We came in through the basement door of George Reid’s tidy ranch-style house. Like most basement workshops, George’s was a dark cave. As I put down my photography gear, my eyes adjusted to the dimness and I found myself staring at a full-scale drawing of a Chippendale chair that was tacked to the wall.
“Hmm,” I thought. “Nice poster.”
For the next two hours, a co-worker interviewed George about his lifetime of work. How he built his first milking stool on his family farm, constructed miniatures while he was working at Wright Field and fell into making furniture for clients by building hi-fi cabinets.
We looked at his exquisitely cared-for machines. We admired his carving tools, which he bought from a guy who worked on Pullman train cars. I was there to take photos, and what I remember most is how I just couldn’t see anything in the low light.
At his workbench, George showed us two of his miniature pieces – quarter-scale chests of drawers with bow fronts. It was nice work, we said. Do you have any other of your pieces here?
“Oh yes,” George said. “Let’s go upstairs.”
George lived on a nice middle-class street in Kettering, Ohio, in a compact, mid-century ranch home. He led us around the house from the shop, through the front door and into a state of speechlessness.
All I remember was that every wall was painted brilliant white, and every bit of space was occupied by amazing pieces of dark 18th-century-style furniture in mahogany. I almost kicked a Newport kneehole desk. There were highboys, lowboys, carved chairs and corner cabinets in every corner. All in Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Queen Anne styles. And they were all perfect, like they were fresh from the tool of the maker.
I have never seen anything like it since.
George Reid was one of the most talented makers I have ever met. Yet, I’ll never forget how wrong his beautiful pieces looked in the living room of his humble Ohio home.
This is Not for You
While the work itself is amazing, most of the American furniture we celebrate as the pinnacle of design can be overbearing, over-embellished and a monument to waste and excess.
It also represents the furniture of people you probably dislike.
These high styles of furniture took hold in North America in the 18th century and persist to this day as both cult objects for collectors and as rites of passage for artisans. These are precious pieces that are auctioned, collected, reproduced and written about in exhaustive detail.
We call them by the names of their champions or designers – Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite to name a few.
And while I am quick to admit these pieces were made using exquisite materials by talented hands, I want to add an asterisk to the discussion of high-end furniture: This stuff was built for the ultra-rich to satisfy their whims and fancies.
Or, to put it a slightly different way, the people who could afford this furniture also owned mega-farms, factories and (sometimes) entire towns. This is not a knock on their wealth. But it is a simple way of asking a question that rarely gets asked among amateur makers: Why would you want to imitate the taste of your boss’s boss’s boss?
Is it because their elaborate furniture is the peak of design? Or is it because it’s put on display by institutions that are supported by the generous wealthy patrons – foundations, trusts, museums and cultural heritage centers?
Here’s how I see the equation: Because the wealthy were (as always) scarcer than the rest of us, there simply aren’t a lot of these pieces extant. It’s their rarity more than anything that makes them expensive and desirable. Yes, the furniture is nice. But don’t confuse a price tag with beauty or utility.
So if every log cabin on the frontier wasn’t decked out with a set of Robert Manwaring chairs, then what were most people sitting on, eating off of and sleeping in during the last 500 years? After years of researching this question for myself, I think the answer is this: furniture that doesn’t have a name, a museum or many champions.
What seems to have happened is this. Certain pieces of furniture, because of their essential practicality and usefulness, began during this period [the 17th century] to achieve definitive forms for which they were to retain for many years. Skilled but unsophisticated country craftsmen, usually joiners rather than cabinet-makers, repeated the same designs again and again, without changing them much, because they had been found to be the best for a particular purpose. A good deal of furniture thus escaped from the influence of fashion and, however unconsciously, responded only to the principle of fitness for use.
— Edward Lucie-Smith, “Furniture: A Concise History” (Oxford University Press, 1979).
The Furniture of Necessity
Among furniture historians, little has been written about this so-called “vernacular” furniture in comparison to the mountains of scholarship on high styles. There are a few books here and there (thank you Christopher Gilbert), plus magazine articles tucked between the gilded and carved masterworks. But the furniture of necessity is, for the most part, invisible.
