A Book Review
American Furniture 2012
Edited by Luke Beckerdite
Chipstone Foundation, distributed by University Press of New England, 2012, 192 pages, hardbound, $65 plus S/H from University Press of New England, (800) 421-1561 or (www.upne.com).
The latest edition of American Furniture, the annual armchair symposium, presents five papers by a diverse group of independent scholars that deal in various ways with what Henry James called “delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past.” With this quote from The Aspern Papers,R. Ruthie Dibble begins the first essay, “The Hands that Rocked the Cradle: Interpretations in the Life of an Object.” She chose a cradle made 1600-1700 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to demonstrate how an object can play a role in our conception of the intangible past. Sumpter Priddy III, Adam T. Erby, and Jenna Huffman focus on a Monticello Campeachy chair; Kurt C. Russ and Jeffrey S. Evans write on punched-tin paneled furniture from the Kahle-Henson school; Robert F. Trent looks carefully at Boston baroque easy chairs 1705-40; and Robert Edwards shows us furniture designed by William Lightfoot Price and the “artsmen” who made it.
Book reviews extend the timeframe another century to include furniture by Sam Maloof and Charles and Ray Eames. There is a review of the catalog for the recent Duncan Phyfe furniture exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and a review of Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee’s Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-Century Joinery. There is a lot to learn!
Dibble’s focus is on a cradle that was thought to have been brought on the Mayflower by Dr. Samuel Fuller (1580-1633). The cradle was shown at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial International Exposition in the New England Farmer’s Log Cabin. In the 1920’s when Wallace Nutting bought it to use in his business, it was no longer called English, but it had become “a symbol of early American artistry.” Now it is at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art as part of the Nutting collection.
Dibble discusses the cradle’s form and decoration and relates it to chests made in southeastern Massachusetts. She describes its construction and rich decoration. Sturdy and solid, it survived as an heirloom in a wealthy family. Only the rockers are early 20th-century replacements.
Dibble suggests that the form reflects the idea that the Plymouth Colony was an “experiment in a dangerous new world” and also expresses the “owners’ confidence in, but also their trepidation about, their future.”
Although Dibble cannot attrib-ute the cradle to a particular maker, she can trace its descent in Plymouth families for 300-plus years. Not only were cradles used to rock swaddled babies to sleep, but new mothers were given miniature ceramic cradles as a wish for good health for mother and baby. The Plymouth cradle became “a surviving witness of the past, almost spiritual in its ability to distill abstract events into concise and powerful narratives,” writes Dibble. When it was shown at the Philadelphia Centennial without its rockers restored, it was a witness to the story of American progress. Later when it was published in Wallace Nutting’s books and photographs with its rockers restored, it “took on a new meaning as an instructor of conservative American values.”
In the first edition of Furniture of the Pilgrim Century Nutting “describes replacing ‘the missing rockers with oak cut from the face of the exposed beam in the Marsh House, Wethersfield, the oldest house in town.’” Dibble points out that in the 19th century, wood from the Colonial era took on relic status and that Nutting constructed a link between the cradle and the hearth, a sacred spot where a baby was born and rocked, and where his education later began.
In 1926 when J.P. Morgan bought the Nutting collection and donated it to the Wadsworth Atheneum, the cradle was shown publicly with other 17th-century furniture in a gallery that resembled a domestic setting. In 1934, under the leadership of director Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin Jr., the Nutting collection, as well as the museum’s collection of modern art, was reinstalled in the newly built Avery Memorial and arranged in rows against white walls. The display was considered cutting edge at the time. Objects could be appreciated for their shapes and silhouettes rather than as functional furniture.
Over the last three decades the cradle has been on display in a room labeled “Rare Forms of the Seventeenth Century” with two 17th-century tables, two boxes, a stool, and a clock. An updated 2003 label made for the cradle for the temporary exhibition Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America contextualizes the object in terms of its formal qualities and known history. Dibble contends that by pointing out “the cradle’s presumed artisanal qualities, the museum text collapsed the sense of time, encouraging visitors to appreciate objects through formal analysis.” The label also mentions that the cradle was once thought to have come on the Mayflower but that it was in fact made of American wood. Dibble notes that the cradle is now understood only as a finely crafted historic artifact rather than as a meaningful link to the past and bemoans the fact that as historic objects in museums are interpreted as art, the qualities that gave these objects “historic or relic status” are “lost, disregarded, or marginalized.”
