Journal

Trees and the Rustic Furniture They Become, Part I

10.21.2014

Makers of rustic furniture in the late 1800s through the early 1900s typically used wood native to their local region as the raw material for their creations. Since the distribution of North American trees changes with climatic conditions from east to west and north to south, so, too, does traditional rustic furniture change in materials, and thus in form and style, along geographic gradients.

This article describes five species of trees commonly used during the original eras of rustic furniture making, and shows examples of furniture pieces that were made from each type of tree in the regions where it grows. Part II will continue this theme by describing five different species of trees and the furniture made from them.

White Birch (Betula papyrifera)

white birch

(photo – jeffpippen.com)

White birch is an early successional species, meaning that it is among the first trees to colonize open spaces where forests have burned or woodlots have been cut over, where there is plenty of direct sunlight to support their rapid growth. It is a distinctive species that stands out in a crowd, so is familiar to most anyone who walks in the woods or drives along country roads in the northern tier of North America.

range map of white birch

Range of white birch (usgs.com)

The stark, papery bark of white birch is an iconic emblem of rustic furniture; it is indeed hard to think of a piece of furniture made with bark-on white birch that would not be considered rustic. In the circa 1905 secretary pictured below, the craftsman Ernest Stowe used just the bark of white birch laid over a case of milled pine boards to clad the exterior of this exquisite case piece. Stowe gathered materials for his furniture in the Saranac Lake region of New York’s Adirondacks where he lived and worked. The legs and trim of the secretary, as well as the entire chair, are done in bark-on yellow birch poles and rods. Stowe was thus a progenitor of what we now regard as Adirondack-style furniture using these two species of wood.

Ernest Stowe Secretary

 Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

yellow birch

(photo – jeffpippen.com)

In contrast to white birch, yellow birch is found in mature hardwood forests. Since it, too, gets established where there is abundant sunlight, it tends to grow in gaps created by fallen, wind-thrown trees. It grows most commonly in mid- to upper-mountain slopes, but occurs patchier at lower elevations. Yellow birch can live for hundreds of years, so in the right locations it is not unusual to see very large, old trees and its younger saplings with golden bark scattered among other hardwoods such as sugar maple and beech.

range of yellow birch

Range of yellow birch (usgs.com)

The circa 1920 table picture below was made by Lee Fountain, a craftsman who worked in the western Adirondacks near the town of Wells. He is most recognized for his use of yellow birch root masses, which forms the base of this table. Whereas Stowe used the golden patina of yellow birch twigs and branches to great decorative effect, Fountain’s furniture emphasized the sculptural drama of roots that had been gnarled and shaped over rocks and other tree roots, or simply spread like props to support the trunk and upper branches of a 60′-70′ tall tree.

Lee Fountain table

Yellow birch tree roots

Yellow birch roots growing over a rock in the Adirondacks (nationalgeographic.com)

Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

hickory tree

(photo – jeffpippen.com)

There are about a dozen species of hickory trees native to North America, including shagbark, shellbark, mockernut, pignut, bitternut and pecan. Although the bark varies among the different hickories, the mockernut hickory, which is the most abundant of the hickory species, has dark ridges alternating with lighter veins of bark (shown above). It grows in humid environments that receive 20-35 inches of rain from April-September, and is more of a southern and midwestern species than are birches.

range map modernut hickory

Range of mockernut hickory (usgs.gov)

Hickory is prized for furniture making because of is strength, hardness and flexibility. Although it is possible to find antique rustic furniture made from hickory by independent craftsmen who created their own designs, the vast majority of hickory furniture in the rustic antiques market was made by a half-dozen or so commercial furniture companies in Indiana beginning at the turn of the 20th century. Hickory formed the major structural elements of seating, tables and case pieces in manufactured hickory furniture, with milled woods such as oak and pine used on table, desk and dresser tops, arm rests and seats. In the uncommon circa 1930s wardrobe made by Rustic Hickory Furniture Company of LaPorte, Indiana pictured below, hickory poles comprise the frame and trim, while oak veneer and pine comprise the panels.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company wardrobe

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Large Carved Caribou Lamp

09.17.2014

Dube caribou lamp

Animal sculptures and carvings are traditional accents for rustic homes where they complement decorative schemes that are rich in organic textures and natural elements. An attractive animal carving that also fulfills the necessary function of lighting is all the better.

