Luke Beckerdite

American furniture studies have changed dramatically since the publication in 1891 of Irving W. Lyon's Colonial Furniture of New England. Lyon, Esther Singleton, and Luke Vincent Lockwood were the first scholars to systematically study the English and Continental origins of American furniture and to develop a terminology and chronology for different furniture forms. Their books and the large pictorial works of the 1920s and 1930s – for instance, Wallace Nutting's Furniture of the Pilgrim Century (1921) and Furniture Treasury (1928) – generated intense interest in American furniture.

Following the publication of William Macpherson Hornor's Blue Book, Philadelphia Furniture (1935), regionalism became a major focus of furniture historians. Today, the best books of this genre examine the cultural and socioeconomic factors that influenced furniture styles and use. Representative examples are Robert Trent's Hearts & Crowns: Folk Chairs of the Connecticut Coast (1977), Robert Blair St. George's Wrought Covenant: Source Material for the Study of Craftsmen and Community in Southeastern New England, 1620–1700 (1979), the Wadsworth Atheneum's Great River: Art & Society of the Connecticut Valley, 1635–1820 (1985), John Bivins's Furniture of Coastal North Carolina, 1700–1820 (1988), and Brock Jobe's Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast (1993). Related to these are regional-ethnic studies, such as Lonn Taylor and Dessa Bokides, New Mexican Furniture, 16oo–1940 (1987), that examine the historical context and meaning of furniture.

Most of the early scholarship focused on the eighteenth century, and it was not until the 1960s that serious studies of nineteenth-century furniture began. Such stylistic surveys as Classical America, 1815–1845 (1963), The Arts in America: The Nineteenth Century (1969), and 19th-Century America: Furniture and Other Decorative Arts (1970) kindled popular interest in nineteenth-century furniture and laid the groundwork for more specific studies of late neoclassical, revival, art nouveaux, and arts and crafts styles. Recently publications have focused on specific cabinetmaking firms, the furniture industry in large cities, the furniture of regional and ethnic groups, the influence of mechanization and technology, the transmission and diffusion of design, the development of tastes, and on furniture as a form of nonverbal communication.

As furniture studies have broadened, so have perspectives. Philip Zimmerman's “Methodological Study in the Identification of Some Important Philadelphia Chippendale Furniture” in Winterthur Portfolio 13 and Ben Hewitt's Work of Many Hands: Card Tables in Federal America, 1790–1820 represent significant efforts to bring scientific methods and objectivity to connoisseurship. Hewitt's book also contains an essay titled “ ‘Avarice and Conviviality’: Card Playing in Federal America,” one of several excellent works by Gerald W. R. Ward that examine furniture and social interaction.

Studies of historic technology also have expanded our knowledge of American furniture. Charles Hummel's With Hammer in Hand: The Dominy Craftsmen of Easthampton, New York (1968) graphically depicts life in a cabinet shop by examining surviving tools, patterns, and furniture, whereas Wallace Gusler's Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia, 1710–1790 (1979) and Benno Forman's American Seating Furniture, 1630–1730 (1988) demonstrate the importance of understanding style and technology in international and regional contexts. Since the founding of the Wood Artifacts Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) in the late 1970s, conservators have been instrumental in rediscovering and writing about historic techniques. Representative contributions are in Upholstery in America & Europe from the Seventeenth Century to World War I (1987), Gilded Wood: Conservation and History (1991), and AIC and American Conservation Consortium preprints.

The scholarly study of twentieth-century furniture is scarcely more than a decade old, yet such significant publications as Karen Davies's At Home in Manhattan (1982) and Derek Ostergard's Bentwood and Metal Furniture: 1850–1946 (1987) have focused considerable attention on the art deco and art moderne styles. Woodworking and craft magazines and books such as Michael Stone's Contemporary American Woodworkers (1986) are responsible for much of today's interest in contemporary furniture making. Perhaps the most important scholarly study in this area is Edward S. Cooke's New American Furniture: The Second Generation of Studio Furnituremakers (1989). Cooke's discussion of the philosophical and technical foundations of first- and second-generation studio furniture making and his excellent catalogue entries demonstrate that new chapters in American furniture history are being written in wood and other materials every day.

The publications mentioned in this introduction represent only a fraction of the scholarship of the last century, but they clearly show that American furniture history has been a vital, evolving, and increasingly popular area of inquiry. Although many excellent books and catalogues have been published, only a few magazines and journals have emerged to provide a consistent forum for articles and essays on American furniture: The Magazine Antiques (1922–), The Antiquarian (1923–1933), The American Collector (1933–1948), Winterthur Portfolio: A Journal of American Material Culture (1964–), and the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts (1977–).

At a pivotal seminar at the National Gallery of Art in 1987, several scholars began an ongoing discussion about forming a journal devoted solely to American furniture. Inspired by their dialogue, the Chipstone Foundation sponsored a planning meeting at Yale University in 1988 and subsequently assembled an editorial advisory board and made a long-term commitment to publishing American Furniture. This inaugural issue represents the combined efforts of the Chipstone Foundation's board of directors, the editorial advisory board, the authors, and University Press of New England and attests to the foundation's commitment to encouraging research and education in the decorative arts.

If the past century of scholarship is any indication, American Furniture has an exciting future. By seeking out and encouraging new research and new methodologies, we intend to play an active role in shaping the future of American furniture history. Articles in American Furniture will identify artisans, shops, and regional schools; examine technology, industry, and the business of furniture making; and address such critical issues as stylistic influences, consumerism, patronage, and furniture use. We also will publish broad interdisciplinary studies that examine the social, economic, and political contexts of furniture making and show how furniture and other artistic objects offer insights into behavior, thought, and belief. Articles on furniture conservation will keep subscribers informed of the latest techniques and theories, while annual bibliographies and book reviews will critique and survey recent publications in the field. In short, our goal is to make American Furniture the journal of record for its subject.

American Furniture 1993