Multi-tasking Rooms

Most of the early 18th-century period rooms in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, to my surprise, are displayed without evidence of human presence. This casts a striking contrast with the rooms of the later period such as Milligan’s library with Nora’s Ark.

In the 18th Century American period rooms, furniture, mostly chairs, and tables, are placed along the wall. Considering most of these rooms are sparsely furnished, such deployment has nothing to do with the uncluttering practice which has been done before to de-colonial-revivalize a “misinterpretation” from the early 20th Century.

In the book “American Interiors New England & The South” published in the 1980s, parlor rooms (which are desirable for collection) are described as multi-purpose in the 18th century. Such rooms could be used for entertaining, receiving, dining or business. Such activities required different objects and furniture to be moved from room to room or even house to house as seasons changed.

The Twentieth Century associated permanence with functionalities. A table in the dining room or a sofa in the living room (which rarely existed in the 18th century) put viewers in a position much more favorable toward in-use furnishing. True, such ambiance seems warm compared to sparsely-furnished rooms, but the simplicity and more or less practicality are the essences of an authentic interpretation of early American period rooms.

Interestingly, when I finally moved to New York, those functional associations began to disintegrate. After all, there is no room for a separate dining or a separate office in most New York apartments. Futons are generally used at least to serve as a second bed; fold-ability or “nesting” are other common tricks to save space.

The early New Englanders made furniture mobile because it was expensive; (mahogany furniture was essentially the same as cash, even more desirable) nowadays metro residents are forced to favor multi-functionality because of space limitations. But looking around the apartment furnishings in the Park Slope neighborhood house tour didn’t inspire me as much as the barely furnished rooms in BMA did. Even in some fanciest and well preserved brownstones, there lacks a sense of historical integrity, not to mention the quality of furnishings that match the price and reputation of the homes. (In general, those brownstones are more cluttered than my two-room apartment!) I was told that New Yorkers move too often to keep good furniture; maybe they should all go to see how Americans did it more than 200 years ago.

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