18th c Painted furniture?

I just got my copy of “Early American Life” magazine in which I was listed in the “Directory of Traditional American Crafts”. I was included in the “Furniture, Formal or Painted” category. The title annoys me a little. I’m not sure there’s always a distinction between formal and painted. Certainly japanned or lacquered pieces were among the most formal. But, okay, I get it. It’s semantics.

Under my name they added a description of my work, “18th c painted furniture”. I’m not sure that’s a great description of what I do. When I think of painted furniture I think of decoratively painted furniture, not faux finishes or faux grained. I’m not writing to complain. I’m thrilled and honored to be included at all. But I think the subject of painted furniture is interesting. Here’s what I know about it:

  • Paint was sometimes used to make cheap wood look like expensive wood. Curly maple and cherry were prime candidates for faux finishing. The goal was to make something look like mahogany and these two species could get you close. I’ve heard that there was very little naturally finished maple. Maple was almost always painted.

  • Some items were routinely painted. Post and rung and windsor chairs were typically painted. Benno Forman tells us a wide range of colors were used in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. I would expect that variety of color would have continued throughout the 18th and probably 19th centuries as well.
  • We usually associate painted furniture with middle class or lower furniture. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes not. Certainly, faux graining was a very high end finish.
  • Painted finishes don’t last. As the paint wears off, people seem less and less thrilled with their furniture. Refinishing or mistreatment usually follows, resulting in far fewer surviving painted pieces. That’s one of the things I love about making painted furniture. Surviving examples from the 18th c are incredibly rare. In my opinion, such pieces are perfect candidates for reproduction makers.

I think it’s true that the furniture that has survived, the furniture that we see in Israel Sack or Nutting, or an art museum gallery, doesn’t represent a slice of normal 18th c life. Missing are the more fragile items, the everyday items that no one bothered to save and much of the middle class furniture.

Reproduction furniture makers have it in their power to reproduce the mundane items, the middle class items that enrich our understanding for 18th c material culture. I know people like carved furniture. And every girl wants to be a princess. And a little fantasy never hurt anyone. But what’s wrong or boring about celebrating who we really are? I think middle class furniture is fascinating. I’d like to see more of my colleagues making it. I hope you’ll consider it.

Adam

3 thoughts on “18th c Painted furniture?

  1. Bruce Jackson

    Adam,

    Your discussion of painted wood as opposed to film finish could also be applied to other issues in woodworking:

    A) Where is it written that Arts & Craft has to be done in fumed qartersawn white oak?
    B) Where is it written that the best workbench in the world has to be done in European beech?

    And on and on.

    Although my woodworking is heavily dependent on power tools, I still enjoy your Arts & Mysteries column in PWW as well as your blogs.

    Thanks!

  2. Mike

    I agree with Stephen, Adam.

    I think between you two, I am ready to leave the world of only clear film finishes and heavy stains. I know I intend on painting my standing desk because of your article, Adam. Normally on something like that I would have used heavy, dark stains.

    The issue of catergorization is a "funny" thing. Even weirder when it is done what seems strangly or narrlowly by an "authority."

    Well, take care.

  3. Stephen Shepherd

    Adam,

    I for one am glad to see peoples awareness of painted furniture increasing. Painted (and grained) furniture has been popular for centuries and continued into the nineteenth century. (And we got more colors and a decent green with the introduction of chrome green).

    Working in the West where softwoods are predominant, painted and painted and grained furniture was the common furniture. From the simplest chest to the finest hight style secretaries, all painted. The strong Scandanavian tradition (and Mormon emigrants) helped bring painted furniture to a climax in the 1850’s.

    I have no problem dovetailing a chest together then paint it so you can’t see the work, it is still there.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up, I hope more people consider painting their work.

    Stephen

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