Thursday, March 26, 2020

Mysterious Secrets of Faraway Furniture

Many antique shops make their home in St. Tammany Parish. One can find an infinite array of exquisite furniture, either locally produced, from somewhere across America and even from around the world. Local antique shops pride themselves by shipping in unique pieces from New Orleans, from Europe, and even beyond. 

In 1976, newspaper feature writer Polly Morris wrote this article about a particular teakwood bedroom set found at Windhaven Antiques in Mandeville. Who made it, where it did come from, and what did its intriguing designs mean? These were the interesting questions she explored in this incredible article.

Windhaven Antiques Has Furniture from Far-away Cathay

By Polly Morris

The massive teakwood bedroom set defies description. Although it rests among peerless antiques of Windhaven it nevertheless seems aloof and isolated in its unique splendor. Like a mighty monarch amid princlings, magnificent, marvelous and very, very mysterious.

Little is known about the set's history. Dale Gale of Windhaven Antiques in Mandeville found it in a New Orleans shop where it had been stored for at least 15 years. She knows only that the solid teakwood bedstead, cabinet, and two vanities came from China in about 1840, that they are at least 200 years old, and that they resemble furniture that is in the palace in Taiwan.

At first glance the furniture seems sombre and brooding, for the heavy teakwood has turned almost black with age. Then the light reflects from a deeply carved satin surface, and a Iotus blossom seems to emerge from the dark depths of the wood. One notices a long bill bird winging its way over Iris blossoms swaying on long slender stems. A dragon twists Itself against a cabinet door, and a strange Jungle fowl peers curiously from over a mirror.

Suddenly one realizes that all of these things are part of a story difficult to piece together because so much is missing or uncertain or obscure.

The Tree

The story of the bedroom set could not have begun in China, for teak does not grow there. Somewhere in India, Burma, or Siam, one tree produced a white flower that was unlike the other sterile blooms.  A seed was formed, fell to the forest floor and slowly germinated and took root. It must have lost its leaves at least 100 times before it attained the size for harvesting. Then natives would have girdled it and left it to die and season for two years.

How the tree was transported to China is a mystery, but it was a difficult journey for teakwood weighs 45 pounds per cubic foot.  At its destination, it would be among other teakwood before it alone was selected because of  its perfection. Even teakwood for rafters or woodwork was costly, but this choice tree would be the most expensive of all.

Only the Best

The fact that the teakwood was chosen for a bedroom set is a most significant chapter in the story. It tells that no ordinary Chinaman would rest on the bed. That no coolie's wife would admire her reflection in the mirror of the vanity. Such as them slept on the floor and had only simple furniture in their houses. If they had any at all, a bedroom set was only for someone of importance.

The designer for the set would be selected as carefully as the teakwood. He would not only be artistic, but educated to the fitness of the finished product. He would ponder long hours before he even begun his sketch. He would need to know certain facts about the future owner in order to please him in every detail.

Would the Master favor Buddha or Confucius or the Old Boy Lao Tee, who rode a water buffalo into oblivion. Did the honorable man prefer Spring to Fall? This was most important because there was a flower for every season: Chrysanthemums for Autumn, Tree Peonies for Spring, and Plum Blossoms for Winter. So there must have been a reason for choosing the Summertime Lotus blooms.

It would be interesting to know why the designer included Iris also. And why he sketched In a stubby-tailed bird with a long beak. Although it resembled the New World hummingbird, it could be a woodpecker for did not Sui Ren, the Provider of Fire, learn the valuable secret from watching a pecking bird strike sparks from a tree.

Reluctant Dragons

The designer would have put much thought into a dragon design. Though the benevolent dragon was the emblem of China, and therefore popular, it could be a problem.

Woodcarvers were occasionally careless and if one chipped off even one toe of the mythical beast the 4-clawed Chinese Dragon became a Japanese monster. And if a  carver accidentally let a chisel slip and scratched the wood, sharp-eyed critics would say that it had been intended as an extra claw.  And even ignorant coolies knew that the Imperial Dragon of 5 claws could be used only by the Emperor.

The Carvers

The real backbreaking work began when the design had been traced on the teakwood and sent to the woodcarvers. For hours and months and years they would bend over the wood, carefully carving each tiny detail. It was Impossible for several carvers to produce identical work but it was expected of them That they tried is evident, for only the closest examination shows that one lotus bud might be a millimeter deeper than the others.

It is impossible to estimate now many men worked for years to make a work of art from a smooth piece of teakwood. No doubt It took years of effort, but the patient Chinese were perfectionists and time was of no importance.

There is nothing on the bedroorn set to suggest where it came from or for whom it was made. It is likely that the nameless workmen knew who would use their handiwork for an important man would encourage and inspire them to special effort. It would be interesting if one could capture their thoughts as their strong artistic fingers so long deed, carved intricate leaves and flowers and tendrils. A carver would know the number of toes for the "LUNG", or dragon, and how It scales overlapped. Or he would wonder about the fenghuang" over the mirror.

Did this bird really live at least 500 years then commit suicide by burning Its own nest and rise from its own ashes?  Did the beautiful bird with the long brilliant tail really have a musical voice? This he could not answer, but this he knew, the phoenix he was carving was the emblem of the Empress.

Incredible Journey

One of the greatest mysteries of all is how the bedroom set  came to New Orleans. It must have cost a small fortune to ship it from China.  Although it might have made a couple of stopovers en route. One thing is quite certain, its owners have been people of wealth or position to have possessed it in the first place. But why did such a fine collection end up in an antique stop for 15 years?

Perhaps someday the set can be traced and the intricate carvings explained. But meanwhile it is enough to look at it and wonder about its secrets. And Imagine a sloe-eyed Empress, dainty as a doll In a teacup, teetering on tiny bound feet to see her face in a mirror that somehow ended its incredible Journey in Mandeville.

St. Tammany News Banner May 1976

See also:

Old Ice House Now Renaisance Antiques


Polly Morris joined the writing team at the Mandeville Banner in February of 1974.