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FURNISHINGS : Rustic Style Gives Even City Dwellings a Back-to-Nature Feel

March 25, 1995|From Associated Press

Rustic furniture that once decorated lake and mountain cabins has made its way into city and suburban homes--sometimes at sophisticated prices.

Some of the finest examples have sold for as much as $30,000, while more standard chairs and rockers sell today in the $175-$400 range.

"Because of the resurgence in the desire to live more closely with nature--and because rustic is now being regarded as a major folk-art form--people around the world are integrating the rustic into their lifestyles," said Ralph Kylloe, a collector and noted authority on rustic furniture.

Rustic furniture came into vogue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The style dates roughly to the same period as the American Arts and Crafts movement and is rooted in the same reaction against industrialization.

Most Arts and Crafts pieces were designed for factory or workshop production, but the original rustic furniture was cut, woven and assembled by a single craftsman. Only near the turn of the 20th Century, when demand exceeded supply, did furniture companies begin to manufacture rustic designs.

Forests, not lumberyards, provided the makings for rustic furniture. In New York's Adirondack region and in New England, craftsmen used birch, oak, maple and other hardwoods.

Craftsmen in the upper Midwest and Canada often incorporated elk or deer antlers into furniture fashioned from cedar, birch and maple. In the South, rhododendron and laurel branches lent a regional flair to designs originating from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia.

Near the turn of the century, the demand for rustic furniture spawned six important manufacturing companies in Indiana.

Inspiration for the first of these companies came from a North Carolina native whose father had handcrafted a set of hickory chairs for President Andrew (Old Hickory) Jackson. The chairs inspired the Old Hickory Chair Co., established in 1892 in Martinsville, Ind.

Old Hickory turned out as many as 2,000 pieces of rustic furniture a week. Its inventory included more than 150 designs for chairs, tables, sideboards, settles and desks. About 1922 the company's name was changed to the Old Hickory Furniture Co.

The furniture produced by Old Hickory and its competitors embodied a combination of hand-craftsmanship and factory know-how. Each piece required extensive handwork.

Old Hickory closed in 1965, but recent interest in rustic furniture has encouraged new owners to revive the company in Shelbyville, Ind.

In addition to the Midwest factories, individual craftsmen continued to design furniture for local customers. Kylloe considers the Rev. Ben Davis, a Southern Baptist circuit minister who lived near Asheville, N.C., to be "the premier rustic builder of the South." His highly coveted dining room sets sell in the $4,500-$5,500 range.

In Sweet Springs, Va., blacksmith E.L. Goodykoontz hand-crafted settees and chairs with gnarled roots wrapped around rocks.

Ernest Stowe, the most respected of all rustic-furniture makers, worked as a guide in New York's Adirondack Mountains before 1919, when he retired to Florida.

Unlike many rustic-furniture makers, Stowe exhibited the skill and intuition of a trained cabinetmaker. The finest of his estimated 110 rustic creations have sold for as much as $30,000.

Most rustic furniture continues to surface in the resort areas where it was first fashioned with the Great Smokies, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Appalachians, the Adirondacks and the lakes regions in Upstate New York and the upper Midwest prime hunting grounds for collectors.

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