In Praise of Kentucky-style Furniture

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I first encountered Kentucky-style furniture when I visited the workshop of Warren May of Berea, Ky., in the early 2000s. While working with Warren on an article for Popular Woodworking Magazine, he invited me to his barn to see his collection of unrestored Kentucky pieces.

I was skeptical that it was a true regional furniture style. At the time I thought it looked like Ohio Valley Furniture that had gotten some airbrushing at the boardwalk. I said something along those lines. That elicited a scowl from Warren.

But it is a real style. And it is something to behold.

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Today I spent the afternoon at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., which has the largest collection of the stuff to my knowledge. There’s not a lot of published and public scholarship on the style out there. Some magazine articles. Some data at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA). And a book called “Collecting Kentucky.” So the best way to experience the style is a visit to the Speed.

It has been years since I last visited the Speed, and the museum has been through an extensive and impressive renovation. There’s a good permanent collection of paintings and objects that make it a legit city museum (Mummy – check. Chagall – check. Assorted Dutch masters – check). But it’s the museum’s Kentucky floor that is the crown jewel. This gallery offers an open floor plan. Not only does this allow you to examine the objects from many dimensions, it lets you to get behind and under the furniture pieces. Photography is encouraged.

The truth is that Kentucky furniture does share a lot of structural characteristics with Ohio Valley furniture, which I see all the time because that’s where I live. It’s a slightly heavy frontier style. The Kentucky element is that many pieces feature simple and beguiling inlay. The inlay can mimic high-style furniture, such as bellflowers. But it also can be playful and step outside the norms of what you might find in a furniture pattern book. Also interesting: The woods are local – nothing terribly exotic as near as I can tell (though it’s difficult to say for certain with some of the inlays).

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I think it befits the state. It’s not flashy. From a distance, it’s easy to underestimate it as a simple vernacular-style piece. But get close, and it reveals its true charms.

Next time you are on your way to our storefront or points beyond, I recommend you take a couple hours to check it out.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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14 Responses to In Praise of Kentucky-style Furniture

  1. NR Hiller says:

    Brilliant (not least the intro image)

  2. Josh says:

    Did you get a chance to look at the book they put together for the special exhibit dedicated to tall case clocks? It apparently talks about the cabinetmakers involved in those clocks, but I don’t know if it talks about the Kentucky style much. (I thought a lot of the clocks don’t look very “Kentucky”.)

  3. Finn Koefoed-Nielsen says:

    “There’s a good permanent collection of paintings and objects that make it a legit city museum (Mummy – check. Chagall – check. Assorted Dutch masters – check).”

    Now listen up, Amunhotep. You might well have a more creative side but never forget that it’s knocking out mummies for museums a few thousand years into the future that keeps this enbalming shop in business.

  4. I love your site! I have been admiring the images of such beautiful furniture and everything you have posted. I am beginning to learn the styles of furniture periods and this enthuses me to work with wood more. Thanks for all the great material you share. Wonderful site.

  5. johncashman73 says:

    I’ve stared at the first piece a lot. From the side, it looks like an ATC on a chest. Similar proportions and sloped moldings.

    I’d draw a version without the turned feet. Maybe tapered. I’d try the rails on the side a little narrower. Maybe narrow the legs just a wee bit.

    I like it a lot. Maybe I’ll make the base for one of my ATCs.

  6. Harlan Barnhart says:

    What is the difference between “venacular” and a proper style?

    • Technically, vernacular just means a local or indigenous style. Here’s the OED definition:

      “Of arts, or features of these: Native or peculiar to a particular country or locality. spec. in vernacular architecture, architecture concerned with ordinary domestic and functional buildings rather than the essentially monumental.”

      So Shaker would be a vernacular style – indigenous to the particular locality and people of that religious order.

      In contrast, Federal Style or William & Mary or Art Nouveau are styles that cross geography (and culture at times) to become a true national or international style.

      That’s my take. I’m sure the Internet would disagree.

    • jenohdit says:

      In this case it’s mostly country Federal/Hepplewhite. People on the frontier didn’t necessarily have access to pattern books and were much more likely to have adapted designs from other object rather than from published sources. That leads to a stylistic drift and blending of styles similar to what happened with depictions of the human figure in the Mannerist period post Michelangelo and Raphael.

      Rural makers didn’t necessarily have access to the woods (or tools) that were associated with coastal city styles either. That affects leg shape, carving, etc.

      There is kind of a myth of the “pre-industrial” maker/designer having produced the classics of American furniture as if a single person had designed, built, carved, and finished any particular piece of furniture. That was much more likely to have been the case in remote locations and the limitations imposed by that give the furniture a funky charm that might not have been accepted in places like Baltimore or Philadelphia.

      There is an interesting take on the subject here-
      https://regionalfurnituresociety.org/publications/other-rfs-publications/christopher-gilbert-selected-writings-on-vernacular-furniture-1966-98/

      Gilbert’s book “English Vernacular Furniture 1750-1900” is an interesting one and recommended. He discusses furniture made for schools, prisons, lunatic asylums, etc.

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