This lamp (26″ wide, 9″ deep, 32″ high) is a dramatically scaled carving of a caribou, created and signed by the artisan Arthur Dubé.

Dube caribou lamp

He was a member of a family of accomplished carvers from the Saint-Jean-Port-Joli region of Quebec (on the eastern shore of the St. Lawrence River about an hour northeast of Quebec City) which has been known for its tradition of folk carving since the early 1900s. Over the years we’ve had a number of lamps carved in the 1930s-1970s by the Dubé brothers Arthur, Clement and André, most often in the forms of moose, bear, squirrels, deer, rams and dogs. Caribou lamps are uncommon, as are any of their carved animal table lamps of such large dimensions.

Dube caribou lamp

This lamp is carved from butternut, which is one of the softer hardwoods that carves readily. The caribou, tree and base are carved from one piece of wood, and the removable antlers are carved separately.

Dube caribou lamp

The shade is also handmade, with alternating wood slats of butternut and cedar joined with lashing.

cariboulamp5

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Central American Rustic

08.19.2014

 twig railing

The essence of traditional rustic design is that an object or structure incorporates unprocessed natural materials sourced from the local environment. Examples in the northern and central U.S. include cabins made of bark-on cedar logs, dressers clad in birch bark, and mirrors trimmed with yellow birch twigs. From the southern U.S. we have had chairs with rhododendron root lattice backs, stands with diamond willow bases, and even a mosaic twig-style sideboard made with palmetto fronds.

On a recent trip much further south – to Belize – we admired local rustic elements and architecture, the primary form being living quarters and cabanas with thatched roofs and bamboo-like interior walls.

belize cabana

cabin

poolside cabana

According to  local residents, the most long-lasting material for thatched roofs is the fronds of the Cahune Palm tree, which have a high silicon content. After seeing lots of finished roofs, we were finally able to see this palm tree growing in its natural habitat while on an ecotour traveling by boat up an estuary into a coastal rain forest.

cahune

A cahune palm tree along the Monkey River in Belize.

Transforming these fronds into roofs takes skill and teamwork.

thatched roof making

(from belizeadventure.com)

 

building a thatched roof

(from belizeadventure.com)

Here is a completed woven cahune palm frond roof from the outside:

dining

 

And from the inside.

ceiling

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Native American Basket Forms

07.07.2014

Native American basket molds

These intriguing sculptural objects are Native American basket-making tools. Specifically, they are forms around which ash splint “fancy baskets” were woven. They turned up recently in Maine, where they would have been owned and used by a Penobscot or Passamaquoddy basket maker during the early 1900s.

Native Americans in Maine have made ash splint baskets for over two hundred years.* During the 18th and 19th centuries, men made rugged work baskets with thick, wide ash splints, and traveled to towns as itinerant peddlers to sell the baskets. Indian families also made covered storage baskets and handled gathering baskets with finer, dyed splints for their own use as well as for sale.

But beginning in the 1870s when developers were building seaside and lakeside lodges, inns and resorts to attract rusticators from urban areas outside of Maine, a whole new market and means of selling opened up for Maine’s Native American craftspeople. Whereas formerly they would have to travel from town to town to sell their wares, basket makers now settled into summer Indian encampments near the new resort areas where potential customers congregated, joining families from other tribes and reservations.

Maine Indian encampment

Maine Indian encampment near Bar Harbor in 1889 (Maine Historic Preservation Commission photo)

They would arrive with a stockpile of crafts that they had made all winter, as well as with raw materials such as ash splint for making crafts to sell all summer.

During these years the tribes readily adapted their crafts to the Victorian tastes of well-to-do rusticators, ushering in the era of “fancy basket” making. Distinct from utilitarian ash splint baskets made by men which had previously been the mainstay of the Indian basket trade, the fancy baskets were typically made by women and were small, lightweight, intricate and extremely varied in form.

The women expertly rendered ash splint versions of popular Victorian goods that were made of leather, wood, ceramic or sliver, such as glove boxes, collar boxes, sewing baskets, scissors cases, candy trays, napkin rings, comb boxes and wall pockets. To suit the tastes of their customers, these objects were adorned with embellishments such as sweet grass and colorfully dyed, thin splint curlicues.

