To be or not to be: Identification vs. Attribution

When it comes to identifying mid century Australian furniture, a little knowledge
can go a long way. So often we rely on reference materials, original manufacturer
labels, or provenance to correctly identify post-war designs.  But in lieu of such
important information, it may not be possible to make a clear identification,
and it is in these cases that the term ‘attribution’ may be used.

The word ‘attribution’ carries with it a range of concerns. It’s a
word that tells me immediately that there is no solid documentation
that identifies the designer of a particular design. According to the
Ruby Lane Antiques website:

“Attribution is a term often misunderstood and/or misused. The
meaning is sometimes confused with, or intended to be a substitute
for the word
 identification. An attribution remains only the subjective
declaration or opinion of the researcher(s), even after careful research
of a unique unmarked item is conducted and documented, with an
aim toward arriving at a credible conclusion.

Further, this opinion remains subject to change, if or when additional
scholarly information becomes available and dictates a change should
be made. An attribution will always retain a reasonable element of doubt,
either due to the rarity of the item, atypical physical characteristics, or
other factors. If not, it could be said the item has been
 identified as
being by such and such a maker, artist, etc., rather than
 attributed to.
, on the other hand, will determine the exact nature of the
item and its origins. It is measurable, scientific and objective”.

So the differences between identification and attribution may seem quite
clear, but that doesn’t mean that what you see is always what you get.
An attribution can sometimes be made on the flimsiest of evidence to
raise the status of an item or secure a sale, especially when it comes
to attributing mid-century pieces to iconic Australian designers. The
status and price tag of an unknown post-war lamp or chair can be
catapulted from junk to classic by attaching the right designers name
to an object.

Although there may be a few dodgy individuals out there, its important
to note that not all attributions and identifications are based on deception,
as there is often a lot of time consuming and detailed research that goes
into attaching a designer’s name to an object. But even with the best
intentions we are all capable of making mistakes, so It’s important to
remember that just because a design may appear similar to the work
of a particular designer, that does not necessarily translate as proof
of an identification or attribution. In absence of relevant documentation
and/or provenance, a solid case needs to be built in order to make an
accurate attribution or identification. In building that case, it important
to identify design characteristics such as materials, style, age, and
techniques, that may be particular to a designer.

The task of making an identification or attribution can sometimes be
easy, and other times extremely difficult. I recently spent months trying
to identify a pair of vintage light fittings which I thought was possibly
by the great French designer Mathieu Mategot, but turned out to be a rare
example of a design by Australian lighting company Newton & Gray,
based in Melbourne in the 1950’s. Thanks here must go to my partner
who spotted the lamp in a 1950’s magazine, but without that knowledge,
those splendid wall lamps would remain a mystery, like the designs
of so many Australian mid-century designers.

Figure 1: Korody Chair and footstool (Powerhouse Museum) and Bernard Jones
‘Tropical Chair’ (The Courier-Mail, 14 September 1953, page 16).

A case in point is this George Korody chair and footstool (see Figure 1)
featured on the Powerhouse Museum website. At first glance the chair
shares some of the design properties associated with Korody, such as
the cane seat and back; and there is also provenance in the form of a
purchase receipt from the original owners. All sounds pretty convincing,
but I believe that the chair in question is actually the ‘Tropical Chair’
designed in 1953 by Bernard Jones and I have found 3 publications
from the period that provide good evidence that Jones was the designer
of this chair.

Interestingly, Jones’ ‘Tropical Chair’ was also sold with a footstool, which
as you can see in the photograph above, has a gentle curve, making it
different to the footstool in the Powerhouse Museum photograph. So
what do we have here? I would say that the Powerhouse Museum
have a fantastic example of a genuine Bernard Jones’ ‘Tropical Chair’
and stunning George Korody footstool. Of course, I may be wrong but
I believe that after comparing the two chairs there is definitely enough
evidence to suggest that this scenario is highly probable.

Okay, so I hear you say that it’s possible that the Courier Mail newspaper
got it wrong and put an incorrect caption with the photograph of the
‘Tropical Chair’, and you would be right in making such a suggestion.
In my opinion, the more evidence you gather, the stronger the case, and
an article in The Australian Women’s Weekly (1963) shows Jones relaxing
at home in his ‘Tropical Chair’ helps to bolster the argument. It’s also
good having an additional photograph of the chair from a different angle
in order to compare the Jones’ chair with Korody chair and footstool in
the Powerhouse Museum.

This is not to say that the Powerhouse Museum are not acting in good
faith, on the contrary, they are simply working with the information at
their disposal. I suggest that over the passage of time, whoever
donated the chair and stool to the Powerhouse Museum may have
simply mistaken the ‘Tropical Chair’ for the original Korody chair which
they purchased back in the 1950’s from Artes Studio in Sydney.
Whatever the result, it just goes to show how difficult identification of
mid-century design can be.

Figure 2: Jones relaxing in his ‘Tropical Chair’ (The Australian Women’s Weekly, 1963).

On the subject of George Korody (1890-1957), there have been a
number of Korody pieces sold through auction houses in Melbourne
in 2013 that require further investigation. The first item in question is
an auto-trolley ‘attributed’ to Korody, and the second item a pair
of armchairs sold as a Korody design.

Figure 3: Auto-trolley attributed to Korody (left) and Summer tone ‘tea trolley’ advertisment (right) in Architecture and Arts magazine in 1954.

At first glance the auto-trolley (see figure 3) has some design
features that are often attributed to Korody, such as the black
glass (vitrolite) shelves and the compass style legs. To my
eye, this auto-trolley doesn’t fit the Korody design ouvre, rather
this design appears to have more in common with a timber
tea trolley produced by Sydney based furniture manufacturer
Summertone in 1954

Figure 4: Korody armchair c.1940 (left) and advertisment for The “Viking” Unit Lounge Suite.

In March 2013, “a pair of rare armchairs c.1940” (figure 4) were sold
as a George Korody design at an auction house in Melbourne, but as
you can see in the photograph above, the ‘Korody armchair’ bears a
strong resemblance to the “Viking” Unit Lounge Suite sold in the 1950’s
through Mark Foys department store in Sydney. It’s fair to say that
the Korody chair (pictured above) does embody some of the
chunky qualities associated with Korody chair designs, but it
is also reasonable to suggest that both designs share what
appears to be the same timber arms and leg construction.
I think the jury is out in regards to the true designer of these
beautiful armchairs.

Some furniture designs are extremely difficult to indentify
due to a lack of information regarding particular designers,
and with some designs now over 60 years old, finding documented
evidence of a particular furniture design can prove extremely difficult.
A good place to start is the Trove website where you can
search through a database of archival newspapers,
magazines and photographs. State libraries often have
extensive design archives where you can access period
magazines such as Australian Home Beautiful and Better Homes
and Garden.

To me, it’s all a bit like solving a mystery, there are clues and leads
that need to be followed up, but there also red herrings that may
lead you down the wrong track. Solid evidence must be gathered
before making an attribution, simply wanting it to be a Featherston
chair won’t transform it into one. Overall, what’s most important
to me is that the person responsible for the design gets the
kudos that he/she deserves.

Happy researching!


2 thoughts on “To be or not to be: Identification vs. Attribution

  1. How timely is your information on George Korody’s trolley. Only yesterday I bought a “1940’s Trolley with black glass”. I believe the piece has Vitrolite shelves, so looked up Powerhouse to research, only to find the trolley you believe is a Summertone. However the side board they claim is a George Korody has a mobile section with large wooden wheels that has black Vitrolite shelves reminscent of the trolley I bought. I believe I have purchased a George Korody trolley. How can I verify this? The Powerhouse?


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