Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Back to Nature

QUESTION: Recently I got a rustic night stand from my grandmother’s house after she died. She had once said that it came from a sale of furniture from a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains here in New York State. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s a funky piece, and I’d like to know more about it. Can you help me?

ANSWER: Your grandmother’s night stand is indeed a piece of rustic furniture, also known as Adirondack furniture, even though it wasn’t restricted to just the Adirondack region.

The idea for rustic furniture came about in the late 18th century at the beginning of the back-to-nature movement, a change from the world of classic, predictable furniture patterns to one of more fanciful design using natural materials. 

Little summer shelters appeared in city gardens, often covered in vines or surrounded by trees and shrubs. These summerhouses also provided a small green refuge that shut out the discomfort and ugliness of city life.

Designers copied nature's lines in drawings for chairs and settees for these shelters and the garden paths around them. Their plans called for gnarled, distorted limbs of shrubs and trees to make a chair or bench, instead of the usual marble or plain wooden seats. Gardens, themselves, became more picturesque and less formal, with curving paths taking the place of straight ones. Designers strategically placed rustic chairs, benches, arbors and gates throughout the plantings.

At the same time came the discovery of warm springs in America. Basic living conditions were the rule in the hotels and cottages that sprung up around the springs. The coarse furniture changed from plain and primitive to fanciful and rustic as hotel owners updated amenities.

By the late 19th century, America’s millionaires filled the resorts, but although they considered themselves naturalists, they dressed and lived formally in the midst of the rustic furniture, for they had no intention of roughing it.

But some of these naturalists set up their own camps with tents and log cabins and built rustic furniture for them or had local craftsmen do it for them. Eventually, the log cabins became large log houses with all the latest amenities. Soon they became known as compounds or family camps. However, life in these camps was more back-to-nature and relaxed than at the warm springs resorts.

Rustic outdoor furniture filled the porches of these houses and spilled onto the grass. Couches and chairs made of rough pieces of local woods, holding loose cushions, adorned the sitting rooms. Even the beds showed off the rustic style, often with fanciful patterns on the head and foot boards.

The term rustic furniture covers a functional style made of organic materials, such as the tree or shrub limbs and roots or the trunks of saplings indigenous to area of the craftsman. Although roughly made, the style was often sophisticated and imaginative. The more knots there were in the limbs, the more the designers favored them. They even left the bark on the wood whenever possible to give each piece more texture and individuality.

In the Adirondack region of New York State, craftsmen made rustic furniture for the wealthy families who had camps there. They used large, gnarly roots in their furniture designs, making them into table legs and chair arms. They favored birch to build with, a slender tree with bark that peels in strips, giving the craftsmen a striking veneer for their furniture. These pieces quickly became known for their geometric designs made of the white birch bark veneer, especially on case furniture, such as your night stand. Also, many of the intricate veneered designs included various kinds of split twigs, carefully chosen by color to form patterns.

Appalachian craftsmen took pride in knowing how to get wood to work for the intricate twists, bends and weaving for their furniture designs. They knew just when and how to bend saplings while they were still growing, letting nature do some of the work before they were ready to use the wood. The best woods to use were laurel, hickory and willow because of their flexibility and strength. They built their furniture with graceful loops and interwoven curves, weaving each piece of wood to create tension, resulting in a hid-den strength disguised by the fragile look of the design.

Today, you’ll find rustic pieces at higher-end antique shows. Occasionally, they’ll appear at flea markets. But people consigned a lot of pieces to the bonfire after they went out of fashion in the mid-20th century. So prices tend to be on the high side because of the uniqueness of the pieces. Twig rockers can sell for $150 and up, while lounges and settees can go over $2,000.
Case pieces rarely come on the market and when they do, their prices are exceptionally high, often in the four and five figure range. The most common pieces are various chairs and plant stands, priced anywhere from $75 to $600.

As the 20th century moved forward, individual craftsmen found it hard to keep up with the volume of orders, so factories opened to meet the need. Business remained brisk for the rural craftsmen until the 1940s and by the 1950s, rustic furniture was no longer popular.

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