She admits that she does not have a solution to the interpretation questions posed by the cradle’s various restagings, and she suggests that scholars find themselves “reaching across James’s metaphoric table, grasping for a ‘palpable imaginable visitable past.’” Dibble ends with more from The Aspern Papers.
“[W]e are divided of course between liking to feel the past strange and liking to feel it familiar; the difficulty is...to catch it at the moment when the scales of balance hang with the right evenness.” Dibble confesses that “with its rockers seemingly poised for movement, the cradle suggests there is no right evenness, only an ever-changing attempt to create one.”
Priddy, Erby, and Huffman explore the relationship between the Campeachy chairs made in New Orleans for Mrs. Elizabeth Trist and Thomas Jefferson and those made at Monticello. They find that the New Orleans chairs were indeed the source of the Campeachy chairs that Thomas Jefferson’s slave joiner John Hemings (1776-1833) produced for use at Monticello.
Until now the sources of Jefferson’s first Campeachy chair and Hemings’s design have remained a mystery. A recently discovered Louisiana Campeachy chair with a solid history of descent and an exchange of letters piece together this story.
In a 2010 American Furniture article Diane Ehrenpreis of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation wrote about a Campeachy chair that Jefferson owned and one that belonged to his close friend Elizabeth House Trist. Each chair originally had red morocco upholstery, and for a short time in 1820 the chairs stood together at Jefferson’s retreat Poplar Forest. About that time Trist gave the chair to Peachy Gilmer and his wife, Mary House Gilmer, Trist’s niece. Ehrenpreis also explored the later history of Jefferson’s chair, noting that University of Virginia Professor George Blaetterman (1788-1850) purchased it at the 1827 dispersal of the contents of Monticello. Both chairs have a circle of stars inlaid in their crests. Since then a small cache of unstudied letters from 1818 have provided new insights into the origins of Jefferson’s and Trist’s chairs and how they served as prototypes for those made by Hemings.
The authors believe that by 1808 Jefferson wanted a Campeachy chair. He may have learned about them from Elizabeth Trist, his neighbor, whose husband, Nicholas Trist (1743-1784), owned property along the Mississippi. While Elizabeth Trist lived in New Orleans for five years beginning in 1804, she corresponded with Jefferson. In 1808 Jefferson asked Thomas Bolling Robertson (1779-1828), secretary of the territory of New Orleans, to send him a Campeachy chair, but Robertson did not send it until 1819.
When Elizabeth Trist returned to Virginia she visited at Monticello during Jefferson’s break from Washington. The authors believe that during her stay she told him about Campeachy hammocks and convinced him to request one. Jefferson wrote to William Brown, customs collector in New Orleans, asking that he send a couple of Campeachy hammocks. He did not mention Campeachy chairs.
Evidence that Jefferson owned a Campeachy chair during his presidency is circumstantial. There is no mention of one being packed and sent back to Monticello and no mention of one in inventories of the president’s house. The only reference is an 1827 editorial mention of a Campeachy chair in the front window of Henry Hill’s cabinet shop on Capitol Hill, noting that the chair is “made in the form of those Spanish Chairs introduced here by Mr. Jefferson.”
In a letter dated November 5, 1819, Jefferson thanked Thomas Bolling Robertson for sending a Campeachy chair from New Orleans despite a decade’s delay. “Age, its infirmities and frequent illnesses have rendered indulgence in that easy kind of chair truly acceptable,” wrote Jefferson. The authors say that this implies Jefferson did have an earlier example.
The authors suggest Jefferson may have given his Campeachy chair to a Washington craftsman to copy. It is recorded that William Worthington made them in the 1810’s. In the 1820’s John Quincy Adams purchased one from Worthington, and President Andrew Jackson bought one from Henry Hill. Whether Jefferson owned a Campeachy chair during his presidency remains a subject of debate, but when his rheumatism grew troublesome, the Trist family gave him a Campeachy chair that became his favorite.
