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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

Folk Art Furniture on Parade
by Bob Brooke


In the 1960s, the trend was to strip antique furniture. Painted furniture was out. Stripping down to the bare wood was the norm in many cases. Gone were the colorful folk art motifs that decorated many pieces. Unfortunately, with the encouragement of articles in home decorating magazines, people stripped, then repainted worn painted pieces, and finally “antiqued” them using antiquing kits. Sounds illogical, and it was.

Today, painted country pieces sell for high prices at antiques shows, and city pieces--neoclassical chairs in the Hepplewhite style, for instance--also are enjoying great popularity.

Along with the vogue for painted furniture has come the realization that early American homes were full of color.

The peak of handcrafted folk art painted furniture ran from the 1790s to the 1880s. There weren’t any real art schools and not all that many fine artists in the early 19th century. Many talented individuals became commercial painters and worked with special skill on furniture, signs and other useful objects.

From the 1870s on, Mennonites from Poland, Russia and Prussia settled in the Dakotas and Nebraska, bringing their tradition of grain painting on light wood with them. The Mennonites decorated large wardrobes, dowry chests, tables and sofas with these patterns, and also embellished furniture with small floral motifs from the old country.

English cabinetmakers who settled in many parts of the country helped spread the style for painted English neoclassical chairs based on the designs of George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton.

But the do-it-yourself idea, too, started early in the 19th century when young girls learned how to paint furniture and wooden boxes with watercolors. Cabinetmakers varnished the decorated pieces which featured landscapes, figures, fruits, animals, and flowers.

Itinerant painters and craftsmen lent their artistic expertise to the production of painted furniture pieces such as chairs, settees, armoires, cabinets, chests, benches, and other functional pieces. Many of these were European emigrants who brought many distinct regional styles and art forms to America.

By the early 20th Century, painted furniture began to have an impact on American culture and design. Classified as folk art or peasant art, these painted pieces became especially popular.

German Folk Furniture
German immigrants used furniture painted in the German folk style, such as chairs, storage chests, tables, schranks, dressers, benches, and trunks. German folk furniture was utility-based, simple country furniture that remained significantly less influenced by the national and international design trends. Painter decorators drew inspiration from local tastes, preferences, history, culture, traditions, and heritage. Folk furniture was handmade using elaborate joints, often involving painting and carving to depict animals, scenes of daily life, geometric shapes, bears, and birds. Furniture makers used locally available woods like spruce, pine, beech, oak, birch, ash, and maple.

As elsewhere in Europe, national and international art trends targeted the wealthy. However, some elements filtered down to the provincial regions, influencing the works, skills, and tastes of local artisans. Since Germany had abundant forests, local artisans used a variety of woods to produce unique furniture.

Most of these pieces were distinctive of a particular region and period. Since Germany had a long and complicated history, the style and design of German folk furniture items varied depending on a piece's period and area of origin.

With the advent of the Renaissance in the early 16th-century, most European nations saw significant changes in the design and style of furniture. However, the cabinetmakers of provincial Germany remained largely unaffected by the Renaissance, producing unique Gothic-style furniture.

The Renaissance brought new forms of furniture, including the bridal trunk. Bridal trunks became a standard throughout Europe. The provincial German population would often personalized these bridal trunks with hand-painted designs.

While cleaning a piece is fine, and so is stabilizing paint that’s flaking so it won’t fall off, but pieces shouldn’t be stripped and repainted. The pattern of wear is part of the history of the piece.

These days, thanks to the popularity of painted furniture in antiques stores and the American penchant for moving, a piece from one section of the country may turn up in another.

Scandinavian Folk Furniture
As with German folk furniture, its counterpart in Scandinavia was also made by rural, untrained furniture makers. It consisted of primarily practical pieces—chairs, tables, stools, and trunks— designed and constructed for everyday use. However, local carpenters ignored traditional rules of proportion. They used locally available wood, such as oak, ash, pine, and elm. Since they didn’t know about polishing surfaces, they often left wood untreated or finished it with oil or simple wax. But some makers would custom paint decorations inspired by nature and natural materials, as well as local culture and traditions.

Scandinavian folk furniture tends to be simple in design with crude board and plank construction. Carpenters used tapered, straight, turned, or cabriole legs, joined with a stretcher. Tables were simple in design, consisting of multiple boards resting on trestles or fixed to a joined frame composed of four legs connected by stretchers.

Rural Danish folk furniture makers employed darker woods, such as pine, teak, and rosewood, which grew abundantly in Denmark, for their pieces. The Danes also painted their furniture in bright and vivid colors. Motifs of Danish folk furniture came from their surroundings—animals, flowers, human figures, six-angular stars, and Biblical motifs.

Since ancient times, Norwegian folk furniture had incorporated traditional motifs. Flowers, birds, animals, trees, and plants, as well as geometric shapes, decorated chests and trunks. When the elaborate Baroque and Rococo styles infiltrated rural Norway, furniture became ornate and colorful. During the 18th century, a decorative folk art, called Rosemaling, originated in rural Norway..

Rosemaling could also be found in rural Sweden. Called “kurbitsmålning,” derived from the word “kurbits," meaning "long-bodied gourd." The style got its name from the depictions of gourds, flowers, and leaves that decorated Swedish furniture between 1790 and 1850. Towards the mid-18th-century and during the rule of Gustav III, the Swedish furniture style became heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman style because of discoveries made in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Rosemaling flourished from the 18th to the mid-19th century, particularly in Norway. Originally used to decorate church walls and ceilings. It then spread to wooden items commonly used in daily life, such as ale bowls, stools, chairs, cupboards, boxes, and trunks. Using stylized ornamentation made up of fantasy flowers, scrollwork, fine line work, flowing patterns, and sometimes geometric elements, giving Rosemaling its unique feel. Some paintings included landscapes and architectural elements.

Rosemaling designs used "C" and "S" shaped brushstrokes that featured scroll and flowing lines, floral designs, and both subtle and vibrant colors. Script lettering, scenes, animal and human figures could also be included.

Artists who specialized in Rosemaling often traveled from county to county painting churches, homes and furnishings for a commission of either money or merely room and board, carrying Rosemaling over the mountains and toward Norway's western coast. Once farther away from the influence of the painters' guild in Oslo, these artists tried new ideas and motifs. Rosemaling became widespread as amateur artists in rural areas often imitated this folk art. Soon, three regional styles developed—Telemark, Hallingdal and Rogaland—named after the regions in which each originated.

The Telemark style of decoration consists of a root with branches and flowers swirling out from it. Another popular style was Hallingdal which differs from Telemark in its use of less translucent, bolder colored paint. In addition, it had more symmetry and pattern. The Rogaland style consisted of more floral images than lines or scrolls and often had darker background with a central flower surrounded by leaves and other decorations.

What to Look For
Wear patterns and pigment fading or loss reveal a lot of information about the authenticity and origin of a piece of painted folk furniture. For instance, areas of a piece where other objects have come into contact with it reveal information about the piece’s age and background. The feet of a chest or the surface of a table show if a piece has been repeatedly repositioned or cared for improperly. Look for signs of abrasions, scratches, paint loss. Areas where hands may have touched a piece and left a residue can help identify condition.

Palette colors also inform collectors about the regional background of a painted piece of furniture. Certain colors may be connected to a particular area of the world or regions of a country.

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