Ball and claw furniture is not modern. At Huisraad Modern we’ve always struggled with the idea of featuring an imbuia ball and claw piece that we like, occasionally. Should we or should we not? The fact is that even though it is not modernist, most imbuia ball and claw furniture is not antique either, although a lot of people think it is.
The bulk of these antique looking furniture have been made in the 1940’s to the 1970’s (even still today) to look antique. Our guess is that furniture makers of the time recognised that there were many upwardly mobile people in the decades after World War II. The United States led the way with the idea of the American dream and the general optimism of the 1950’s.
Furniture manufacturers were probably thinking that it was the right time to supply people entering the middle class with furniture that looked like it had heritage and history and class. And it worked! There are still a lot of amazing hardwood, like imbuia and stinkwood and blackwood, standing around as ball and claw furniture in old farmhouses and in auction houses, fetching prices well below what the wood alone would be worth.
The ball and claw motif is very old. It was popular in England for about five decades after 1750. And then in America. But it is much older than that. Traders imported it from China to the west when they first went east in the 16th century. The Chinese motif was a dragon’s triple claw foot grasping a crystal ball, or a pearl, or sometimes a flaming jewel. In Chinese mythology, the dragon (Emperor) would be guarding the ball – a symbol of wisdom, or purity – from evil forces trying to steal it. These symbols are incredibly old, from long before the birth of Christ even.
So by making an imbuia ball and claw sideboard in Germiston or Parow in 1945, you could drag all that thousands of years of history and gravity into a lower middle class home of a new generation of upwardly mobile civil servants.
Yet, inauthentic or not, it is part of our heritage as Afrikaans kids who grew up in the platteland and suburbs. That unmistakeable spicy scent of imbuia wood is almost part of our DNA. That is why we will, from time to time, feature such a piece. We will just not paint it pastel green with chalk paint. That is where we draw the line…