The pair of matching Campeachy chairs, one owned by Jefferson and one by Elizabeth Trist, is linked to the visit of Nicholas and Browse Trist, Elizabeth’s grandsons, to Monticello in 1817. Nicholas apparently wrote to his stepfather in New Orleans and asked for a pair of Campeachy chairs with a circle of stars inlaid in the crests and expensive morocco upholstery, one for his grandmother and one for Jefferson. His stepfather, Etienne St. Julien de Tournillon (1770-1857), wrote that he ordered them from a cabinetmaker, and that one would have the cipher “T.J.” and the other would have “E.T.” Nicholas’s mother wrote later that the chairs were shipped to Norfolk and complained that “the chairs are not as handsome as they ought to be after the direction your Father gave the upholsterer.” The authors believe that the “E.T.” and “T.J.” were incorporated into the upholstery, and that the addition of upholstery to the traditional simple layer of cowhide made the chairs more comfortable.
The first mention of a Campeachy chair at Monticello was in a letter from Martha Randolph, Jefferson’s daughter, to her daughter-in-law Jane Randolph saying that “Grand Father’s alcove is most temptingly cool and an elegant Campeachy chair at the foot [of the bed has been] arranged expressly for his accommodation.” Jefferson suffered from rheumatism and its treatments. In August 1819 Jefferson was unable to sit up and work for an entire day, so he wrote from Poplar Forest to Martha at Monticello asking her to send a “Siesta chair made by Johnny Hemings,” but he also asked if she thought one of the Louisiana chairs or John Hemings’s would be more comfortable. This letter raises the question of whether the Louisiana chairs were the prototypes for John Hemings or whether Hemings looked at others for inspiration. The authors believe the Trist Campeachy chairs were Hemings’s source because the chair sent by Robertson did not arrive until mid-November 1819.
In 1820 Elizabeth Trist gave her Campeachy chair to the Gilmers, arranging for Jefferson to have it sent to Poplar Forest and for the Gilmers to pick it up there. Apparently a year went by before they arranged the pickup. Jefferson’s instructions for the delivery noted that it was covered with red morocco and was distinguished from another of “brighter fresher colour and having a green ferret across the back, covering a seam in the leather.” The sunlight at Monticello apparently faded Jefferson’s red leather.
The authors trace the history of three chairs made by John Hemings. All three were owned by friends of Jefferson who worked with him on establishing the University of Virginia. Joseph Carrington Cabell (1778-1856) owned one, and General John Hartwell Cocke (1780-1866) owned two.
The Hemings chairs are made of oak; the Louisiana chairs are mahogany. Moreover, Elizabeth Trist’s chair was damaged shortly after it arrived, and John Hemings and blacksmith Joseph Fossett may have made the repairs using an iron strap to reinforce its stiles and shortening the posts, which altered the proportions. Elizabeth also may have asked them to shorten the front to make it more upright.
The authors demonstrate in detail how Hemings used the Campeachy chairs as prototypes, and they note deviations, such as covering his chairs in heavy cowhide. Also, unlike the Caribbean upholsterers, Hemings did not nail the hide along the vertical outer edges of the frame but instead nailed it on the front of the seat and posts. They believe he made the Cabell chair first and the Cocke chairs later, improving the joinery. They relate other later Campeachy chairs to the Hemings chairs with a history of ownership in the Tidewater area of Virginia, suggesting they may have been made by an artisan who worked with John Hemings at Monticello, perhaps one of his nephews James “Madison” Hemings (1805-1877) or Thomas “Eston” Hemings (sons of John’s half-sister Sally Hemings), who had apprenticed with their uncle. After Jefferson freed them they set up shop in Charlottesville. Monticello historian Diane Ehrenpreis wrote that oral tradition says cabinetmaker John Fowler purchased a Campeachy chair at the 1827 Monticello dispersal sale; neither Fowler’s purchase nor his furniture products are documented. The authors contend that regardless of who made the chairs, their existence attests to “the spreading reputation of Jefferson’s Campeachy chairs in the years following his death.”
