Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Close Look at ‘Furniture in the Southern Style’

As a lifelong Southerner, I can attest that things are done a little differently below the Mason-Dixon line.

Things might seem a little backward or slow to newcomers. The manners, the way you do business and even the pace of life is out of sync with the other regions of the United States – a fact I learned within a week of moving to Chicago for college.

So it should come as little surprise that the furniture is different as well.

To my Southern eyes, the high-style furniture of 18th-century New England looks too severe and overly orchestrated. Like it is trying too hard.

In the South, even the richest pieces from Charleston, S.C., have a more casual air to them. Perhaps this has a lot to do with the economy’s rural foundation – I cannot say for sure. But I’ve always preferred Southern pieces, and that’s the bottom line for me.

So I am, of course, pleased that Popular Woodworking Books has just published “Furniture in the Southern Style” by Robert W. Lang and Glen D. Huey. This book was in the works when I left the magazine in June, but I had nothing to do with selecting the 27 pieces featured in its 160 pages or setting the tone of the book.

So like any other customer, I bought mine from ShopWoodworking.com and it arrived on Monday.

Here’s bottom line: Despite the fact that it was written by two Yankees, it’s an excellent book and should be on the shelf of anyone who loves American furniture. It is, in many ways, as groundbreaking as Lang’s first book, “Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture.”

In many ways, this book has the same back story.

When Lang’s book on Craftsman furniture came out there were only a few resources for those of us who built and enjoyed the Arts & Crafts style. At the time, the few woodworking books on the style were inadequate or were focused on pieces that were too simple or too unusual.

“Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture” and his follow-up volumes changed all that. Suddenly we all had access to some of the best design available from the best builders during the peak of the movement.

With Southern furniture, there are some good museum books on the topic, but nothing much for the builder. “Furniture in the Southern Style” changes that. The 27 projects featured in the book are from the collection and archives of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Unlike many other museums, MESDA is a far more genial place for woodworkers. Their archives are open to the public. They are known to organize tours of their collection for woodworkers who would like to touch and examine pieces closely. They are, in other words, more hospitable than some other museums I’ve worked with (with notable exceptions).

Authors Lang and Huey were granted full access to the collection so they could produce the detailed drawings featured in the book. In general, each piece has an isometric drawing, a standard three-view drawing, plus section views and details of the moulding and turnings. While the drawings are fully dimensioned, you won’t find a cutting list for each project.

Some woodworkers will grumble about this omission, but I think it’s like eating a bran muffin for breakfast instead of a cupcake – it’s healthy for you to develop your own cutting lists and the exercise will reduce your errors. For me, using another person’s cutting list is like using another person’s dentures. I’ll make my own, thank you.

There are a number of stand-out pieces in the book that I particularly like. The Pinwheel Cabinet, an 18th-century piece from North Carolina, begs to be built – wait until you see the drawers inside. I only wish the cover photo of the project were sharper.

I’m also enamored with the Nine-drawer Chest, another North Carolina project that wants to be explored with dividers. It has amazing grace for such an unusual piece. Likewise, the Kitchen Press is a seductive piece of furniture. And it’s massive.

The Desk with Bookcase is probably the only secretary that I’ve ever really felt the urge to build. The most celebrated Northern secretaries always seem a bit over the top for me.

And finally, there is my favorite piece, the Stretcher Table from Charleston, S.C. I actually was already planning to build this table after I saw it at MESDA earlier this year. Lang’s drawings of the table made it a cinch. Look for my version of the table in the April 2012 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.

If “Furniture in the Southern Style” isn’t on your short list, it should be. It’s shipping now from ShopWoodworking.com.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. They also sell a CD of the SketchUp drawings of the projects in the book. I didn’t buy that. I’ll pick it up if I decided to significantly modify any of the projects in “Furniture in the Southern Style.” If you are just reproducing the pieces and are a fair builder, you don’t have to have the CD.

11 thoughts on “A Close Look at ‘Furniture in the Southern Style’

  1. jstone000

    Got my “Furniture in the Southern Style” this week. Love it. I’ve lost count of how many times I have picked it back up to go through it again. My favorite pieces run pretty much the same as Chris’. I am a lifelong Southerner, too so I can identify and agree with what Chris says. No cut list? No problem. I don’t cut up my pieces ahead of needing them anyway and I would rather depend on actual length, width, and thickness as dictated by the piece at the point at which it is needed. Given that, who needs really needs a tape and cut list for 90 percent of the build.

  2. dpl1956

    Many times I have modified the size of the project to fit an area. But like the cut list. I was going to purchase this but if it doesn’t have one to look at to begin with I will pass on this. It saves me time. If I have to do my own then it is not worth it. Sorry.

  3. griffithpark

    millcrek – what bothered me about the photo caption: no explanation in the text or a companion photo of why it’s a misinterpretation.

    The absoluteism I can filter, but the teaching moment was missed.

  4. John Cashman

    I got mine in the mail yesterday, so haven’t had a chance to look too closely. I’m still partial to New England furniture, but think Philadelphia is too ornate, and Southern a little plain. But this is a unique book, the first, I hope, of its kind, and finally does for southern furniture what many others have done for the northeast. Nice work.

  5. Justin Tyson

    I think that this book will provide an excellent foundation for more in-depth study of southern furniture. The North Carolina nine-drawer chest and the Charleston stretcher table are now on my “to-build” list. I hope that the book will foster enough interest in southern furniture that further tomes may explore specific styles and regions of the South. I grew up in near Savannah, Georgia, and my wife near Charleston, SC, but we now live in southwest Mississippi. The furniture of the French-influenced Mississippi River Region is vastly different from the English-inspired pieces that populate the homes of the southern Atlantic coast and deserves separate study.

  6. Mitch Wilson

    So now you think you’re Paul Revere. A day trip with your daughter to Mount Vernon might do you some good. Then, perhaps, you’ll stick to flossing and tool chests.

  7. Daver

    I recieved my book the other day and can’t wait to start a new project. Figuring out which one will be a problem. I just wish that there more pictures of the objects and thwat they were in color. It would be great if a photo file could be made available on line.

  8. Bill Lattanzio

    Being born and raised in Philadelphia and now living in Chester county (and also being a huge fan of Chuck Bender) I find myself partial to the Chester County/Philadelphia style of furniture. In my mind it is the pinnacle of American furniture making. However, I was stationed in Georgia and enjoyed the south. At the age of 19 I didn’t really bother with much with looking at furniture during my time there, but I may have to check this book out…

  9. trainman0978

    Can’t wait. Ordered mine last Friday. Should be arriving any day now. With the sale promo the store had going last week, I got the book and CD shipped to the door for under thirty bucks. Quite possibly one of the best deals they had available during the 12 day sale.

  10. millcrek

    Chris I got my copy last week so I’ve had a few nights to read most of it. I must agree that it is a wonderful book in all the way you have outlined. I only have one minor complaint, on page 15 there is a photo of a ball and claw foot. The caption calls it a misinterpretation of a ball and claw foot. That implies there is a proper interpretation somewhere, probably Philadelphia, New York or Newport. I don’t know why this bothered me, I think it must be old age. I’m getting crotchety. Other than that I loved the book.

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