This restrained yet infinitely fanciful chinoiserie desk first came to my attention when it was sold in Paris in 2001. I was captivated by the fact that a relatively inexpensive material (tole) was used to decorate a seemingly top-tier piece of French furniture. The maker, Saunier, was no BVRB or Weisweiler but he was no slouch either. Tole had been used well throughout the 18th century for trendy lighting, vessels and utilitarian items of every sort. It was a truly versatile medium that could be decorated in endless ways. The catalogue entry for this lot was particularly irksome as is once again fell back on the 19th century viewpoint of tole as a second-rate, second-tier imitation material. The fact of the matter is that in the period it was a technological advancement. Chinese and Japanese lacquer panels were in heavy demand throughout the 17th and 18th centuries but they were limited to their export forms. Lacquered boxes could be taken apart and remounted into furniture, but it was a dangerous process especially if the panel had to be reduced to a veneer and bent to accommodate a curved form. Tole was an obvious choice as it could be easily shaped and decorated to look like lacquer, porcelain, marble etc. If you scour museum collections and auctions you will find instances where tole and precious materials reside together on top-tier royal pieces.
This secretaire a abattant was purchased in 1782 in Paris by Russian Empress Maria Feoderovna. It has all the hallmarks of royal luxury production gorgeously chiseled gilt bronze mounts, rich wood veneers, and sumptious Sevres porcelain plaques. Well it also incorporates tole. Tole forms the dark blue background of the cornice and more importantly it is used to mimic porcelain on the curved side panels of the lower frieze. It was obviously a more realistic technical solution as a curved porcelain plaque was difficult and expensive to achieve.
Similarly the desk above from the Getty in Los Angeles incorporates tole in the same curved locations. It is by Martin Carlin (a top maker) and incorporated only the very best materials.
The examples go on and on and are found in other museums and top collections. To call tole used in this manner "second rate" is particularly short sighted and fails to examine why it was used...thats enough of this rant for now.