The authors also emphasize how the star-inlaid chairs reflect family relationships and friendship with the Trist family beginning in 1782 when Jefferson met Elizabeth in Philadelphia. In 1824 Nicholas Trist returned to Albemarle to marry Jefferson’s granddaughter Virginia, and he became Jefferson’s personal secretary. The young couple lived with the president until he died and also cared for Elizabeth Trist, who lived with them at Monticello from after 1826 until her death in 1828.
Kurt C. Russ and Jeffrey S. Evans’s essay, “The Kahle-Henson School of Punched-Tin Paneled Furniture,”is the result of the Virginia Safe Project, which involves a survey of the craftsmen who made ventilated wooden storage cabinets or safes in various sizes and forms in the Shenandoah Valley region. The punched-tin panels from the region display a wide variety of designs on many different cabinet forms. The authors are working to identify regional schools of production and investigating how industrialization and improved transportation influenced manufacture and consumption.
The image of George Washington for the cover of the journal is a detail of the over 8' tall figure of George Washington by Matthew Kahle. It was commissioned by the board of trustees of Washington College in 1842. Kahle carved it in tulip poplar and painted it white to resemble marble. It was installed atop Center Hall on the Washington campus in 1844. “Old George” was removed for conservation in 1990 and then was retired to the Washington and Lee University library.
Kahle appears to be a jack-of-all-trades who produced “cabinet furniture” as well as a speaker’s platform and blackboard for Washington College; drumsticks, gun racks, and tent floors for the Virginia Military Institute; and a commencement platform for both colleges used at the Presbyterian church. He also advertised sign painting.
Matthew Kahle (1800-1869) married in 1825 and had ten children by 1850. Two of his sons, Samuel and William, became cabinetmakers. Samuel was out of business by 1856, but William had greater success. He reopened his father’s business as Central Hall Warerooms in February 1857. In 1860 he advertised in the Lexington Gazette that he made everything from chairs to coffins in wood from common poplar to the finest mahogany, and that he would take lumber in exchange for work. In 1863 he died at Gettysburg. Samuel and William’s younger brother Jacob P. Kahle (1847-1886) may have taken over the business in 1870, and his younger brother George may have served as apprentice.
Three of Matthew Kahle’s daughters married local cabinetmakers. Frances married Thomas Forsyth, who is listed as making furniture for another shop in 1865, including a wardrobe, a safe, cottage bedsteads, dining tables, a washstand, and a walnut bureau. The authors say this is the last mention of a safe made by anyone associated with the Kahle family, and it was 40 years after John Henson advertised “safe frames.”
John Henson (active 1819-after 1831) was born in London and trained as a tinsmith there. He arrived in Lynchburg in 1819 with “upwards of nine years experience in the City of London.” He moved to Lexington to establish a partnership with metalworker John Graham. They advertised stills and an assortment of tin and copper wares. Henson bought out his partner and advertised ornamental cake and pudding molds, a variety of pastry tools, and tin, copper, sheet-iron, and zinc roofs, waterspouts, and gutters. In 1824 he advertised “Stills, Wash and Tea Kettles...large and small SAFE FRAMES, finished in a superior style to any heretofore made....” The authors take this to mean safes were made in the region before 1824, although it is unclear if they had punched-tin panels.
The latest Henson advertisement is from August 1830. His inclusion in the 1830 census and his absence from the 1840 U.S. federal census suggest his operations ceased sometime during that period. Other tinsmiths may have been the source for punched-tin panels used by Matthew Kahle, his sons, and other local furniture makers.
The closet safe attributed to John Henson and Matthew Kahle has four punched-tin panels with stars and circles, flowering urns, and lunettes in the corner, and two panels with a profile portrait of Washington and flowering vines. Three side panels include an upper and lower diapered panel, and the middle one reads “R.L. McDowal” with the date 1829 and the initials “J.H.” each in a lozenge. J.H. is apparently for John Henson. According to Russ and Evans, family tradition maintains that Robert L. McDowell (McDowal) commissioned the safe for use in his house and adjacent inn known as Washington Tavern in Lexington. The safe was taken from the McDowell house before the building was sold in 1919, and Robert’s great-grandson wrote that it was known “as a Pie Safe in Virginia from whence it came,” and that it was made by Matthew Kahle in the 1840’s. He also wrote that Kahle was the carver of the statue of George Washington at Washington and Lee University. According to Robert the pie safe was known as the “G.W.A. Shington safe” to the family because of the placement of the letters above Washington’s profile. It seems logical that McDowell would order a safe with Washington’s profile for his Washington Tavern.
