heirlooms,"says Andre Jaku, publisher of Antiques and Art in NSW, and Antiques and Art in Victoria.

"Unfortunately, not much has survived because it was usually destroyed when no longer required. But there are still some good pieces to be found, and at fairly accessible prices."

You'll need to be quick, however, if the Americans' experience is anything to go by. Since their Bicentenary, prices for folk art and simple country furniture have skyrocketed.

The demand for pieces of Australian history is already causing prices of colonial furniture to soar, as witnessed by the recent Sotheby's auction of the Buttsworth collection. Dating back to the mid-1800s, the 50 pieces sold for $315,000 - a record for Australian furniture, and double their estimated value.

Now the love affair with fine Australian furniture and art is set to extend to primitive furniture.

It will be interesting to see what bidders are prepared to pay when several Depression pieces come under Christie's hammer on May 2 at the Hyatt Regency in Melbourne, in the first of four Bicentennial sales.

"While these are not normally the kind of thing we sell, we thought they summed up the pioneer spirit of Australia," says Roger McIlroy, director of Christie's Australia and MD of Christie's in Scotland. "They're makeshift and symbolise hard times and the Aussie tradition of making do. They're also great conversation pieces."

The Christie's pieces include a small lectern-style desk with slatted legs, made from old pine packing cases and discovered in Tasmania. The bottom drawer consists of an old Bushell's tea box which still bears the Bushell's label.

Another piece is a bookshelf from shearers' quarters in the Western District of Victoria. It consists of kerosene cans, plus the cans' packing, which is stamped with the American maker's brand name.

Christie's expects the desk to fetch between $250 to $350 and the bookshelf from $1,500 to $2,500.

Packing Case furniture, however, should be appreciated for more than its investment potential.

"The charm of this furniture lies in its individuality and ingenuity," says Rebecca Hearty, of Gregory Ford Antiques - a Paddington store specialising in country furniture, including Depression pieces. "It's home-made and has a functional integrity and directness which finer, more sophisticated pieces often lack."

"This furniture was made simply, using basic carpentry and the limited tools available. It was often the result of an individual's interpretation of fashionable furniture, which had become only a vague memory."

Geoffrey Clarke, of The Country Trader in Paddington, is another country furniture dealer who carries Depression pieces. He says that while no attempt was made to hide the origins of the materials, the makers did sometimes add decoration. "They did this by punching designs in tin, arranging nails in a pattern, or even undertaking some simple carving with a chisel," he says.

Clarke believes that Packing Case furniture is our only true, indigenous furniture.

"There's more to calling furniture Australian than the fact that it was made in this country using local timber," he says.

"Most of the so-called fine Australian colonial furniture was made by cabinet makers who religiously followed pattern books from London - right down to the mortice and tenon joints."

But Packing Case furniture isn't everybody's cup of Bushells. With its odd combination of materials, curious proportions and roughness of construction, it's not the popular concept of what an antique should be - that is, furniture which is intricately carved and highly polished.

Despite this, the cognoscenti are appreciative and even have distinct preferences. "We have one regular customer who doesn't even want us to take the dirt of the pieces," Rebecca Hearty says.

Decorating with Packing Case furniture is not for the timid, however. "You can use individual pieces effectively in a high-tech environment, placing them almost as you would a sculpture," suggests Geoffrey Clarke. "Alternatively, the rustic look is perfect for people who aren't afraid to go all the way!"

Where to see Depression furniture: Gregory Ford Antiques has a number of "stop'em in their tracks" pieces, including a large four-door meat safe from Tanunda, South Australia, circa the 1890s, for $1,750.

The Country Trader is holding an exhibition in mid-April. Currently for sale, among other items, is a shelf unit with four shelves made from planks and separated by columns of cotton reels. It comes from the Hunter Valley, and is selling for $245.

Appley Hoare Antiques, Mosman, regularly stocks individual pieces, while The Powerhouse boasts a bush kitchen display, featuring an old Coolgardie food safe.

© 1988 Sydney Morning Herald

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