American Furniture 2011, edited by Luke Beckerdite with contributions from Lisa Minardi, Wendy A. Cooper, Mark Anderson, Thomas P. Kugelman, Nancy Goyne Evans, Lee Ellen Griffith, Erik Gronning, Ted Landsmark, Anne E. Mallek, Francis J. Puig, Lita Solis-Cohen and Gerald W.R. Ward. Chipstone Foundation in association with University Press of New England, 336 pages, hardcover, $65.
“Wharton Esherick was a nudist.” The most sensational line in American Furniture 2011 appears several pages from the end of the annual review from Chipstone Foundation, which prides itself on the seriousness of its scholarly articles for specialist readers.
The sentence was written by Gerald W.R. Ward, who offers a comparative review of two new works on the Pennsylvania modernist, whose presence is an entertaining diversion in a volume that burrows deeply into traditional fare.
The first two articles are by Lisa Minardi and Wendy A. Cooper, whose exhibition “Paint, Pattern & People” opened at Winterthur in 2011 after years of research. Minardi builds on the pioneering work of Monroe Fabian and Pastor Frederick S. Weiser to document the role of fraktur artists in the decoration of Pennsylvania German furniture. The heavily illustrated essay offers clues to identifying artisans based on the evidence provided by decoration, inscriptions, hardware and construction.
Cooper and Mark Anderson collaborate on “The Nottingham School of Furniture,” which surveys a distinctive group of Philadelphia-influenced furniture made in the Octoraro Creek area straddling Chester County, Penn., and Cecil County, Md. “The most characteristic hallmark of this work is the originality with which makers mixed and matched ornament, never exactly repeating a form or combination of details,” write the authors, who identify parallels between furniture and architectural woodwork in Nottingham Lots, the name given to the region settled by Quakers and Scots-Irish Presbyterians in 1701.
The volume moves north to New London County in southeastern Connecticut in Thomas P. Kugelman’s essay, “Felix Huntington and the Furniture of Norwich, Connecticut, 1770-1800.” Working with scholar and conservator Robert Lionetti, Kugelman updates the findings of their 2005 book, Connecticut Valley Furniture: Eliphalet Chapin and His Contemporaries, 1750‱800. He provides a checklist of 22 furniture craftsmen working in Norwich, a prosperous river town with access to exotic hardwoods, imported leather and other luxury items in the 1780s.
In the final essay, Nancy Goyne Evans asks what may be learned from the paint on Colonial and Federal seating furniture. She groups Windsor chairs by color (green was the most common, blue the least). Doing so allows her to construct general rules about where, when and why different paint schemes were fashionable. Evans applies the same organizational framework to the ornament used to enhance painted surfaces.
Reviews of nine books published over a three-year period, 2009 to 2011, follow the essays. The reviews †submitted by a journalist, an auction house expert, a college administrator and several curators †vary in tone. Lee Ellen Griffith writes about Harmony in Wood: Furniture of the Harmony Society by Philip D. Zimmerman. Erik Gronning weighs in on Harbor and Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710‱850. Anne E. Mallek tackles Gustav Stickley and the American Arts and Crafts Movement. Francis J. Puig considers Paint, Pattern & People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725‱850; and Lita Solis-Cohen takes on The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790‱820: “A True North Britain in the Southern Backcountry.”
The most accessible of these short essays are by Gerald W.R. Ward and Ted Landsmark. Ward provides a context for thinking about Wharton Esherick, the father of the American studio furniture movement, and New Hampshire furniture maker Jon Brooks. Landsmark, who describes himself as an African American researcher into the early roots of black material culture, offers his personal thoughts on Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color, as well as a tribute to one of its authors, Patricia Phillips Marshall, who died just before the book was published in 2010 by the University of North Carolina Press in association with the North Carolina Museum of History.
Erik Gronning observes that the earliest students of American material culture, people like Esther Singleton and William Macpherson Hornor, Jr., initiated regional American furniture studies. Regionalism is very much alive, judging by American Furniture 2011.