Penobscot fancy baskets

Penobscot fancy baskets: button basket, scissors case, glove box (Hudson Museum, University of Maine)

Tools to Facilitate Production

Producing uniform fancy baskets in great numbers for the tourist trade required two essential tools:  basket gauges and basket forms. Basket gauges are wooden hand tools with cutting edges (often razor blades) set at measured intervals for slicing strands of ash splint into regular sizes. Whereas the wider, rougher splints of work baskets were typically hand cut with a knife, basket gauges made it possible to efficiently make a stock of evenly-sized splints of narrow widths for fancy baskets.

Indian basket gauges

Basket gauges (Cherry Gallery sold archives)

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(Very) Young Collectors

05.21.2014

cast stone lawn puppy

Whenever antiques dealers find themselves together with idle time to chat, it does not take long before someone bemoans the lack of young people interested in buying antiques. (Actually there is a huge amount of interest in antiques among the young adult demographic, but it manifests in ways that traditional antiques dealers do not necessarily understand – but that’s a topic for a different cultural analysis.)

Most present-day antiques dealers are upwards of middle age, and have grown into their careers with a strong clientele of baby boomers who are now retiring and downsizing, rather than accumulating antiques. So there have been efforts to recruit “young collectors” with events such as evening parties at antiques shows for young adults, and mentorship programs that encourage older collectors to take young collectors under their wing. The focus of these efforts is on people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are beginning to furnish and accessorize their own apartments or houses.

But being out and about in the antiquing world during recent weeks (while exhibiting at a show in New York and shopping at the Brimfield Antiques Markets), I witnessed a few scenes that put a new spin on my thoughts about young collectors.

On Sunday afternoon of a garden antiques show at The New York Botanical Garden I watched a 10-year old boy leading his mother around to booths. She was holding his jacket and intentionally standing back as he entered booths and engaged with dealers.

garden antiques booth

He was keen on figural cement garden ornaments, and finally honed in on one booth that had a huge variety of animals – otters, owls, cats, bunnies, and the like. I watched as the dealer offered to lift one of the figures that the boy was particularly attracted to off the floor onto a plinth to place it beside another one that he was considering. His mother stepped into the booth at that point, not to control the situation, but to ask questions “What do you like about that one?” “Is that the size you want?” “Which one makes you smile more?”  She then stepped back to let the boy state his final choice to the dealer – a recumbent stone puppy with floppy ears – and finally engaged with the dealer to pay for the purchase.

They proceeded to the booth across from us, where the boy went directly to a mushroom garden stool that was the perfect height and size for him to sit on – this was obviously his second visit to the booth, as he knew exactly what he wanted. He talked briefly with his mother, and again she physically stood back while he engaged with the dealer. After the transaction was complete (and Jeff was helping the dealer lift and carry the heavy toadstool to the family’s car), the boy proudly told me about the puppy he had just purchased from “that dealer over there.” He seemed genuinely as excited about his one-to-one interactions with dealers as he did about the objects he purchased.

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Fabulous Floral Andirons

05.01.2014

floral andirons

This month we are pleased to present a pair of antique floral andirons that infuse as much joy into a room as a gigantic bouquet of actual flowers. These andirons are as functional as they are beautiful, having evolved from a centuries-old tradition establishing andirons as essential fireplace accessories. Ever since humans starting building fires in indoor fireplaces they have used firedogs – a pair of horizontal bars – to hold logs off the hearth, thereby improving air circulation for better burning and less smoke. Upright front guards were then added to the firedogs to prevent flaming logs from rolling forward.

The practical human impulse that led to the creation of andirons eventually led to the artistic human impulse to transform the front guards into beautiful ornaments.  There are endless variations on the shapes of andirons which correspond with major design aesthetics of different historical periods – in America these include the simple but shapely wrought iron andirons of the Colonial period, elegant brass lemon-top andirons of the Federal period, and heavily proportioned andirons of the Arts and Crafts era.

Most decorative andirons are either cast iron, which are shaped with molten iron that is poured into molds, or wrought iron, which are hand shaped by a blacksmith.  Most of the figural andirons we’ve bought and sold have been in the shape of animals, and are usually cast iron.  Figural wrought iron andirons with such an elaborate floral, foliate and spiral tendril design as these are far less common.

wrought iron floral andirons

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Iroquois Beaded Wallet

03.25.2014

Iroquois beaded wallet

This wallet is a fine example of Iroquois Indian beadwork dating from the 1840s.  It was made by a Tuscarora woman whose people comprise the Sixth Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy, and who resettled from their North Carolina homeland to western New York in the early 1700s. The beadwork artistry of the Tuscarora and their fellow Iroquoians (Seneca, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mohawk) is described in two excellent books on Indian beadwork by collector and scholar Gerry Biron:  Made of Thunder, Made of Glass: American Indian Beadwork of the Northeast (2006), and A Cherished Curiosity: The Souvenir Beaded Bag In Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art (2012). 

