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I have always thought today’s vocabulary word sounds like an old-fashioned soda or confection. Something someone could have ordered at the fountain or candy counter at a General Store in the very early 1900’s. Another, older and now much less used, variation of this term is “barley sugar twist”, which sounds even sweeter. But, in fact, this is what it looks like:
See the twisted legs? Those are “barley twist” legs. This style dates back hundreds of years. It actually takes its shape from the architectural term referred to as a “Solomonic column”. The “Solomon” in that term comes from the belief that helix shaped columns…
…were used as structural pillars for the roof of Solomon’s Temple, of Bible fame. Of course, that was believed to have been built a long time ago, circa 600 BCE, so we have to rely on the oral history. Nevertheless you can still find Solomonic columns in architecture today. Here’s one of the most famous examples:
Beautiful, huh? Look at how large it is compared to the people in the bottom left of the picture. This canopy is made of carved bronze and sits over the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. This is Bernini’s design of St. Peter’s baldacchino (pronounced “bowel-da-KEEN-oh”, which is Italian for a form of canopy.) That’s hand carved bronze. my friends. No machines to help built this back in the 1700’s.
In fact, all of the early barley twist furniture was hand carved, too. It was generally used as a form of support in a larger piece of furniture, like the table I showed you above or this reproduction chair:
I’ve always admired the meticulous measuring skills that must have gone into making the curves so evenly spaced. That must have taken such planning and patience to plan out before the carving even began. As soon as mechanical woodworking tools started to be developed a couple of centuries ago, a technique was developed to turn pieces of wood on a lathe and carve the curves in as the wood turned. Here is a working lathe with a craftsmen putting a barley twist pattern onto a lathe, to show you what I mean:
The barley twist pattern was very popular in English furniture design and had many revivals, including the early 1800’s and then again throughout Queen Victoria’s reign in the mid to late 19th century. Because the British Empire was stretched across the globe, many of its ideas for fashionable furniture design travelled, too.
Before long, people were using the barley twist as an ornamental feature, instead of a structural one. You can see how the detailing of all those curves gives this mirror an extra sense of layered opulence:
Here’s an example applied to a modern crafted desk, designed to look like a heavy antique:
And my personal favorite, a bed where the barley twist columns themselves are the show-stopping, non-structural, ornamentation:
There is also a variation of this term called “open barley twist”, with “open” meaning “hollow”. In older pieces this was very uncommon, because it took away the strength that made the column structural in the first place. You generally only saw open barley twist appear in small items, like these brass candlesticks:
I chose this term for our Design Vocabulary today because I’ve noticed a rising popularity of this form in recent months. I first saw barley twists showing up in all sorts of designer table lamps, like this lovely floor lamp:
Do you like the simple curved shape? I think this can work with almost any style preference, from modern to period-accurate antiques. You can find barley twist popping in materials beyond furniture, too, such as this lovely retro print by designer Robert Kime:
Can you see the elegant barley twist in the pattern? Most people wouldn’t even know where the pattern name comes from, but now you do!
And remember how I explained that the open barley twist form was generally only used for smaller items, because of structural integrity issues? Well, an American designer decided that seemed like a good challenge. When I saw this table recently…my jaw actually dropped:
How gorgeous is that?! Wait, here’s a close up of the legs and delicate corners:
It’s not delicate in strength, though. Here’s the proof:
That table would make me throw out my tablecloths forever!
So now you can spot a barley twist, in all it’s varieties. Have you seen one in a store lately and not realized it has a name? Do you have an old piece of family furniture with barley twist legs? What other design terms have you always wanted to know the meaning of? Leave your thoughts in a comment and you may see your ideas in an upcoming Design Vocabulary post!
I have missed you over my two week summer vacation and have lots to share with you! My apologies for my prolonged absence.
Unfortunately, the end of my vacation brought me a badly jammed right thumb that requires an out-patient procedure with my doctor later this week. Until next Monday, typing is out of the question for me, doctor’s orders. (Mr. CARO, husband extraordinaire, is patiently typing this note to you as I dictate. He’s a sweetie!)
Until Monday, feel free to browse the archives to see if you missed anything. Have a great week and I will talk with you soon!
I’ve been noticing a new design trend across the industry lately. You might have noticed it, too, if you get a lot of catalogs. It looks a little something like this:
These are stools. Although, I would argue you could also use them as side tables. Have you noticed how many of these are popping up in stores and catalogs? They seem to be everywhere.
The product description for the pastel stools above reads:
“You’ll instantly fall in love with the Kenneth Stool, a chic, contemporary seat that is available in a range of bright, inviting colors. Place one or several in your living room, kitchen, bedroom or home bar for a sophisticated and modern look that is also playful and full of fun personality.”
The thing is…I’ve been wondering if people really buy and use these stools. I am all for modern design and I love the advances that have been made in acrylic furniture and accent decor over the past decades.
However, most of the adults I know don’t really prefer to sit on stools in a furnished room. It’s a little like being seated at the Thanksgiving kid’s table when you’re 40. You can see the comfy sofa across the room, but you have to sit perched like Miss Muffet while making conversation.
(Yes, that’s a stool, too. I can’t decide if the inspiration was a bean bag or a circus clown’s nose.)
Would you offer stools to your guests in your living room? I just don’t think it says, “Welcome, and make yourself at home”. This should be a consideration when you realize that some of these stools can be quite expensive. Like these:
These are made of cork and are $450. Each. I wish there was some way to find out if anyone had ever bought them as a set.
Most Americans decorate their homes in casual-eclectic mix and I’m not sure what decor these colors would join or in what room they would add legitimate seating. For example, I don’t know who these guys are (European boy band reunion?), but I would be a little nervous sitting on these:
Now, to be fair, there are some stools that I really do like, such as these classic jardinieres:
I really like the shiny modern finish options. You could use one as a nice side table by an arm chair or even an interesting plant stand in a hallway. Of course, they could also work outside, as they were originally designed to do centuries ago.
This stool, in a garden setting…
…also seems perfectly reasonable and frankly, rather charming. I also like the idea of stools with storage in them:
It could be a real bonus in a kid’s room. Anything that can help clean-up time gets a warm welcome from parents.
Some stools I’ve seen also remind me of something else. Like these, which seem a little like a modern chess pawns to me:
These walnut stools have actually been around for a while. They were designed by Charles and Ray Eames. You can read more about them right here.
Now what does this stool remind you of? Folded paper? Folded cloth? Something…
And some of these stools look downright uncomfortable for the human form. This stool is made of stainless steel:
It would have to be a table in any home setting I can imagine.
“Umm…..no, thank you. I’ll just stand…and hold my drink.”
All in all, most of these new stools make me think I’ve wandered into the consignment shop of Lewis Carroll’s imagination. What do you think of this current trend? Can you think of a place where you would use a new stool in your home? Leave a comment and share your opinions.All of the above pictures are linked to their retailers, to make shopping and browsing easy…and to prove I’m not making any of these designs up!