Evans and Russ go on to attribute a few other safes to the Kahle-Henson partnership. One was finished with a red wash like the McDowell safe, but it was later painted blue. The punched-tin panels are similar, with an identical profile of Washington on the middle panels but with “Born/ 1731” to the left and “Died/ 1799” to the right of the profile and “WA’SHINGTON” on a banner above. The side panels have a diapered decoration. This safe has a vertically divided interior with fixed shelving.
Another attribution to the Kahle-Henson shop is a fragment of a chest published in Henry J. Kaufman’s Early American Ironware. The star and circle panels differ only in the treatment of their urns, and the Washington panels are identical to those with his birth and death dates. The bottom panels have the words “HENSON’S-IMPROV’D-CLOSET.SAFE,” indicating what these cabinets were called when they were made.
Another safe fragment, sold at Sotheby’s Stanley Sax sale in January 1998, had turned up at an estate auction in Monterey, Virginia, in the early 1970’s and was subsequently restored incorrectly. Its four vertical punched-tin panels are decorated with large Federal eagles perched on a shield with a banner and with a female figure holding a bunch of flowers and a liberty cap with “America” emblazoned below. The side panels are diapered. A punched-tin single panel with an American eagle commemorating the inauguration of John Quincy Adams includes his name “John Q Adams” at the top and the date “March 4th 1825” in a semicircular banner below; it has an “I” in the lower left corner and an “H” on the lower right. This example of Henson’s work is now at the Henry Ford Museum.
Russ and Evans suggest that the production of what we commonly call pie safes was not a mid-century phenomenon as was previously thought. Ventilated “closet safes” were made in the 1820’s when Kahle and Henson collaborated in making some early ones with patriotic motifs. These are the safes that begin the story.
Robert F. Trent looks at “Boston Baroque Easy Chairs, 1705-1740” from the inside out. Contending that Boston baroque easy chairs have never received the acclaim of their later Colonial equivalents, he remedies this by examining 25 chair frames and discussing original upholstery techniques. This was a difficult task because only four of the chairs have retained fragments of their original stuffing, webbing, sackcloth, or edge rolls. By showing how these chairs were upholstered and trimmed, he establishes that the stylistic transition from the squared to the cabriole leg was not abrupt, as it once was assumed, but more gradual. He shows that chair makers experimented with details found on imported British seating. He noted that even though Boston seating was aggressively marketed in other Colonial ports, in the 1730’s Philadelphia began to compete with its own chair-making and upholstery traditions. He illustrates a circa 1730 Philadelphia easy chair owned by James Logan that he believes was made by an immigrant Irish craftsman. This chair demonstrates that the complex framing and heavy curled horsehair stuffing of the many Philadelphia rococo frames that survive with original foundations were used by the early 1730’s and were not a development of the 1750’s and 1760’s.
Trent goes on to conclude that “the Logan chair also proves that by the 1730s the squarish, cheaply upholstered chairs produced in Boston until the 1780s were outdated by English standards.” He suggests that the models for frames came from shops in London and did not develop in a neat succession of transitional steps, nor did they take place quickly. Rare “models of seating can...suggest a short production span, as well as an experimental dead-end,” he writes. It appears that several styles were made at the same time.
Robert Edwards writes about the furniture of architect William Lightfoot Price, creator of the Rose Valley Shops, which produced furniture from 1901 to 1906 for Price’s Arts and Crafts-style houses in a utopian experiment near Moylan, a suburb of Philadelphia. Some of the furniture bears the Rose Valley mark and some does not; much of it is documented by period photographs at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is nice to have this documentation all in one place.
Price was not a trained woodcarver or cabinetmaker, as were Karl van Rydingsvärd (1863-1941), who learned to carve in Sweden, and Edward Maene (1852-1931) and his nephew John (1863-1928), who studied in Belgium and carved much of Price’s furniture. Price’s principal source for furniture was John and Edward Maene’s Philadelphia shop.
