A Kentucky sideboard by Warren May from the February 2003 issue of Popular Woodworking.
About seven years ago I spent a couple days with Warren May, an accomplished cabinetmaker and dulcimer builder in Berea, Ky., to photograph some of his work for some projects in Popular Woodworking.
The first day I was there we went to Denny’s for lunch, and May spent more than an hour talking about Kentucky furniture (and his dislike for Shaker furniture, which should be another blog entry some day).
I was skeptical that Kentucky furniture really existed — sort of like Presbyterian Furniture or NASCAR Furniture. That’s because a lot of vintage rural furniture I’ve seen in the Midwest shares similar characteristics. It’s made from domestic woods, has a sturdy character and has a limited amount of decorative ornament, such as carving, turning or inlay.
According to May, one of the defining characteristics of Kentucky furniture is its reserved use of inlay, which is typically some small flowers and stems. It’s these slight fancy touches that separate Kentucky furniture from stuff you might find in Ohio, for example.
May has been collecting original pieces and showed us some of his pieces in the barn next to his shop. Still I was skeptical.
Then Mike Wenzloff passed me a link to The Speed Art Museum in Louisville that offers an online data base of many vernacular pieces, including many that are known to have been made in Kentucky. And after paging through the entire collection, I think May makes some good points.
(Note: For the following links to work, you are going to have to accept the “Terms of Service” on the Speed museum’s page first.)
My favorite piece is this early 19th-century chest of drawers from Harrodsburg in walnut. Note the inlay and banding on the front (click on the photo to enlarge it). And note that this piece may have been made by an amateur (though I kind of doubt it). Here’s a second one in cherry that looks to be from the same maker.
Here’s another interesting piece, called a “sugar desk.” Look closely for the inlay and banding at edges. The detailed photos tell the story. (By the way, if you like sugar chests, definitely spend some time browsing this collection. The Speed has a lot of them.)
Here’s a corner cupboard exhibiting some of the same sort of inlay details on what would otherwise be a nice, but unremarkable, vernacular piece. The inlay on the front door panel is particularly wild. What would make you do that? I see a bottle, a goblet and a hand perhaps?
And finally, here’s a sugar chest with this same sort of inlay, which seems to walk the line between whimsical and refined.
The fact that these pieces seem to embrace these two perspectives is what makes me think that Warren May is right about Kentucky furniture. As someone who has lived in the Bluegrass state since 1993, I have found it pleasantly enigmatic. We have dry counties that make bourbon. Religious anti-gambling fervor in the heart of thoroughbred country. A state that is predominantly registered Democrats who vote Republican.
Perhaps there is other vernacular furniture out there that exhibits these same inlay details over and over again. If so, speak up and let us know.
– Christopher Schwarz