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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

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Showing 7 comments
  • Chad Traylor

    The Headley-Whitney Museum in Lexington published two books(I have these) on Ky furniture.
    Marriane Ramsey authored "Fancy Forms and Flowers: A Significant Group of Kentucky Inlaid Furniture"(2000). Features fine inlaid furniture made in Garrard County 1800-1820. The photos are consistent with the furniture represented by the Speed Art Museum. As a side note Garrard County is very close to Berea.
    The other book, "The Tuttle Muddle: An Investigation of Kentucky Case on Frame Furniture Group". The work of Peter Tuttle is featured. Tuttle made furniture in Mason county(on the Ohio river). I believe era was late 18th early 19th century. Probably the best known Ky furniture maker. Some of his work would bring 6 figures at auction.
    Another book exists. It’s out of print and hard to find(Hard for me to find anyway) is "Checklist of Kentucky Cabinetmakers from 1775 to 1859" by Edna Talbott Whitley. Ive never seen this book. I have no idea of its content.
    I am a life long resident of the Bluegrass, and I firmly agree with Mr. May that Kentucky furniture exists.

  • Dana Shoaf

    My wife and I own a walnut chest of drawers with corner inlay very similar to what is pictured above. We purchased it from a dealer in Western Pa. who has a collection of furniture with this type of inlay. Much of it is was made in that region. He is writing a book on the subject (who knows if it will ever get published, however!) and has images of many pieces of furniture with similar inlay. His theory is that the style originated in Va., came up into Western PA., and then migrated down the Ohio River into Kentucky, where cabinet makers put their own spin on it. It’s a very under appreciated style of furniture in my opinion–overshadowed by East Coast furniture.

  • The Southern Furniture grump steps into the room.

    I don’t understand why folks have such a hard time with the idea of there being a thing known as Southern furniture. I know that the canon of American furniture places it’s focus on Northern and Anglo styles, but there are other styles. Yes, one characteristic of Southern furniture is that it is regional.

    We are good at making stuff besides Bourbon, barbecue, and basket ball teams that kick butt!

    Jerome NC

  • Jim Shaver

    I have been to Warren’s store in Berea, a wonderful place. I saw this piece and spent a long time looking it over with Warren. He was very open in sharing details and his thoughts on making furniture that was true to the region. Lovely man, wonderful work!

  • Adam King

    Living just above y’all in IL,I would travel to Henderson for the Holidays and my Uncle & Aunts house was full of pieces like these that they had collected over the years. I would study them all day long and while the family was eating pie, I would be crawling around taking notes.

    After reading this, I realize now most of those pieces could fall under the ‘Kentucky Furniture’ category. I can see a definite East Coast influence in proportion and design elements, but it’s certainly been adapted to become it’s own entity.

    Great profile.

  • JC_Collier

    The pieces you cite via the Speed to my eye are indeed country derivations of the Federal period, much loved and imitated in the hinterlands. Knowing this, it’s an easy leap via the paucity of inlay and veneering.

    Most furniture designs as with ANY design are as you state, a vernacular. I think the Kentucky style is problematic due to the provenance being sketchy rather than the restraint in using inlays. Here the scarcity as well as the subtlety is the problem. Or maybe as Mr. May insists, the answer. As you requested, more exemplars of the form are really what’s needed.

    Anyway, this would make a good thread for the design blog.


  • john mccullough

    This style of work might have earlier roots. Carlyle Lynch drew plans for a one drawer stand that he felt might have come from the northern part of the Valley of Virginia and seems to have a similar inlay. I was drawn to the stand bewcause I had been shown a country Sheraton chest of drawers which came to its present owner from the Morgantown, West Virginia area. It had the same inlay on the flats of the front of the chest above the turned feet. It was in Walnut and had typical country characteristics. I would have guessed around 1820.

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