In the corner of the spare room at my parent’s house is a dark brown Victorian linen press. The handles are scuffed. The frame is worn. Hundreds of hands have pulled at its doors. It was bought by my great-grandmother in a house sale in 1910. Until my father mended the lock this summer, it had to be wedged shut with a piece of paper.
Inside, there are piles of bedsheets. They are crisp and clean and aired. Not only has the linen press done the same job since the mid-1800s (my mother’s guess), it does so with far more success than my modern white IKEA wardrobe, which I put together as a teenager. The plywood shelves sink under piles of old, mothballed clothes.
Max Hastings recently lamented in The Spectator that the next generation will have nothing to do with ‘brown furniture’. Minimalism has much to answer for. For the past few decades, white has been the most fashionable colour; mahogany, less so. We were told to get rid of everything that didn’t ‘spark joy’, as the Japanese expert Marie Kondo put it. Interiors experts decreed that dark desks, chairs and chests were unfashionable. Modern furniture became the perfect symbol of our egalitarian age: it was cheap, democratic, classless.
Except that our age isn’t really that egalitarian and people are starting to realise that ‘brown furniture’ – either passed down between generations or picked up for a song at auction – is not to be looked down on.
In the past year, I have noticed more people of my millennial generation talking about – and wanting to get hold of – antique furniture. Last year, Mark Hill, author and expert on BBC’s long-running Antiques Roadshow, said to ‘watch out for the return of what is inadequately described as “brown furniture”‘. Pale modern Scandi has had its moment. ‘Quirky’, he said, ‘is cool’.
‘Brown’ and ‘cool’ aren’t words that often sit together but the figures back Hill up. For the first time since prices of antique furniture peaked in 2000-2001, they are increasing again. A set of balloon-back Victorian chairs that cost around £600 today are approximately £70 more expensive than in January 2017. Auction prices are also increasing. At Christie’s most recent interiors sale, a pair of George IV-style mahogany bookcases sold for £17,500, despite their £4,000-£6,000 estimate. Sales growth at IKEA, by contrast, slowed to two per cent in 2017 (compared to a seven per cent average since 2012).
In part, this is to do with the inevitable churn of fashion. The interiors gurus who once told us that brown furniture was out have now decided the opposite is true. But their advice is often to go for a statement piece, a bit of ‘eccentricity’, against a modern grey or white backdrop. It’s a very Soho House way of seeing the world.
A few young designers are – thankfully – starting to veer away from this look and are instead packing their houses full of brown furniture. The flat of 28-year-old interior designer and illustrator du jour Luke Edward Hall is a colourful compendium of assorted old objects set around a Victorian pedestal desk, hefty wooden sleigh bed and antique chests of drawers. Patrick Williams, an interior designer from Bath, has made period furniture his hallmark. He uses old church pews, hardwood dressers and lots of wooden picture frames. Tobias Vernon, the 30-year-old owner of the furniture and art gallery, 8 Holland Street, mixes old side tables with brightly patterned Murano glasses and handwoven wall-hangings.
I suspect the resurgence of brown furniture is more than just the latest fashionable fad. Yes, ‘#brownfurniture’ looks good on Instagram – the dark patina against the white backdrop of social media – but it also lasts, which makes it a sensible choice. What’s more, despite price rises, it can still be pretty cheap. A quick search on the vintage and antique online marketplace Pamono pulls up a late Georgian linen press not dissimilar to my family one for a few hundred pounds. If you went on the hunt, you could find a decent King William chest of drawers for less that £150. And the beauty of it is, as one friend put it, ‘you know it’s going to last because it’s not you who put it together’.
The virtuous love brown furniture because they can talk about it using terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’. Friends now return from early morning visits to Kempton Antiques Fair with stories of how they got their dinner table home or admit, with some pleasure, that they bought a desk for a snip on eBay.
But the real joy of brown furniture is that it has lived. A 17th century Windsor chair may bear the marks of its maker. A scratch in the arm where a bored child pulled a nail across the oak; a curve in the spindle where a back once rested. As yet, patina is not an additional extra you can request when customising your sofa on Made.com. Brown furniture has survived the bumps and bashes of time, and has outwitted the interiors experts. A self-assembled cupboard simply cannot beat the clunk of a well-made drawer.