In Focus

Rustic Rocking Chair

The following essay is from the 1989 publication American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, by Charles L. Venable_._

Although this rocking chair was made during the first decades of the 20th century in response to the swirling lines of the art nouveau movement, it is part of a tradition which stretches back to 10th-century China and Renaissance Europe. The Chinese appear to have been the first makers of "rustic" furniture - furniture constructed from tree twigs, branches, and bark. When objects in the Chinese taste became popular in 18th-century Europe, rustic furniture was introduced from the East. In 1754 designs for such furniture were included in the English pattern book, A New Book of Chinese Designs. The first English design book devoted entirely to furniture made from twigs and branches was Ideas for Rustic Furniture, which appeared in 1780. By the early 19th century, rustic furniture was in use in gardens and conservatories across Europe.

Even though rustic furniture was introduced into Europe from the Orient, it fit squarely into a Western tradition of "rustic" furnishings and architecture which had begun in the Renaissance. During the 16th and early 17th centuries, Italian builders modeled new rural villas on ancient examples. Included in the gardens of the finest of these estates were underground grottoes complete with water displays and shell-encrusted walls. As part of the furnishings for these spaces, fantastic furniture covered with shells was used. In northern Europe, where cold weather made such water grottoes impractical, hunting lodges in the forest were constructed and furnished with furniture of horn, wood, and leather. In both instances, the goal was to create a refuge from the present, to construct a mythic world.

These ideas survived throughout the 18th century and were enhanced by the emergence of the concept of the picturesque in art and architecture during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As American cities grew increasingly crowded during the 19th century, it was only natural that many of their wealthier inhabitants drew upon this escapist tradition and retreated to the wilderness, far removed from the congestion of the city. One of the areas which was "discovered" by these urban escapists was the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. Aided by an ever-increasing network of rial lines and roads, people began vacationing in this region shortly after the Civil War. During the last quarter of the century, homes ranging from one-room hunting shacks to enormous lodges were constructed in the Adirondacks. While the better homes lacked none of the comforts of their urban counterparts, they nevertheless provided an antidote for urban living through their rustic decor. The houses themselves were usually constructed of rough logs and bark. Inside they were decorated with stuffed animals, fur, rugs, and rustic furniture.

Whether this rocking chair was actually made in the Adirondacks is not known. A virtually identical chair has a history of ownership in the mountain community of Long Lake, New York. However, the demand for rustic furniture was so great around the turn of the century that numerous small shops and factories in New York and the Midwest produced a wide variety of rustic furniture which they shipped into isolated areas like the Adirondacks. The high quality of this chair's design and construction and its similarity to others suggest that its maker produced such chairs in relatively large numbers.

Excerpt from

Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, published in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), 162-63.