The Neat & Plain Style: A Visit to MESDA
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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