Some 17th-century ideas work well in 20th-century interiors

October 24, 1993|By Rita St. Clair | Rita St. Clair,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

As regular readers of this column know, I am fascinated by the history of the decorative arts. It is through this kind of study that we gain insights into past civilizations and also pick up some practical pointers for designing our own interior environments.

One thing we learn is that interior design did not originate either in the United States or during the 20th century. I find that many people assume that this particular decorative art must be a fairly recent American invention, since our homes are filled with American-made furnishings and gadgets. In fact, widespread interest in beautifying the home seems to have emerged in the 17th century.

It was the merchant class of northern Europe that popularized the notion of the home as a place for entertainment as well as for comfortable living. Newly affluent people sought tasteful ways of displaying their possessions in order to impress guests.

We can see plenty of examples of these sorts of interiors in 17th-century Dutch painting by artists such as Vermeer. Looking at these works, it becomes obvious that furniture was seldom the focus of Dutch interior designs. Instead, the artists, like their patrons, called attention to lavish Oriental carpets, silk and velvet hangings, china and silver, floral arrangements and embossed leather.

Furniture itself was actually seen more as a functional than as an aesthetic factor in these homes. Only as the 17th century progressed did the formal dining table, as we now know it, become a common fixture. Most Dutch interiors traditionally made use of a movable and collapsible piece consisting of wood planking on a trestle base. It would be hauled from room to room and made to accommodate varying numbers of diners.

Not such a bad idea, really, when you consider that many of today's homes also do not have a space permanently reserved for dining.

Mechanical pieces were quite the rage in the 17th century. Besides the type of dining table I just described, cabinets with secret compartments were very much in vogue.

Today, some variations on those long-ago themes are being introduced to a public interested in unusual, well-designed and multifunctional furnishings. Baker Furniture, for instance, has marketed a collection of accent pieces much influenced by 17th-century styles.

The gate-leg desk-table combination shown in the photo is part of this line. The original on which the piece is based was apparently considered highly functional and elegant even in its own time. Merchants of the 1600s were much taken with the fact that it could be transported with relative ease. This simplified version of what is known as a scrutoire features distressed leather and spaced nail-head trim. As the photo suggests, it can readily be adapted to contemporary uses. A corner of an eclectically designed living room, where it can function as a bar or a server, seems an especially appropriate destination for this updated memento of Dutch domesticity.

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