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Bienenstock Furniture Library Unveils Art Commemorating Diderot Encyclopedia

Furniture World News


L to R: Karla Webb, Library Director, Pat Plaxico, Library Interior Designer of Record, Jeff Williams, President of Alderman Company and Board Member.

The next best thing to time travel is making a trip to the rare book room at the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library. The library houses approximately 4,000 volumes. Among the 300 rare books is a complete set of the Diderot Encyclopedia, published in 1776—about the same time Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence. Denis Diderot was a prominent French philosopher, art critic, and writer during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as the chief editor of the Encyclopédie.

“This is just one of many illustrious tomes in this remarkable library” said Charlie Sutton, Board President. “If you want to get inspired, get ideas or just rub shoulders with the spirits of furniture luminaries of centuries past, the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library is the pantheon of furniture and interior design genius.”

The Library shelves the complete set of 26 volumes hand bound in leather, in its rare book room. This is open to the public with an appointment.

Pat Plexico, the Interior Designer of Record, and long time library board member chose the plate and unveiled the art in a ceremony in November. The Plexiglas reproduction is a gift from the Alderman Company. It is installed in the main reading room.

There are a number of things that make this 26 volume leather bound collection extraordinary. For anyone who is highly visual — which includes most furniture types—this set contains page after page of detailed illustrations. “You don’t need to be able to read French, the illustrations tell the story,” said Karla Webb, the library’s director.

In presenting the plate, she explained: “Here is an example of one of more than 2,900 plates that is typical of the collection. The illustration shows what went on in a typical 18th-century upholstery shop. Each of the processes is called out, and the caption at the bottom translates to “Upholsterer: Interior of a shop and various works.”

The corresponding description of the illustration from the Diderot Encyclopedia shown above denotes

a. All furniture pieces
b. Tapestry bent or folded
c. Mattress rolled
d. Several forms of mirrors or apartment windows
e. Commode, grand armoire, or chest of drawers
f. Chair frames without upholstery
g. Stairs leading to store
h. Porter carrying mattresses out of store.
i. Workers sewing fabrics for draperies and curtains
j. Master upholsterer examining a chair

According to historians at MIT, the publication of these visual encyclopedias was a seminal moment because, for the first time ever, they ennobled and uplifted craftsman and the working class. Up until that time people who worked with their hands were looked down upon as manual laborers. Publication helped to usher in the industrial revolution. Above all, these encyclopedias are a sensual piece of living history. Readers can delight in the redolence of old leather, feeling the texture of 18th Century paper and admiring the printing, binding and typography of the era.

A complete set of these volumes is very rare. Even more rare, the BBFL invites the public to don a pair of white gloves and see these up close, examining areas of personal interest. You must make an appointment, and the rare book room is limited to no more than two people at a time.

About Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library:  The Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library—a worldwide center for research, design, and collaboration—holds the world's largest collection of rare and significant books on the history and design of furniture. Founded in 1970 and endowed by the Bienenstock family, the Library is devoted the advancement of knowledge about design, furniture, interiors, architecture, textiles, finishes, and constructions.

The rare book collection contains volumes published since 1640. With the exception of Yale, it is the only library in America that houses the original works of 18th century furniture masters Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite, as well as a complete set of Diderot's Encyclopedia. (26 volumes published in the 18th Century.) Unlike Yale, the Bienenstock Furniture Library is open to the public. A special climate and humidity controlled room houses these rare volumes. An appointment with the curator is required to examine these books, and you must wear white gloves, but they are available to the public. The library also contains rare drawings and furniture details. It is a treasure trove of inspiration for anyone interested in design.

The Library operates a specialty bookstore selling significant contemporary works, out-of-print, and hard-to-find volumes. Most Library services are free. Bienenstock Furniture Library, located in High Point NC, is open to the public and welcomes professionals and scholars for research, collaboration, meetings, seminars, lectures, and events. Visit www.furniturelibrary.com. The easiest way to stay up to date on the developments of the library is to “like” its Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/BienenstockFurnitureLibrary.

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