Antique Furniture for a Contemporary Lifestyle

Given that antique furniture and objects have long been a large part of Leonard Joel’s stock-in-trade, the reflective spirit of this one hundredth issue of Leonard, looking both backward and forward, seems a good one in which to ask: is there a place for antique furniture in the contemporary home?  

For those who seek some richness, warmth, and character in their homes, I would say that the answer to that question should be ‘yes’ but that finding a place for antique pieces today requires imagination and creativity.  

A Charles II oak joint stool, 1670s | Sold for $1,000

The traditional, often quite formal, way of furnishing with antiques by which pieces of generally the same period and style were put together to create uniform schemes that defined the character and function of particular spaces will be neither practical nor desirable for most today. Few of us now have the luxury of being able to set aside formal dining or sitting rooms or libraries, but perhaps even fewer would choose to do so even if they could. We entertain, raise children, and generally live in ways quite different from even the most recent generations. For antique furniture to have a place in this, the furniture must fit the lifestyle – not the other way around, as, arguably, was the case traditionally.

A further consideration is one of taste. For many in Australia, especially those who grew up with Victorian furniture during or soon after the height of its revived popularity in the 1980s and early ‘90s, ‘antiques’ will mostly mean showy and highly polished mahogany, cedar, and walnut furniture. Much of this is, frankly, repetitive and characterless, while its inherent formality and need for particular care to preserve its polished surfaces is, again, generally not well-suited to most contemporary lifestyles.

Happily, there are better ways to enjoy antique furniture. The most pleasing of these, from both aesthetic and practical perspectives, has been the shift in interest to more earthy and robust furniture, particularly to English and European country furniture of the 17th to early 19th centuries, generally made of solid woods rather than veneered surfaces and therefore able to take a bit of punishment. Neither a heavy bump that would knock chips out of the veneer of a Victorian sideboard, nor a scratch or a wet mug that would spoil its French polish, would do much to a solid oak dresser and its ancient wax-based patina.  

Decorative Arts. Leonard Joel Auctions
A English oak refectory-type dining table, second half 17th century | Sold for $9,375


Importantly, earlier furniture also offers far greater variety and individuality than what is found in 19th century furniture. In design, colour, and patina, no two early pieces will be alike, even if of the same type, offering options for different tastes and settings – not something than can be said for its Victorian counterparts.

Another welcome development has been the rise of eclecticism as an approach to furnishing – rejecting the traditional single-style approach for one in which well-chosen key pieces of different periods and styles are thoughtfully fitted in and juxtaposed in a way that allows each element in the scheme to shine in its own way while also contributing to a stimulating whole of pleasing and still-coherent variety.  Thus, say, the rich but mellow character of a well-patinated 18th century French buffet or English dresser will serve as the ideal foil for a bright contemporary artwork or a striking Australian indigenous canvas hanging above it. Or a rustic Georgian farmhouse table with cottage chairs will be an inviting counterpoint of warmth and texture in a sleek contemporary kitchen, dining, or living space. 

Very pleasingly, these ideas for enjoying good antique furniture in contemporary lifestyles are percolating through the Leonard Joel community and beyond. Our August Decorative Arts auction, which included a rich and diverse offering of earlier furniture, objects, and art, was the best attended and most successful we have seen for some years, with many of the buyers we spoke with intending to enjoy their pieces in contemporary settings.

We look forward to others joining us in their own creative journeys with antique furniture.

DAVID PARSONS / Head of Decorative Arts 

Banner image: A French Provincial oak cupboard, early 17th century | Sold for $1,375

September 2022