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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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FAR EAST'S DESIGNS EMPHASIZED SIMPLE, BRIGHT

FAR EAST'S DESIGNS EMPHASIZED SIMPLE, BRIGHT
Five-piece faux bamboo bedroom set sold for $22,000. Photo courtesy of Copake Auctions
Imagine what it was like for an American naval officer to sail into a country for the first time that had been closed to outsiders for two centuries?

That’s the way it was for Matthew Perry when he sailed into Japan’s Edo Bay in 1853.

The very next year, Japanese imports began arriving in the West. With them came inklings of a new and very different point of view in the arts.

London became one of the premier ports in the world bringing in Oriental porcelain, lacquer work, cane, tortoise shell, ivory, spices, tea, coffee, chocolate and pineapples.

By the end of the 19th century, the overstuffed, gaudy look of Victorian furniture was wearing thin. People longed for a simpler, more honest style. Designers saw that honesty in the asymmetry of Japanese crafts. They also saw the handcraftsmanship that was disappearing in their industrial society.

The craze started during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial as a result of an exhibition of Japanese crafts. Bamboo, rattan, and willow chairs and tables became popular and inlaid, painted and ebonized furniture.

Back then, Westerners didn’t make big distinctions between China, Japan and India. They went for the exotic look. They liked the idea of goods from abroad, and the tall stories that came with them.

Boston was an important center for Japanned furniture in the 18th century. More than a dozen Japanese craftsmen immigrated to the area creating impressive high chests, dressing tables and clock cases.

Imitations for genuine oriental goods, called chinoiserie, didn’t seem to bother buyers. The fact that local cabinetmakers couldn’t get the proper materials, or master the technique of true Oriental lacquer work was accepted.

Hometown craftsmen would cover a piece of furniture with paint and varnish to simulate the look of Oriental lacquer. Customers could choose decorations ahead of time like figures, trees, rocks and flowers, and the cabinetmaker traced the designs onto the wood.

People were used to heavy, dark, Victorian furniture. Next to that, bamboo furniture seemed like a cold drink in the hot sun. It was light and bright. Companies like J.E. Wall in Boston, and Nimura and Sato in Brooklyn, began importing bamboo bedroom suites from the orient.

They also sold American made turned-maple imitations that looked like the real thing. The lightweight and portable quality of bamboo attracted buyers. Plus bamboo was as durable as many hardwoods. Buyers could also purchase the bed separately or order an entire suite including a dresser, dressing table, and side chair.

For whatever reason, you don’t see many complete antique bamboo bedroom suites on the market today. You see individual pieces. For the most part, the sets were a real specialty item. So to see one come up at auction is a big deal.

The top selling item at Copake Auction, Copake, N.Y., on July 8, 2000, was a five-piece faux-bamboo bedroom set consisting of a bed, dressing table, low chest, table and unusual slant lid ladies desk. The set sold for $22,000 to a New York City dealer.

Auctioneer Mike Fallon received a call from the original owners and almost missed the chance to sell the set in his auction.

“I told the owners I was too busy to look at the ‘bamboo furniture’ until later in the week…later that day the couple showed up at the auction house with photos. I dropped everything and returned to their home and picked up the set,” he said.

Let’s look at some other highlights from the auction.


Auction Highlights


Pembroke Table, Hepplewhite, with inlaid mahogany, $6,800

Step Back Cupboard, in blue paint, $3,100

Country Secretary, in green and orange paint, $2,750

Fire Screen, Queen Anne, pole type, $2,400

Dining Room Set, 10-piece modern design, signed Thaden-Jordan, $2,200

Farm Table, 10 ft. long, $2,000

Tilt Top Candle Stand, tiger maple wood, $1,550

Harvest Table, 8 ft. long, $1,200

Country Store Steps, primitive, dry red surface, $575

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