Review by Ted Landsmark
American Furniture: Understanding Styles, Construction, and Quality

John T. Kirk. American Furniture: Understanding Styles, Construction, and Quality. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000. 236 pp.; 57 color and 194 bw illus., 7 line drawings, bibliography, index. $39.95.

John T. Kirk is one of few aestheticians with the kind of hands-on woodworking experience that allows him to describe how the qualities of wood affect furniture design and provide clues about its authenticity. His love for the materials and tools that make furniture enables him to address construction details and surfaces of domestic furnishings as historical artifacts as well as works of art. For Kirk, the artisanry that defines an object’s beauty is derived both from the intrinsic qualities of its materials, and from the design iconography and historical references that traditionally dominated the furniture analyses of connoisseurs who preceded him.

Kirk’s gift has been described as the “ability to see furniture and to communicate his understanding of form and ornament to others.” His breakthrough text published in 1970, Early American Furniture: How to Recognize, Evaluate, Buy and Care for the Most Beautiful Pieces—High Style, Country, Primitive, and Rustic, was “not a documentary history of furniture styles, construction, or makers, but rather a primer on how to evaluate the proportions and organization of an object, how to assess the role of small details, and how to recognize the various sources on which an object is based.” An update of Kirk’s introduction to furniture study was long awaited in academic circles, as collectors, dealers, and material culture teachers have become more sophisticated in their knowledge of the styles and cultural contexts of objects. New furniture collectors in particular have sought a comprehensive text on decorative arts connoisseurship that might serve as a portal to more specialized works.[1]

Kirk has taught extensively since the publication of Early American Furniture, primarily at Boston University and Sotheby’s. Unlike many non-teaching furniture historians and scholars, he has endured years of the naïve, probing, and know-it-all questions that emerge from classrooms. He taught students to examine objects from the ground up, and to think critically about how various components of an object were intended to fit together. He could appear taciturn and reclusive in the university environment, and he was intolerant of academic nonsense. Yet as a teacher he was patient, deeply thoughtful, Socratic, and often amusing in his presentations and insights. His slide comparisons and photocopied readings focused on eclectic interpretations of design sources, and his knowledge of how small regions of England influenced the emergence of regional characteristics in America enabled students to think clearly about the genealogy of early American design. He taught students to be thorough researchers, and to look hard at, and to really see, objects for their formal aesthetic qualities, and for their internal design and construction details. A quarter century of classroom discourse has shaped the questions addressed in American Furniture: Understanding Styles, Construction, and Quality.

Perhaps the only work comparable to Kirk’s exploration of aesthetics in American Furniture would be Albert Sack’s New Fine Points of Furniture—Early American (1993). Sack provides numerous illustrations of his “Good, Better, Best, Superior, Masterpiece” hierarchy of aesthetic criteria for judging comparable furnishings, but his text does not introduce an overall paradigm for assessing quality in types of objects outside those he presents. There are virtually no references in Sack to larger cultural, economic, or aesthetic influences, and he does not delve into construction details, materials, influences, or rural and vernacular forms. Kirk takes a noble and largely successful stab at addressing these conceptual gaps. He notes that for decades he had “taken American furniture very seriously, but...stand[ing] aside from any over-reverence of the material” (p. 8). Working with a talented host of decorative arts scholars including, among others, Wendy Cooper, Nancy Evans, Dean Failey, Elisabeth Garrett, Brock Jobe, Karen Keane, Leslie Keno, Albert Sack, Gerry Ward, and Philip Zea, he has refined his sense of what makes furniture beautiful. “This book is about beauty,” he writes. “It seeks to understand how beauty was created, and demonstrates the art of perceiving what was put there for the viewer. In addition there is encouragement to value the patina that time and use have added” (p. 10).[2]

Kirk elaborates on his admonition in his Impecunious Collector’s Guide to American Antiques (1975), that a collector should “buy [a piece] ratty and leave it alone.” His recommendation that painted surfaces, in particular, should be left alone to best reveal their beautiful patina came to be described in the antiques marketplace as a suggestion to prioritize the finding and preservation of objects with “Kirk surfaces.” This concept was extended, often inappropriately, to evaluating the connoisseurship virtues of shimmering, high-gloss objects originally valued for the artisans’ abilities to make their often-thinly veneered pieces reflect light. Applying the “Kirk surface” criterion to such high-style federal period and architectonic, neoclassical furnishings is antithetical to the value he had placed on celebrating the untouched patina of grungy painted surfaces that emerged from generations of plebeian domestic use. Here Kirk reminds his readers to look carefully at objects and to listen closely to what he has taught on discerning and understanding the intentions of the original artisans.[3]

American Furniture begins with an introduction to conceptual thinking about furniture connoisseurship and follows with six chronological sections comprised of admirably digestible vignettes detailing various aspects of how to examine and discriminate among comparable objects. The stylistic evolution of American design from the mid-seventeenth through the early nineteenth century is covered in great detail, including useful comparisons of authentic and fake objects. The text includes sections on classicism and the Shakers, and on mid-nineteenth-century revivals that hint at Kirk’s studies of later designs, including his The Shaker World: Art, Life, Belief. He cuts off his chronological analysis at the point when machine production assumed a greater role than the hand in making the final statement. It is somewhat disappointing, given the emergence of collecting interest in much later material, that Kirk does not apply his aesthetic and design principles to work after 1850. Aesthetics and good design principles have continued to be applicable even in the machine age as American arts and crafts and mission styles emerged in the late nineteenth century, and as new technology influenced design throughout the twentieth century. For the past 150 years, architects, industrial designers, and artisans linked aesthetics, industrial innovation, and artisanry to push the limits of the existing design aesthetic. The reluctance of an aesthetician such as Kirk to address the twentieth-century’s design aesthetics is particularly surprising in light of the other design influences. The task of producing such an opus remains for the generation of scholars Kirk has nurtured. Nonetheless, American Furniture puts a fitting asterisk on Kirk’s ability to teach furniture aesthetics better than anyone else in the past quarter century. The work links aesthetics and construction details with a deep knowledge of contemporary cultural contexts and modern market forces that affect antiques collecting. Kirk demonstrates, again, that he is a brilliant and consummate educator who has influenced generations of dealers and collectors. He has significantly improved the level of scholarship into American decorative arts.[4]

Ted Landsmark
Boston Architectural Center

American Furniture 2001

  • [1]

    Barbara McLean Ward and Gerald W.R.Ward, “American Furniture to 1820,” in Kenneth L. Ames and Gerald W.R. Ward, eds., American Decorative Arts and Household Furnishings Used in America, 1650–1920: An Annotated Bibliography (Winterthur, Del.: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1989), p. 96. Ward and Ward, “American Furniture,” p. 97.

  • [2]

    Albert Sack, The New Fine Points of Furniture—Early American (New York: Crown, 1993).

  • [3]

    John T. Kirk, The Impecunious Collector’s Guide to American Antiques (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), p. 92.

  • [4]

    ohn T. Kirk, The Shaker World: Art, Life, Belief (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997).