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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Furniture > Art Deco & 1930s Bookcases

* Adjustable Chairs
* 1930s & Art Deco Bookcases
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Art Deco & 1930s Book Cases


 Storing books wasn't much of a problem for most people before this century; they didn't have enough books to make it worthwhile. In the 1930s, though, bookcases were in the forefront of modern design ideas.

 Book ownership rose quite dramatically between the wars. Much of this was to do with the development of the paperback - and particularly the appearance of Penguins in the late 1930s. Less exclusive than hardhacks, they called for more compact, functional and up-to-the-minute cases than had been normal before that time.

Bookcase design has always reflected the value put on hooks. Illuminated manuscripts were not cased at all, but locked away in chests. The first custom-made English bookcases known were commissioned by Samuel Pepys in 1666 and still stand in Magdalen College Cambridge. Such cases, made for scholars tended to be functional joinery items.

Many cabinetmakers of the 18th century excelled in making grand and portentous cases for country houses, where book collections display d the intellectual prowess, real or imagined, of the gentry. These cases boasted architectural features, including crowned triangular pediments, and often had lockable glazed fronts. Glass-fronted bookshelves were also included in such hybrid pieces as secretair bookcases and bureau bookcases.


During the Regency, elegant, low 'dwarf' bookcases left the walls free for paintings and prints, but the Victorians tended to go more for massive and monumental pieces. The first signs of a more modern approach to housing hooks came with the range of unpolished oak bookcases made by Heal's at the end of the 19th century. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, they were pleasingly simple.

An interesting development of 1884 was the 'elastic' or sectional bookcase, to which pieces could he added as needed, which was sold as always complete but never finished'. Bookcases like this, a minority taste before World War 1, appealed to furniture makers between the wars who were intrigued by the space-saving possibilities.

As books were more plentiful and less precious than before, the glass front was dropped from many cases. Their outlines were lighter and more functional, and they were also made of lighter materials, such as plywood, generally veneered or painted white. The concept of unit furniture, which could fit small spaces but be added to at will, was particularly suited to bookcase design.

In the 1930s, books came off the walls for the first time, and began to be housed in custom-made free-standing pieces.

With the exception of a few Edwardian examples in Arts and Crafts styles, few 20th-century bookcases can be seen as collectors' items, and they are unlikely to turn up in prestige auctions, but they are a staple of second-hand furniture warehouses and shops. As this suggests, they are bought today more to use than to gaze upon.

This said, some of the 1930s bookcases produced by such concerns as Waring & Gillow, Heal's and Gordon Russell are among the most pleasingly-designed, compact pieces of storage furniture you can get. Look out for pieces veneered in typically pale 1930s woods such as bird's-eye maple, or with unusual geometric shapes - anything but simple square or oblong boxes.

Bookshelves were often combined with other pieces as part of the space-saving mania of the inter-war years. As well as modern versions of bureau-bookcases and other traditional hybrid pieces, bookshelves were sold as part of integrated storage spaces, in the form of book tables - small occasional tables with shelves all around the base - or were even tucked away in the 'wasted' areas of other types of furniture, like the sides of writing desks and the arms of sofas.

Some plywood furniture can look a little flimsy, and it's a good idea to check a piece's stability before you buy it. Rock it gently to see if there is any play in the shelves, and avoid pieces that move too much. If a piece is glazed, check that the glass is well-seated and has not been replaced. Be on the look-out, too, for peeling veneers, a particular problem with 1930s furniture; the combination of a plywood carcass, thin veneers and central heating has often proved disastrous. Many cheap plywood pieces have been repainted more than once; another coat will do no harm.

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by Woodsmith Custom Woodworking, Oxmoor House; Hardcover

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