WoodCentral's Book Reviews
Chinese Domestic Furniture

Chinese Domestic Furniture
by Gustav Ecke

Dover Publications: Originally 1944
Paperback, 224 pp., $18.95
ISBN 0-48625-171-3

     This is a deeply flawed book that I am very glad to own. The flaws are primarily organizational and structural in nature - the book is a reprint of sorts, of a 1944 edition which originally came in a cardboard portfolio with all sorts of text pages and photo plates and who knows what else, I imagine like the version of Uncle Gustav's doctoral thesis found in the trunk in the attic.
     While Dover claims to have simplified the organization (by, not least of all, binding it) it is still a nightmare to make any headway in reading the text while viewing the photos. The editors should have been much more ruthless in reorganizing the original work. The text is only LIV pages long (yes, all Roman numeral pagination), and it includes numbered drawn figures, which are not to be confused with the photographic plates, which make up the glorious core of the book, which is not the same as the List of Pieces, which has its own numerology or the plate page numbers. So reading a sentence which refers to Figure 11, pieces 121, 122, and plates 146, 147, with each reference actually sending you to a page of a different number, makes reading the text pretty tough sledding. Add in some Chinese characters and an attempt at English spelling of the Chinese words, and I confess I spend most of my time looking at the pictures.
     Enough of the rant. As I hinted earlier, this book contains many beautiful black and white photos of furniture of inventive and balanced design. The first plate is a larger than life size, full-page closeup of an elegant couch table leg foot. Some more pictures of couch tables are followed by a one-page plan of one table, finely rendered, with enough information to construct the piece.
     There are 150 pages of tables of all kinds, beds, chairs, wardrobes, cabinets, wash stands, clothes racks and more. Each photo is clear and there is a plan for maybe every fifth or sixth piece. This is followed by a cluttered four pages of clear diagrams with joinery techniques used in making furniture without glue or nails. The puzzle-like assembly of this stuff is a wonder in itself. A few pages of close-up photos of hardware completes the book.
     Since this originated as a scholarly work, with patient digging you can learn what joinery was used on each piece, what wood, and who owns the piece (as of 1944, I reckon). The reason I spend so much time with the book is because of the pictures of a non-Western furniture style that is beautiful, functional and aesthetically complete. As an inspiration to try something new, or wonder at the joinery of a different culture, you could hardly do better than these photos and drawings.
     As a picture reference, I would rate Chinese Domestic Furniture as a 9 on a scale of 10; as an editorial effort, I'd rate it as a 4 or less. Like other Dover books, though, it is softbound and inexpensive, so I have no difficulty recommending it for your woodworking library.

. . . Tom Sontag