Edwards writes, “Price wanted his furniture to be exactly what it appeared to be. His Gothic tables are made of sturdy oak boards, assembled with visible joinery and kept in place with butterfly joints and elaborately carved pins...the tables can be disassembled and easily moved.” The tables were shipped to Boston, New York City, and the St. Louis World’s Fair for exhibition. The Gothic designs Price furnished for his craftsmen are distinct enough to support attributions to the shops at Rose Valley and at Arden, Delaware, another utopian community he founded.
Edwards names several other craftsmen who worked on Price’s projects. Henry Hetzel became a member of the Rose Valley community in 1903. A Hetzel bench survives with its original green corduroy cushion.
Price also made use of Stickley’s Craftsman furniture for houses that included Gothic, Renaissance, and other historic details. He subcontracted furniture, such as the Chinese red chairs with painted decoration for the dining room of the Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City.
Price extolled the ratskeller design in American architecture and quaint furnishings from the Tyrolean regions of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. Edwards illustrates a number of brettstuhls with connections to Price. They have tenoned legs and board seats and backs that are sometimes decorated with Gothic or Renaissance motifs.
According to Edwards, it is hard to know the size of Price’s furniture production. Even though the records of his designs and sales are numerous, they are incomplete. Some furniture was made at Rose Valley, some was made at the Maenes’ Philadelphia workshop, and some came from Arden. Price was inspired by William Morris, but he did not reject modern technology. His furniture was made entirely by hand after the wood had been sawn and planed by machines. Edwards sees modernity in Price’s architecture but not in his furniture. His Gothic-style trestle tables assembled with visible joinery and kept together with butterfly joints and carved pins are the best examples of his method of allowing structure to be the guiding principal of furniture design. Craftsmanship is what distinguishes Price’s furniture from the large amount of Gothic furniture imported and made in America.
“His logical designs, insistence on functional, handmade joinery, control of carving style, and consistent finish resulted in furniture of the highest quality,” writes Edwards. He suggests that Price’s Quaker faith’s “ideas about simplicity, truth, harmony, and equality parallel the primary tenets of the secular Arts and Crafts movement.” He points out that an 18th-century mahogany high chest owned by a Quaker or a richly carved 20th-century Rose Valley table commissioned by a Philadelphia industrialist would seem to contradict Quaker and Arts and Crafts philosophies respectively. As Edwards notes, however, “Friends have never been required to eschew luxury; they are enjoined only to avoid vain expressions that might distract them from pursuing their Inner Light.” For Price, “truth to materials and honest construction did not require plainness or preclude carved embellishments.”
Edwards admits that William Price’s “furniture designs may be a dead end on a linear time line that requires progressive modernity to move forward,” but his study defines Price’s moment in the history of style.
The book reviews in American Furniture remind readers that furniture history is still being made.
Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez of the North Bennet Street School in Boston reviewed The House That Sam Built: Sam
Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945-1985 (2011), a catalog that accompanied an exhibition at The Huntington in 2011-12 in conjunction with Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A.,1945-1980, a collaboration of 60 Southern California institutions to bring a series of exhibitions and related activities to celebrate the breadth and impact of postwar Los Angeles artists. Decorative arts curator Harold B. Nelson is the lead author of the book, and there are essays by Jeremy Adamson, Jason T. Busch, Jonathan Leo Fairbanks, Kay Sekimachi, and Tia Vasiliou. Nelson’s aim was to tell the story of the post-World War Two art scene in the Pomona Valley of Southern California using Sam Maloof “as the narrator and the work of his friends as illustrations.” Although the book gives a glimpse of an extraordinary group of artists during a significant time and place in the development of American art, the reviewer thought the book fell short of convincing him there is such a thing as a Pomona “school.” The 35 pieces of Maloof furniture, the 81 examples of works by Maloof’s friends in the exhibition, and the essays and catalog entries track the development of Maloof’s signature style of furniture and also are testimony to Maloof’s commitment to well-made objects. Together the exhibition and catalog also record Maloof’s friendships and well-lived life. Gómez-Ibáñez said the catalog lacks a summary that describes the decisions that led to selecting the disparate objects taken from public and private collections rather than from Maloof’s home. He suggests that this may have been remedied in the installation, but there are no pictures of the installation in the catalog.
