Antique rustic furniture seldom comes with a handy, origin-identifying “Made in (name of place)” label.
Nor do antiques always turn up in the geographical regions where they were made.
Over the span of generations, families move around the country taking their furniture with them; estates get sold at auction and shipped out of state; or dealers travel across states to antiques shows with furniture they picked locally then sell to buyers from far-away locales who do not necessarily pass along information about where it came from to the next person who purchases it.
Since the provenance of antiques often gets lost in these ways over the years of being bought and sold or inherited and dispersed, dealers need to be able to recognize patterns in design, materials and construction techniques to determine the origin of a piece.
But being able to recognize and group pieces of rustic furniture according to similar characteristics is just the first step. Determining the geographical region where they were made requires having archetypes—similar pieces whose origins are documented—to relate them to.
Thankfully, such reference pieces do exist—in museums, photographs, books, family histories and verbal provenance that sometimes is successfully passed along from sellers to buyers.
This is exactly the process we’ve used to hone our skills at identifying rustic furniture produced in the southern United States during the late-19th to early-20th centuries.
The catchall term “Southern rustic” refers more specifically to furniture made by craftsmen in the Southern Appalachian region of the U.S., which includes West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, western North Carolina, South Carolina, northern Georgia, and northeastern Alabama.
Antique rustic furniture from these areas has several distinguishing features. Below is a description of the four most distinctive Southern rustic furniture traditions, along with photos of pieces that illustrate them, made by both known and anonymous craftsmen. Most of the pieces incorporate more than one Southern design element, bolstering evidence of their origin.
1. Sinuous Twig Trim
Two of the hardwood species most commonly used in Southern rustic furniture were rhododendron and mountain laurel. Many designs featured these species’ thin, naturally arched and curving twigs and roots
The maker of the small Southern rustic cupboard above spelled out his initials “EDL” and the date “1912” with curved twigs placed on either side of the mirror. The two doors, as well as the two side panels, have figural and geometric designs made from sinuous twigs and roots, including hearts, stars and trees.
The small coffee table above illustrates another common Southern design technique: using naturally curved rhododendron branches as stretchers and braces. Although we do not know the name of the person who made this table, we do know that it was made in Lakemont, Georgia around 1925 (along with a number of other pieces) for the Lake Rabun Hotel.
2. Partially Peeled Twigs
The legs, stretchers and darker twig apron trim on this circa 1920 Southern mosaic twig footstool are rhododendron branches. Each one is partially peeled to create a pattern of light and dark contrasts.
The maker lightly peeled areas to remove only the top layer of bark, but did not gouge into the wood. Peeled striations highlight the legs’ vertical height, while other peeled areas are more lozenge-shaped. The fully peeled light maple twigs along the apron complement the lighter inner bark of the partially-peeled rhododendron twigs, creating a pleasing interplay of colors. This woodworker had a good eye for design.
The drink stand above was made in North Carolina around 1920. It is completely clad with tightly pieced halved twigs that are partially peeled to reveal the lighter inner bark.
Unlike the even spacing of peeled areas in the footstool above, the maker of this stand randomly peeled both small and wide patches of bark to create a decorative pattern.
The half-round twigs forming the case of this planter, as well as the rhododendron branch legs and sinuous stretchers, also have partially peeled surfaces. The peeled areas are wide, amorphous patches rather than evenly shaped dots or lozenges.
A final example of partially-peeled wood elements is this small stand made in the 1920s by Charles Dobbins from Blowing Rock, North Carolina.
The stand is a good illustration of how Dobbins typically peeled both cylindrical sapling trunks and sinuous twigs to create light/dark surface contrasts.
3. Notched Twigs
While notching twigs resulted in the same contrasting light and dark patterns as partially peeling them, notches were gouged deeper into the wood. Notched twig furniture thus has a bumpy texture.
This library table from the 1920s is one of the signature designs of Reverend Ben Davis (born in 1876)—he made several of the same style over the years. Davis was a Baptist minister who preached throughout western North Carolina and made rustic furniture to supplement his income. All of the natural twig elements in his tables are deeply and evenly notched. In this example, the inner wood is darker than the surface bark. The rhododendron root burl accents are also notched.
This table is more simply designed and constructed than Ben Davis’s furniture, but nonetheless every single twig is similarly ornamented with notch carving.
Our final example of notch decoration is this exquisite Southern stand dating from 1920-30. Although we do not know the identity of the maker, we do know that he was born in 1854 based on a gift inscription on one piece dated 1935 saying “From Father in his 81st year.”
The design of his stands (we’ve owned several by this hand) are very symmetrical, and all are extremely well constructed. Each twig has multiple, even rows of notching. By placing the notched twigs vertically, horizontally and diagonally in mosaic patterns, the maker achieved an even more dynamic design than the light/dark notching alone creates.
4. Twig and Burl Latticework
One of the most elaborate Southern rustic furniture techniques involved creating open lattice patterns with twigs and root burls.
These exceptional rhododendron root arm chairs feature elaborate rhododendron root burl lattice-work on the back and aprons. They have a strong sculptural presence and are representative of a classic, vernacular form of rustic furniture from the Southern Appalachian region of West Virginia being made at the turn of the 20th century.
Rhododendron or mountain laurel root burls are pieced between long and straight notched branches to create the frame of this Southern rustic room screen. The open areas between the root burls create a lattice effect.
The same materials and techniques were used to create this smaller circa 1900 frame. It would have originally had a fabric insert to serve as a decorative screen in front of a fireplace during the summer months.
This set of standing shelves is a final, and exceptionally fine example of Southern root burl lattice work. It was made in North Carolina around 1910. Its maker painstakingly applied fine root segments all along the frame, and carefully pieced together root burls in panels between the frame elements. The whole piece manages to be simultaneously delicate and sturdy, a rustic masterpiece made by a very skilled woodworker.
Themes and Variations
Designing and making rustic furniture has always been a creative process, so even when a craftsman was immersed in a regional design tradition, each maker’s work was unique.
Some Southern rustic furniture makers were particularly good at cohesive and symmetrical design, while others had extraordinary cabinetmaking skills that resulted in well-constructed, refined furniture. And then there were those who put traditional design elements together in completely surprising ways.
Part of the fun of studying antique rustic furniture is learning to recognize regional themes among all of the fascinating variations.