Saturday, November 28, 2015

M&T Honors Cultural Heritage

This is Part Five of a seven day series leading up to the official December 1st opening of pre-orders for Mortise & Tenon Magazine Issue One. Each day I’m discussing one tenet of the Mortise & Tenon Manifesto.


5. M&T honors cultural heritage. We believe that patina makes an object more beautiful. We agree with David Pye that “the effects of age and wear are powerful diversifying agents”. And because historic artifacts are representations of the life and values of our ancestors, patina is cherished as a document of the past just as much as the piece’s original construction.
The license plate on my work van reads “PATINA”. I never was one for vanity plates but a few years ago I decided to give it a shot. I occasionally get folks looking at the plate who ask, “Patina? Who is she? Is that your wife?” I jokingly tell my friends that if people don’t understand the license plate, I probably won’t end up doing work for them.

Among antiquarians, the natural wear and tear and grime and soiling from 200 years of honest use is something unanimously understood and cherished. There is something almost mysterious about seeing the “fingerprints” of multiple generations’ daily life scrawled across the surface of an artifact. It transports us into the past. We feel a real connection to those that have lived before us as we live with and use the same object. This is sometimes called the “associative value” because, through the object, we associate with our ancestors.

Conservators are keen to this concept and that is exactly why “patina” is often retained. Removing finishes, sanding raw wood, and replacing original components are all subtractive processes that must be very carefully considered before performing. No matter how many dings and layers of glaze you apply, they will never be authentic marks of use. Removing original material from historic objects obliterates the evidence of the piece’s “life”. And once it has been erased, it is gone forever.

I think that this associative value, at least at some level, is the foundation for the beauty attributed to patina. Pye has explained that patina breaks up the visual monotony of an unused surface and thereby aesthetically enhances it.


But when is dirt just dirt? When does an artifact “need” to be cleaned? The answer to this question lies not within objective tablets of stone that govern every scenario. The question is satisfied only by assessing the values the object actually does have. Is it truly a historic artifact or is it just a comfortable seat? Does this object still retain utilitarian value or after 300 years, has its “usefulness” been eclipsed by its research or historic education value? The way I see it, the locus of the conservation mission is to preserve or restore the most significant values an object does actually have. Historic artifacts are preserved for research and museum display (or private collection) and common forms are preserved for daily use.

M&T honors our cultural heritage. One of the distinctive missions of this publication is to educate readers about the importance and value of preserving historic furniture. The M&T vision is to deepen appreciation of the creative work of our ancestors. Surviving artifacts are all we have of them and without careful stewardship of these “documents” of the past, the voices and fingerprints of our ancestors will be erased forever.

1 comment:

  1. This seems in the same vein as the tool collector's dilemma - to repaint or not to repaint. Are we erasing history when we restore, or are we adding new history so that the object can be used and enjoyed as intended for yet another 100 years? As much as repairs done to a table 80 years ago by a long-gone previous owner who did not care about the future history of the object are part of the history of an object, are our own more conscientious decisions any less a part of the story?

    I fully understand patina. Many of my tools do and will retain much of it after I've cleaned them and readied them for use again. But at a certain point that is different for every craftsman an object is just too far gone and the choice is to restore or retire. I suppose it's the same with well-made furniture.

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