"I can't just talk about my subject," began Richard Latrobe-Bateman. "I must talk about my view of the world is that I think we're actually doomed." This got the attention of the audience. A man with white hair rolled his eyes and looked at his wife. She stared at her hands. A student looked up from the book he was reading. The two dozen people who gathered at Mesa College on March 27 weren't anticipating such an introduction. They were expecting a quiet talk on the them, "Are We (as Craftsmen) Being Taken Seriously Enough?"
The speaker had reached his pessimistic conclusion by looking at chairs — other people's chairs. An acclaimed furniture craftsman who has been commissioned to design the sanctuary furniture for St. Mark's Cathedral in England. Latrobe-Bateman for years has been attempting to make the perfect chair, something he never expects to accomplish. In the meantime, he explains what other designers are doing wrong.
Dressed as the stereotypical English professor in a tired herringbone jacket and an open-collared shirt, he advised his audience "never to underestimate people's bad taste in furniture." He said we live "in an age of internationalism, and that's disastrous culturally. Our culture is now completely godless and materialistic. you might say, 'So what?'" (A student nodded and silently mouthed, 'So what?'") "But if you compare what that means with the Middle Ages, when people believed in a loving God, you see there's a gap." That gap must be filled by something, he said, and in our culture it's filled by fashion. People are more interested in what's new than in what's good. "We see this in the furniture field."
Latrobe-Bateman said modernism has triumphed in furniture design as in the fine and plastic arts, and "you can exactly define modernism: The object shall be the result of new materials, a new manufacture, or a new arrangement of parts. True modernism has no style." Economics, not good taste, dictates the aesthetics of furniture nowadays, he claimed, waving his arms. People shifted uncomfortably in their chairs; many listeners were themselves makers of furniture, and they did not seem to appreciate the implications of what was being said.
The nearly complete grip of modernism on furniture design may be attributed partly to the educational system, "If Johnny isn't good at math or history, you put him where? In the shop class, the least intelligent end up doing woodwork."
The sense of unease was broken by later. There is a "hidden curriculum." Verging on the conspiratorial, in schools of furniture design. "No design counts unless it is modernistic." He explained that it once was the fashion to "display great wealth vulgarly" gold doorknobs, marble walls, carved furniture with inlaid mother of pearl. It was gross, and even the nouveau riche knew it. The wealthy now "turn to art that is known to be very expensive but is quite unintelligible. I try to mock such people." The student went back to reading his book. Latrobe Bateman continued by saying. "Until the seventeenth century, furniture making was the subpart of architecture and all was for the greater glory of God. Then came the dominance of the moneyed classes."
More shifting in seats, mainly by the better dressed. An older man fingered his wristwatch. "Since 1920 modernism has been universally accepted. And that's my vision of history." After presenting his world view, Latrobe-Bateman gave a slide show, which began with what he considered bad furniture. The audience, making no effort to muffle gasps, seemed to agree. The prime exhibit was an alabaster wash basin. The flutes, filigrees, and whirls on the stand so overpowered the basin itself that from a distance once would have trouble guessing what the object might be. "I "m ashamed to be part of a culture that makes ornate furniture, "Latrobe-Bateman said, after displaying similarly vulgar work. Done with his complaints he displayed to regain his audience. He started with what seemed to be an unexceptional, unpadded chair. It was indistinguishable from what might be found in a modest business office. A series of slides showed its progression to a state of near perfection. IN each subsequent slide, it had fewer pieces and looked less like a conventional chair. "The ideal chair is the minimum number of pieces and as simple a geometry as possible that can be arranged to be comfortable."
Latrobe-Bateman's final version was made of only five pieces of wood. His prize work, thought, was not a chair but a massive table. It was commissioned for a dining room at Oxford University's Pembroke College. The eating surface was made of two seven meter slabs of wood, joined along their long edges. To keep the table from sagging, Latrobe-Bateman added an inverted truss at the middle of the underside. A vertical shaft reached part way to the floor, and diagonal beams ran from the shaft's lower end to the top of the legs. The crowd by this time could sense little difference between the modernistic furniture Latrobe-Bateman excoriated and the furniture he made. A man asked. "Do you really see yourself as ant Modernistic?" said Latrobe-Bateman, and people turned to look at one another in puzzlement. He said he had stumbled onto using triangular shapes for his furniture, and when he employs such shaped ("The engineer's basic form") , he ends up with modernistic furniture. There was sustained applause.