Biron traces the history of beaded objects that the Iroquois made to sell to non-native Anglos of the middle and upper classes.  This exchange began during the earliest years of Iroquois contact with Europeans.  Shortly after the first trading post was established in 1608 in Montreal, the Iroquois living in upstate New York were able to obtain cut glass beads imported from Europe. Their traditional arts of adorning hide pouches and clothing with porcupine quills evolved to incorporate the new mediums of beads and fabric.

By the early 1800s, tourism was increasing in the Niagara Falls region near Iroquois lands, with the Tuscarora Reservation being closest to the Falls. This presented an opportunity for the Iroquois to make a subsistence living selling their creations to tourists.

Iroquois at Niagra Falls selling beadwork

Ladies buying beaded bags from Tuscarora women at Niagara Falls
(reprinted in Biron, 2012)

By the early 1840s, the Iroquois had adapted both their beaded designs and the forms of objects they decorated to the Victorian tastes and sensibilities of their customers.  Their traditional geometric and organic decorative motifs – curves, spirals, circles and wavy lines – gave way to floral decoration.  Biron calls this beadwork the “Niagara floral style” because it was developed largely by Iroquois vendors at Niagara Falls.

Iroquois floral beadwork

Based on Biron’s research, we can date this wallet with good certainty to the mid-1840s. This was the earliest period of the Niagara floral style in which the flowers are round rather than elongated, are smaller, and have longer stems than in later floral designs.  Also, the design is bilaterally symmetrical and worked with smaller beads than were used in later designs.  The multiple colors of beads – white, blue, ivory, rose, green and gold – are vibrant against the black velvet background.

iroquois beaded bird

The pictorial imagery of a bird was also introduced during this time period. Contemporary Tuscarora artists call the bird a Carolina Parakeet, after the now extinct bird that was native to their ancestral North Carolina homeland. Biron says the Iroquois beadwork designers most likely took their cue for the bird motif from Euro-American women’s own needlepoint projects in which it was popular to embellish pincushions, purses and the like with bird imagery.

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An Overview of Weave on Antique Hickory Furniture

03.25.2014

old hickory woven settee

A significant dimension of the appeal of certain antique hickory seating, beds and accessories is their woven surfaces. This article provides a brief pictorial overview of the various types of materials and patterns that hickory furniture makers originally used for woven seats, backs and panels.

Weave Materials

Hickory furniture manufacturers used four major materials for weaving from the early 1900s through the 1950s.

1. Hickory bark. The inner bark of hickory trees was the earliest material used on woven hickory furniture in the first decades of the 20th century.  Often the margins of the hickory bark strips on early furniture are wavy and irregular.

hickory bark weave

There was a resurgence of the use of hickory bark in the 1940s-1950s. The edges of the later hickory bark weave were more even than the earlier hickory bark strips, perhaps reflecting the use of improved cutting tools.

woven hickory bark seat

2. Rattan cane. Quarter round strips of Asian rattan cane with a smooth, glossy surface became the preferred weave material of hickory furniture manufacturers in the 1930s.

rattan cane weaving

Although not common, some hickory furniture was woven with a mixture of rattan cane and hickory bark:

mixed rattan and hickory weave

3. Reed.  Flat reed, which is made from the inner core of the rattan palm, came into use for weaving hickory furniture in the 1920s.

This example of woven flat reed has a thick layer of applied glossy finish which masks the texture of the reed:

woven flat reed

Below is an example of woven flat reed that has a thinner overcoat, so its fibrous texture is more visible:

woven half round reed

4. Fiber splint, also called Simonite (named after Luther A. Simons, the owner of Columbus Hickory Furniture Company who is credited with inventing it) was made from wood fiber. It was introduced in the late 1930s when it was hard for U.S. importers to get rattan from Japan and China while they were at war with one another in the years leading up to World War II.

woven fiber splint

A few additional materials that sometimes turn up on original hickory furniture are twine, used only on footstools, and nylon webbing, which was used on limited production designs in the 1940s-50s.

