The most compelling pieces of rustic furniture showcase a craftsman’s imaginative use of organic forms found in nature. The raw materials for these creations are typically the durable parts of woody plants: twigs, branches, trunks, branch collars, bark, cones, seeds, bracts, roots, burls and vines.
A skilled rustic artisan is able to integrate the intriguing shapes, colors, sizes and textures of these plant parts into a harmonious design.
The creator of this alluring rustic planter excelled at doing just that.
Made in France in the early 1900s, this planter (21” wide, 17” deep, 38” high) succeeds at being simultaneously utilitarian and decorative.
The open case is roomy enough to hold a robust display of plants. The bottom of the case has a fitted metal tray to protect the wood from water. The interior sides are lined with green painted canvas, which also creates a moisture barrier between the wooden case and the plants.
While the interior of the planter is designed for practicality, its exterior is all about decorative impact.
The elaborately ornamented plant case has a scalloped upper edge formed by 14 gracefully rounded segments that extend upward from the rim. Those segments are separated by scooped curves, so in total the edge design creates a pleasing interplay of positive and negative space.
That dynamic is accented by contrasting bark cladding—the background of the tall scalloped edges is dark bark, while the areas beneath the low scoops are covered in lighter color bark.
The wave-like motion of the undulating edge is further enhanced by sinuous outlining of each dark and light panel with pliable twigs or vines. Slightly thinner supple twigs bent into semi-circles also create delicate scalloped edging along the bottom of the case.
Each panel of the case also has raised flowers created with pine cone bracts, and the darker panels also have flatter, lacy flowers made from bark cut-outs.
The design motifs on the case are echoed on the base of the planter, which also has contrasting light and dark bark panels with twig outlining, pine cone bract floral decoration, and a graceful, curving perimeter.
The sturdy central pedestal of the planter is formed from the trunk of a small, vine-encircled tree turned upside down, so that the spreading roots are at the top where they form supports for the case. Side branches are applied further down on the trunk, and the bottom of the pole is encircled with root burls, completing the illusion that this is an upright, branching tree.
We’ve saved describing the most remarkable feature of this planter for last: the flock of birds that adorn it from top to bottom.
There are 4 large, full-figured birds on branches near the base of the central trunk, and 8 smaller, half-relief birds applied to the panels around the case.
The birds have tiny, white glass bead eyes, and all of them have a similar shape with long necks and beaks, like herons or cranes, so they come across as members of the same species.
The birds are natural root burls, not carvings. Their ruffled feather-textured bodies are root nodules, while their heads, necks and tails are smoother root strands that extend outward. Each bird is thus one intact piece of burl. It is quite impressive that the craftsman who made this planter was able to find so many similar pieces that so clearly evoke the forms of birds.
While we’ve had rustic sculpture made from burls that simulate animal forms before, this planter is the first piece of furniture we’ve seen that so gracefully integrates animal-like burls as applied decorative elements.
This planter incorporates distinctive design elements of late 19th to early-20th century French rustic furniture. Early French rustic designs typically include fine twigs, or carefully split twigs, set in elaborate patterns.
French pieces also frequently use textured bark as a background for applied floral designs. Often the bark provides a dark contrast to lighter colored decorative overlays.
French rustic furniture also often integrates intact conifer cones ornamentally, and includes floral patterns created from the thin layered pieces (bracts) of the cones. Another telltale detail is that the types of wood over which the rustic designs were applied are not American species.
Overall, the fine detail, materials and decorative techniques of early French rustic craftsmanship add up to a very recognizable whole once you’ve seen enough examples.
Over the years we’ve learned to distinguish French from American antique rustic furniture quite readily. Early in our career we purchased rustic furniture and accessories from a now-retired antiques dealer who was originally from France. He traveled back there several times a year to buy general antique inventory, and often brought back a rustic piece or two. Given that we knew the source of these pieces, it was easy to begin recognizing patterns in French rustic aesthetics.
There is still much to be discovered, however, about the rustic tradition in France, such as the regions where rustic furniture was made and sold, whether there were many or few rustic craftsmen, and whether designs evolved specific to certain regions, families or guilds. These questions present a new opportunity for scholarship on rustic design traditions.
Bringing Nature Indoors
Even when empty, this planter creates a mini-forest vignette complete with a bird-laden, vine-encircled tree accented with beautiful natural forms.
Adding plants to the case would further enliven the scene. A composition including a bird’s-nest fern, moss, and wildflowers would be perfect.
Once filled with ferns and moss, the rustic planter would channel the ambiance of a forest understory.
On days when you can’t get outside to a peaceful natural area to recharge your spirits, savoring such a landscape scene within your home could be nearly as therapeutic as a dose of forest bathing.