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.