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Bears Hooked Rug

02.25.2014

bears hooked rug

For as long has there has been a market for antique American folk art, hooked rugs have been a strong category within it.  Many excellent examples are documented in the 1985 book American Hooked and Sewn Rugs: Folk Art Underfoot by Joel and Kate Kopp.  Hooked rugs that were made for simple household comfort by women who were not formally trained as artists were nonetheless often imbued with artistic expression. Such rugs have always appealed to us, and we have bought and sold many over the years.

The types of hooked rugs we’ve owned fit within three general categories of design: floral, geometric, and figural – meaning that they depict objects such as animals, houses or landscapes. Each category can be further divided as originating from a pattern or from the hooker’s own design.

floral hooked rug

Floral hooked rug

 

geometric hooked rug

Geometric hooked rug

 

owls hooked rug

Figural hooked rug

The two bears rug which we are currently offering for sale is an example of an original design figural hooked rug.  It is made of wool fabric strips, measures 53″ wide by 25″ high, and has been mounted on a frame for hanging.

bears hooked rug

The scene shows two bears, an adult and a cub, exploring a fallen tree in the forefront of a hilly landscape at sunrise.  Given how the bears seem to be intently focused on the tree stump, perhaps the creator imagined them raiding a bee hive within it.  The larger bear’s honey-colored, lolling tongue reinforces this impression.

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Fakes and Forgeries: Fiction Not Far From Fact

02.25.2014

Our winter reading of novels, memoirs and trade papers loosely coalesced recently around the themes of fakes, forgeries, thefts and high-stakes collecting.  Although those are not exactly pleasant topics for antiques dealers to ponder, it is wise to be cognizant of them.  So our musings this month meander from one reading source to another to present the reflections they inspired.

The Unwelcome Reality of Fakes

Any antiques dealer who has been in the business for more than a few days has encountered fakes, forgeries, or reproductions that are passed off as being old. You learn quickly how to discern such things and what to be suspicious of (if it is too good to be true…), especially after being burned by finding out that something you’ve purchased with hard-earned money turns out to be worthless in the antiques trade.  A dealer colleague used to quip about lessons learned from buying a fake: “It is cheaper than a college education.” But paying dearly for credit hours in the school of hard knocks is not a winning business strategy. Thankfully, once you develop a field of specialization in the antiques trade, you don’t often get fooled.

In our field we are more likely to run into contemporary items that were made as reproductions, than to encounter fakes or forgeries that are purposely made to deceive. For instance, root burl and birch bark clad furniture pieces made in China for the decorative market (“Chinarondack”) turn up at flea markets, antiques fairs, auctions and galleries where they are being marketed as antiques, usually with the non-specialist who owns or represents them being none the wiser about their origin or age.

Thankfully, reproductions that compete with the antiques we sell are usually so off-kilter in their design and materials (e.g., the chunk-a-lunk “canoe paddles” sold as wall décor in home furnishing catalogs) that they are easy to discern as new. But just a few weeks ago, a dealer whom we respect as a specialist in 19th century formal furniture offered us a great-at-first-glance trade sign advertising a variety of boats for rent.  He doesn’t deal much in signs, but thought of us when he saw this one. Close examination revealed that it was at most 10-20 years old, not 100 years old as he was led to believe. It was a reproduction of Victorian-era signage, probably manufactured by a decorative retail company. We had actually seen another sign of the same design once before in the booth of a nautical dealer at an antiques show, and then later in the home of a collector who had purchased it from that dealer. On both encounters we looked it over carefully, so when the design surfaced again recently our past experience helped us steer clear of it.

But in the fine art market where paintings can sell for millions of dollars, forgery is a high crime that requires more than a trained naked eye to detect. A recent novel, The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2013) explores that fascinating world.

artforger

The author crafts a fictional, fast-paced tale around a factual incident – the 1990 heist of 13 valuable works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  She weaves together three time and character strands within the novel – the present day life and fateful encounters of a struggling artist named Claire who is painting legitimate reproductions for a living, a tragic love relationship in the recent past of this artist, and the imagined distant past life of Isabella Stewart Gardner in which her encounters with Degas in France are communicated via letters written to her niece between 1890-98.

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