Why? To be honest, vernacular items are tricky to study. They can be difficult to date because they don’t change much – many of these forms are still made today in the same way they were built in the 1600s. Most of their makers are anonymous. These pieces, by and large, were built by amateurs or part-time, self-taught woodworkers.
This book does not pretend to be a proper study of Western vernacular styles from 1300 to present. I’ll leave that to someone who is better at formatting footnotes. Instead, I want only to introduce you to pieces of furniture – some of them shockingly unfamiliar at first – that represent the core of our common furniture history.
This is the furniture of the people who work for a living. It is sturdy, made from everyday materials and isn’t orchestrated to impress you with ornament. Instead, it is designed to keep you dry, comfortable and safe.
Also – and this is important – this furniture is largely disconnected from fashion. It cannot be labeled as a particular style, so it does not fall in or out of fashion. It looks at home in a log cabin, ranch house or an industrial loft. In fact, the only place it looks out of place is a high-style parlor or drawing room.
I admire the everyday ordinary furniture from the past, particularly from before the Industrial Revolution, what’s known as vernacular furniture. The makers are usually unnamed, often not professionals. I like it because of its directness, honesty and functionality. It tends to be kind of minimal and spare for reasons of cost. It is striking how the dictates or slogans of Modernism align with those of the vernacular or craft: less is more,” “form follows function,” and so on. It’s ironic because Modernism typically saw itself as release from the bondage of tradition.
— Laura Mays, a furniture maker and graduate of College of the Redwoods.
About this Book
In the 18th century, there was an explosion of so-called “pattern books” that were stuffed with illustrations of fashionable architecture, interiors and furniture. One count from the Metropolitan Museum of Art estimates there were 250 pattern books for architecture and 40 for furniture.
These books were usually gorgeous, oversized and expensive. Their copperplate engravings regulated and transmitted fashion throughout England, the United States and other parts of the world. In fact, the books are so influential that many are still in print (though usually as falling-apart paperbacks, which amuses me).
But there’s never been a pattern book for the furniture of necessity.
This book, in a small way, is designed to echo those pattern books. Each of the furniture forms has a full-page illustration by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, a Vermont artist who specializes in intaglio printing.
Following the plate is an explanation of the piece – how it is constructed and its general features – much like the explanation you might find in André-Jacob Roubo’s “l’Art du menuisier” or any other 18th-century text. Then each chapter departs from this historical format.
Vintage pattern books don’t tell you how to build a Chippendale chair. The local cabinetmaker was supposed to be able to reproduce the particular set of details to suit the fancy of the customer. But unlike high-style pieces, the furniture of necessity was usually built by its designer and end-user. So I offer step-by-step instructions for constructing the pieces featured in the plates.
I hope you will find these pieces liberating in several ways. Like many furniture makers, I spent my adult life in the shadow of the 18th-century masterworks. I was told that to be a real furniture maker, you needed to build these high-style pieces. You needed to learn veneering, carving, turning and even gilding. Otherwise, you were just a glorified trim carpenter.
That is complete crap.
Beautiful, durable and useful furniture is within the grasp of anyone willing to pick up a few tools and learn to use them. It does not require expensive materials or a lifetime of training – just an everyday normal dose of guts.
Millions of people before you – and just like you – built all the furniture in their homes. They might not have left pattern books behind, but they left clues sprinkled through paintings, sketches and the furniture record. That is where our design ideas will come from. And that is where we will begin.
In all its horrible eccentricity of non-descript Gothic, worse Chinese, and inane rococo, combined though they be with the most exquisite workmanship and occasionally a quaint gracefulness, Chippendale’s style is not in favour with those whose training enables them to discriminate between the true and false in design.
— D. Adamson, “A Chat About Furniture,” Work magazine, March 23, 1889.
— Christopher Schwarz. This is the first chapter of “The Anarchist’s Design Book, Expanded Edition“