about rustic

rustic furniture maker
Rustic furniture maker, New York state, early 1900s

We define rustic furniture as furniture that is constructed partly or wholly of locally found natural materials such as branches, roots, bark, burls and conifer cones.  While the term rustic is often used to describe a primitive, distressed, or even crude object, that is not the intention here.  Some rustic furniture pieces may be primitive or simple, but most incorporate sophistication in design or construction.  Quality rustic furniture accents the sculptural beauty, contrasting textures, and whimsical shapes of materials found in nature.

The rustic tradition in North America began in the second half of the 19th century in wilderness resort areas such as the Adirondack region of New York. Other areas where rustic style became popular include lakes regions of the Northeast, upper Midwest and Canada; the southern Appalachians; and western mountain states. Although the term "Adirondack" is often used to describe rustic furniture, this is misleading given the variety of regions where it was made.

ernest stowe secretary

Unique Rustic Furniture
Antique rustic furniture can be divided into two categories: unique pieces designed and made by an individual craftsman, and pieces manufactured in standard styles by commercial companies.  The makers of unique rustic furniture rarely signed their work, so many of the pieces that survive today are by unknown makers.  However, attributions to known makers can be made by comparing materials, design, and construction techniques with pieces by recognized makers.  Ernest Stowe from the Adirondacks, Thomas Molesworth from Wyoming, and Reverend Ben Davis from North Carolina are several well-known rustic furniture makers from the first half of the 20th century.  

The regional origin of a piece can also be determined by the materials used and its overall design.  The vernacular forms of hand crafted rustic furniture and creative decorative details such as mosaic twig work have helped to establish rustic furnishings as an important genre of American folk art.

This secretary and chair (left) are good examples of unique rustic design originating in the Adirondacks.  Made by quintessential Adirondack craftsman Ernest Stowe of Saranac Lake, New York around 1905, it exhibits Stowe's signature style - incorporating applied white birch bark and yellow birch twig trim into extremely well-executed cabinetry.

lee fountain table

A second example of unique Adirondack craftsmanship is this table (right) made circa 1920 by Lee Fountain (1869-1941) of Wells, New York. It has an octagonal cherry top and an organic yellow birch root base, a table design for which Fountain is particularly well known.

mosaic twig servermosaic twig armoireAnother decorative technique seen in antique rustic furniture of unique design is mosaic twig work, in which twigs are applied to a substrate in decorative patterns.

The serving table on the left is covered with mosaic twig detail on all surfaces.  The patterns are geometric, including a central eight-pointed star on the top. This piece was made in South Carolina around 1900 by an unknown craftsman.

The three-dimensional mosaic twig potted urn on the right is a detail of a side panel on a monumental 8' tall armoire completely covered in elaborate designs rendered in delicate twigs. This is an example of pictorial mosaic twig.  While it also dates from the turn of the 20th century, it is continental rather than American in origin.

burl chairsRoot burls were also a popular natural material used by rustic furniture makers in the early 1900s.  This rocking chair and arm chair (left) were made during that time period in New York's Hudson River Valley.  These sturdy chairs have twig fames and intricate burl lattice backs, as well as applied burls on their arms and front aprons.

Commercial Rustic Furniture
old hickory woven arm chairsFactory production of rustic furniture was a response to the growing popularity of handmade rustic furniture. Most manufactured rustic furniture was constructed from hickory poles by companies in Indiana. It is usually possible to identify where and when a piece of hickory furniture was made by referring to the original catalogs that companies such as The Old Hickory Furniture Company distributed to market their furniture.

From the early to mid-1900s, Old Hickory's designs responded to the predominant styles of the decades in which it was making furniture.  For example, this rare, early (circa 1910) form, an Old Hickory Morris chair (below), is a rustic version of a Mission/Arts & Crafts design that was popular at the time.

Old Hickory Morris chair

The classic matching arm chair and rocker set (above right) is a more timeless design by Old Hickory Furniture Company of Martinsville, Indiana.  Made in the 1930s, the woven arms and high backs make the chairs as comfortable as they are stylish. Matching arm chair/rocking chair pairs, as illustrated in the burl and hickory designs here, were an ever-popular form.  It is inspiring to imagine the rustic architectural settings in which these two very different pairs of chairs might have resided.

Despite variations in materials and regional designs, the unifying feature of antique rustic furniture is that it was made with an aim to bring touches of nature into family homes and onto porches. Thankfully many pieces from the original era of rustic design have survived - in some cases for more than 100 years - to grace today's homes with their natural appeal.


© 2012 Cherry Gallery - all rights to text and photos in this article are reserved and are not to be copied without permission

rustic hickory catalog
Vintage Rustic Hickory catalog

For more background on unique rustic furniture and hickory furniture, see the following references:

Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition
by Craig Gilborn (1987)

A History of the Old Hickory Chair Company and the Indiana Hickory Furniture Movement
by Ralph Kylloe (2002)