Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Challenge of Sourcing Appropriate Period Items

Decorative plaque - provided by - USA
If you are interested in architectural and interior design of the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, or you’re looking to restore a home built in a revival of these styles, one of the primary challenges is to find appropriate materials here in the States. Eighty years ago, it was easy to source such items as plaster cornice and mouldings, fireplaces, brackets, corbels, light fixtures, hardware and furniture that would look right in a Tudor-revival home. Today, there is little available. Other than the handful of legacy remnants available from old line US suppliers like Decorators Supply or Fischer & Jirousch, almost no one makes them anymore, aside from high end custom crafters and cabinetmakers.

Today, most suppliers offer a range of classically-inspired products that would fit well into a colonial or Georgian home, but provide almost nothing that is suitable to an earlier time period. Whether it’s a chair rail moulding, a wooden mantel, or even a wooden interior door—the choices are generally limited to very common traditional designs. Think of egg-and-dart, dentil mouldings, colonial casings or the ubiquitous colonial six-panel door and you know what I mean.

Even in my own house, built in 1992, I was limited to these sort of items in terms of availability and budget. I did demand a rather chunky staircase balustrade and had a very large, custom newel post built—I also had a custom mantelpiece made for the family room that was essentially Arts & Crafts in design. Any other resulting detail items I could manage were best described as Victorian (small carved wooden brackets in the dining/living room openings, and faux-plaster ceiling medallions over the kitchen and dining room lights. My doors were six-panel colonial, since the only other affordable and easily-obtainable alternative was a plain surface hollow-core slab door.

Staircase - courtesy Distinctive Country Furniture LTD - UK
As it turned out, the result was ok; many of these items might have been found in similar combination in an “Old English” house of an earlier time—particularly here in America, where styles were often blended together. As time goes on and I embark on future projects, I may remedy this situation to some extent, as far as time and budget allow.

If one has the means to import items from the UK, the issue is not quite as severe. A better selection is available, not to mention salvage items available from both online and brick-and-mortar vendors. In addition, my Twitter feed is full of highly skilled craftsmen who work in stone, plaster, glass, iron and wood, and almost any of them can create something both appropriate and beautiful—for a commensurate price. Sadly, the exchange rate and shipping across the Atlantic remain serious considerations, but for many, this remains a worthy option.

For those who are fearless, and who possess some level of skill and imagination, the remaining alternative is to make these items yourself. If one is able to obtain at least one appropriate decorative item, it is not so hard to make a mold and cast (in plaster or resin) the additional number required. Originals can be shaped in clay, or carved from wood, if one has the patience and requisite skill. Even if one lacks the ability to do hand-work, modern technology makes it possible to model a decorative piece using 3-dimensional software and send a file to a woodshop with a CNC router that can carve the item from a block of wood in a matter of minutes. Not inexpensive, but often less costly than paying a craftsman to make it by hand.

Lovely medieval floor chest - courtesy Early Oak Reproductions - UK
Perhaps the best solution is to use a combination of all these methods when it comes to sourcing decorative items for your period home. Where common or traditional materials can be made to “fit the bill”—feel free to use them and flip the resulting savings into cash that can be used to purchase those few specialty “feature” items that will set your project apart.

Likewise, do not be afraid to try your hand at creating a decorative detail yourself. If it doesn’t turn out quite as perfect as you would have liked, you don’t have to use it in your entrance foyer; integrate it into a bedroom, a back hall, or even a basement rec room—places where any shortcomings will be slightly less visible.

Stone carved head - courtesy Nick Roberson - UK
I would also suggest that at some point you spend the money and have a craftsman build or create some feature item that you can integrate into your interior or exterior design. It may only be a single door, a carving for a fireplace, a plaster panel or a bit of iron hardware, but it will add both value and pride to your finished project. In this age of technology, traditional crafts cannot be allowed to disappear, and it is important that we support them so they will be available to future generations. Today’s best craftsmen work hard to learn their trade and spend many hours researching proper design and technique—whether it involves carving stone, building furniture or modelling in plaster. The results of this speak for themselves. Make use of them if you can.

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