A Campaign with Style
By Scott Baldinger
Imperialism, though hardly favored as a form of foreign policy by Western nations today, was often the mother of invention in previous eras, particularly when it came to the design of English furniture for the military in the late 18th and 19th centuries. As the island nation’s armies moved to bring a Pax Britannica to nearly a quarter of the globe during the late Georgian and throughout the Victorian eras, it led to the creation of what is now called Campaign Furniture, whose ingenious portability was a model of industrial-age ingenuity, the influence of which is evident in Mid-Century modernism and beyond, to new work being created now in the twenty-first century. While completely unsuited to the realities of modern-day warfare that began even before World War 1 — to the point that the Secretary of State for War in 1903, H. O. Arnold-Forster said that “The British Army is a social institution prepared for every emergency except that of war” — Campaign Furniture is, to this day, a model of functionality, comfort, and elegant design ideal for the contemporary home, if not for war itself.
For a commissioned officer of high social rank in the English army, it was absolutely essential to bring — even to the farthest and most inhospitable reaches of the world — high-quality chests, beds, chairs, and other accoutrements reminiscent of the comforts of home, including also large dining tables, sofas, cabinets, wardrobes, book shelves, and desks. Many of these were carefully designed to be of current fashion, making them commercial enough for purchase by the non-military public. Such “essential” components of a gentleman’s home life were usually folded up to a portable size with the use of brass caps to the tops of legs, hinges, and protruding bolts, and were carried through the wilds of Africa, South America, and Asia on camel or horseback.
A handsome example is available at Stair Gallery’s auction of English, Continental & American Furniture, Fine Art and Decorations on June 28th. The description from the Stair catalogue itself is suggestive of the innovative combination of fine furniture workmanship and the nation’s burgeoning industrial might and innovation: Lot 523 is a “Victorian Mahogany Folding Campaign Bed, Robinson & Son’s, Ilkley, Yorkshire, with retractable backrest continuing to the foot rest, raised on turned legs with pierced brass wheels, fitted with a tufted mattress, on top of metal springs, the brass hinges signed ‘Robinson’s Patent Ilkley.’ For a mid-level officer desiring to be comfortably recumbent under harsh conditions, the bed is of particular convenience; even with its attractively turned legging, it is far more pared down in design than other examples from the period, which included even four-poster beds – and an especially hardy dromedary to carry them.
“You can see how twentieth-century designers from Eileen Gray to Edward Wormley to Kaare Klint were inspired by Campaign furniture such as this piece,” says David Petrovsky, an antiques dealer with a special interest in the British Colonial period. “Some even did lines named after it. Without the Campaign style precedent, perhaps it might not have even dawned on someone like Eileen Gray to create her chrome chaise lounge that could be turned into a cot.”