John Stuart Gordon of the Yale University Art Gallery reviewed The Story of Eames Furniture (2010)by Marilyn Neuhart with the assistance of her husband, John Neuhart. The two-volume study covers The Early Years in volume I and The Herman Miller Age in volume II. The Neuharts seem to be the ideal Eames biographers; they studied design in Los Angeles in the 1950’s and worked in the Eames Office between 1957 and 1961 and again in the late 1970’s. They worked on Eames exhibitions and wrote other books on Eames furniture, all noted in Gordon’s review. The Neuharts once had good things to say about both Charles and Ray Eames; this time they take a “dim view.” Gordon thinks the disparaging tone takes away from the book’s discussion of how furniture was designed and manufactured. The book’s major contribution is the story of the collaborators who apparently played a major role. There are extended biographies of 22 people who had an influence on or worked in the Eames Office. Every piece of furniture to come out of the Eames Office is documented using patent drawings, archival photographs showing the manufacturing process, reproductions of marketing material, and images of the final products. Gordon points out how the Neuharts’ descriptions of the gauge of wire and the kinds of screws for the wire chair show “true connoisseurship.”
Through documentation the Neuharts show that Eames furniture was the work of many hands and companies, and they deflate “the heroic persona” of Charles Eames and the contributions of Ray Eames. Gordon is grateful for the resource but writes that using it can “be trying,” as its index is not a helpful as it might be. It is not an introductory text; it is directed to those who have prior knowledge of the Eames oeuvre.
Charles F. Hummel of Winterthur calls Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-Century Joinery (2012)by Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee “one of the best ‘how-to-do-it’ books of the last and present century.” The joint stool employs most techniques applied to the trade. Alexander and Follansbee go through all the steps from selecting and felling an oak tree to painting the finished product. Alexander and Follansbee also show how to make new tools in imitation of 17th- and 18th-century examples.
Hummel compliments the book’s layout, noting that the 210 illustrations are next to or very close to the text (something not true in the longer essays in American Furniture). Hummel says for collectors, historians, and students, Alexander and Follansbee “unlock the ‘art and mystery’ of handcrafted wood joinery taught for centuries to apprentices in the Western world.”
Wendy A. Cooper of Winterthur gives Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York (2011)by Peter M. Kenny, Michael K. Brown, Frances F. Bretter, and Matthew A. Thurlow a glowing review, calling it as “brilliantly researched and presented” as the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition publications on Honoré Lannuier in 1998 and John Townsend in 2005. She singles out the work of Frances Bretter, who discusses 15 of Phyfe’s clients, including William Bayard of New York, John Manning of South Carolina, Quaker Philadelphians Reuben and Jane Haines, French émigré Victor Marie du Pont, and Savannah “maiden lady” Mary Telfair. Cooper is most impressed with the rich and elegant furniture that Phyfe made for North Carolinian Robert Donaldson for his Fayetteville house, for his New York City town house, and for his estate Edgewater on the Hudson, where collector Richard Hampton Jenrette has reunited some of the original furniture.
Cooper points out that among the discoveries made during the research for this book was the recognition in an early 20th-century photograph of a center table in the house of one of Donaldson’s daughters. The table was the very one billed to Donaldson in 1822 and acquired in 1934 by Henry Francis du Pont for Winterthur. Cooper also notes Bretter’s discussion of D. Phyfe & Son’s large commission for Grecian plain-style furniture for John Laurence Manning, ordered in 1840. Much of it has been returned to Millford Plantation in central South Carolina by Richard Hampton Jenrette.
Cooper also lauds the 67 color plates with details and images of design sources and related objects arranged chronologically and with specific commissions grouped together. She also notes the addition of 23 attributed Phyfe pieces as documented in invoices or accounts, by family descent, and labeled and inscribed, that are also illustrated. She says that the book is “the most complete, brilliantly researched, and superbly illustrated work on Duncan Phyfe, his family, and his contemporary craftsmen and patrons.”
If after reading the articles and reviews in American Furniture,you have an appetite for more, Gerald W.R. Ward has compiled a list of recent writing on American furniture published in 2011 through September 2012, with the addition of a few titles that inadvertently were omitted in earlier journals.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest