Enjoying A Revival
As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, March 2006
You could say that rustic furniture is "treeing collectors." There is something comforting about being enfolded in an armchair that looks as if had just been put together by tree parts. It harkens back to children’s tree houses and fashioning toys out of twigs. Perhaps it's our focus on environmental issues that has led to a revived interest in rustic furniture. You may have seen examples and wondered what they were, or their age. If you're puzzled by a table with a base that looks like a gnarled grape vine, you've discovered rustic furniture. The base is actually an old grape vine. Hopefully you'll have found it in your parent's vacation cabin. Otherwise the price can be anything but rustic.
If you think all rustic pieces are primitive you couldn't be more wrong. Examples can be quite imaginative incorporating roots and woods into the design. Consider it yet another type of folk art, when made by individual craftsmen. Entire sets of furniture were made in the rustic style, around the turn of the century, not only by individuals but by furniture Companies.
The interest in rustic furniture originated in England, along with the first landscaped gardens. Designs for rustic furniture to go with the gardens were included in English pattern books dating 1754. Many of these early pieces were made for hunting lodges and Conservatories. Known as "forest chairs", they used actual tree branches in their design.
In the mid 19th century, Americans were introduced to the rustic look by a landscape designer of the time, Andrew Jackson Downing. It was his junior partner, Calvert Vaux (along with Frederick Law Olmsted) who designed Central Park in the 1870s and, stimulated the beginning interest in this "look", with the red cedar arbors. However, it was publications like Hearth and Home and Godey's Lady's Book who popularized it with do-it-yourself plans.
After that a number of them, Bert L. Chapman of Chicago, was mass producing stands and easels from tree branches. They were held together and painted black with touches of gold. The "Rustique Work Manufacturing Company" of Niagara Falls made chairs, tables and window boxes.
In his book on the subject, Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition, author Craig Gilborn notes that the Chinese used twiggy rustic furniture, "in sophisticated settings" a couple of hundred years ago.
Eastern businessmen who furnished vacation homes in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, known as "camps", brought it to public attention. Much of it was made by carpenters. Towering cupboards, sideboards and even tall-case clocks were made from a variety of woods that included hickory and birch. Some was strictly primitive using birch-bark. Others used twigs to create mosaic-type designs. Hickory chairs with woven bark seats and oak tables with legs made from branches were mass produced by the "Old Hickory Furniture Company in Indiana"
CLUES: Not every piece of rustic furniture is worth the current prices being asked. Many are brand new and aged outside. Old nails and hardware can be age clues as well as the patina of the wood. Collectors should seek out the more sophisticated examples made in the early 2d0th century. If you like the look their are many craftsmen designing individual pieces that can be found in mountain area in North Carolina and upstate New York.
By the 1940s rustic furniture was out of fashion, replaced by aluminum porch furniture.
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