Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Neat & Plain Style: A Visit to MESDA

While
I have always admired the ornate 18th-century styles of furniture from
New England, I’ve never wanted to put one of those pieces in my home.

My
tastes in furniture have always been more in line with the simpler
furniture that was made by rural builders, what some people call the
“neat and plain style.”

And
because I am a grits-loving Southerner, I have always preferred
furniture from the South, which is always a half-bubble off from what
our northern neighbors were making. In my view, Southern makers were
more willing or able to experiment outside the realm of the classic high
styles produced in the North.

This
morning I got the opportunity to visit the Museum of Early Southern
Decorative Arts
in Winston-Salem, N.C. – a long-overdue and too-short
visit to a place that I have longed to go to that specializes in
furniture and decorative arts from the mid 1600s to the mid 19th
century.

Thanks
to Jerome Bias, a local woodworker and interpreter of Thomas Day, I got
a personal tour of the museum’s collection of furniture and permission
to “do anything I like to the furniture except scratch it.”

I
was quite impressed by the pieces of furniture I examined, but I was
even more impressed by the museum’s research center, which is open to
the public and is a treasure trove of furniture information from
Southern states.

After
only 15 minutes of scanning their files, I think there is a lifetime’s
supply of furniture pieces there to build from their archives. I’ll have
more to say on this topic in a future story.

For the Yankees
If
you have never studied Southern furniture, here is a quick primer in
how it is categorized. There are three major regions: the Chesapeake,
the Low Country and the Back Country.

The
Chesapeake is the area surrounding coastal Maryland and Virginia, and
is the area that I am least familiar with. I’ve seen a fair number of
these pieces, and to me it seems most like the New England styles,
though it is still quite distinctive.

The
Low Country style covers the coastal areas of North and South Carolina
and stretches from the coast to about 50 miles inland. I have studied a
lot of furniture from Charleston, S.C. – the epicenter of the style –
and am quite familiar with its blend of English styles with Southern
hyperbole and materials.

And
then there is the Back Country style, which covers the Piedmont regions
of the Carolinas, plus parts of Georgia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
The Back Country style is in many ways the simplest and the most varied.
These are the pieces that really stand out from the traditional East
Coast styles – for better or for worse.

I’ve uploaded 17 photos I took of pieces during my visit to MESDA to Flickr.com, so you can examine them in high resolution.

Click here to visit the Flickr set.

I
apologize for the poor quality of the photos. I was working without a
flash or tripod and had my point-and-shoot camera. Still, I think the
photos capture some of the astounding energy that flows through the
impressive and surprising collection on display at MESDA.

I have a lot more surprises about my tour to come. So stay tuned.

— Christopher Schwarz

12 thoughts on “The Neat & Plain Style: A Visit to MESDA

  1. Tom Dugan

    This is excellent stuff! Not only Chris’ post but the value-added comments above. It’s been 25+ years since I visited MESDA, and just got to quickly run through before closing time. I’m just getting deeper into Chesapeake styles during the Federal period now that I’m doing the 1812-era joiner/cabinetmaker during 1812 reenactments and I had no idea MESDA reached so far East.

    Road trip!

  2. Mike Kratky

    The Cellarette caught my attention, previously had always thought that they were a Yankee version of the Kentucky Sugar Chest and here it is in a southern museum.

  3. Matt Hobbs

    Great post. I love the "neat and plain", but I’d like to make sure folks know that MESDA has incredible high-style, carved and inlaid furniture (and other decorative and fine art) as well. You can see plenty of that on their website.

  4. John Cashman

    My favorite issue of the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts is from 1986. The entire issue was from John Bivins on the work of the Sommers carver. Great stuff, wonderful stuff.

  5. Lynn Smith

    Using the link to MESDA in the above post you can access "Publications" and in turn, "MESDA Journal" to view past print issues of this interesting publication. Not to be missed is the 2001 Summer issue devoted to Frank Horton, the Alan Lomax of Southern Decorative Arts if you will, and a diving force behind MESDA and the Old Salem restoration.

  6. Kevin Thomas

    It would appear we will be seeing many MESDA inspired projects in the future? Some really beautiful pieces. I hope you got lots of measurements and took plenty of notes.

  7. Shannon

    Thanks for this post, I am always interested to hear about places like this. Much to my wife’s chagrin as they often mysteriously end up as way points on our next road trip. I’m sure it is not new to you, but your readers may also be interested in the book "Southern Furniture 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection". There are some wonderful images of classic southern furniture, but I personally found the opening chapters on the stylistic characteristics of the Chesapeake, Low Country, and Back Country styles. Also interesting are the political and environmental factors that shaped society and the furniture.

COMMENT