Adirondack style: living with nature

Two Charles Rohlfs arm rockers with pine tree cutouts, built for the Ziegler Camp, fetched $7,000, twice the high estimate, at Blanchard’s Auction Service in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Blanchard’s Auction Service and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — Adirondack or rustic furniture and accessories embody the perfect blend of functionality and comfort while paying homage to nature. From twig benches to mirrors framed with bark-trimmed branches and chairs made with horn, this homey look has become an American classic.

At the end of the last century when homes were not air conditioned, New York City’s affluent flocked to the picturesque Adirondack Mountains to escape the oppressive summer heat. They built log cabins and lodges, setting up “Great Camps,” usually on the shores of a lake and with a rustic aesthetic that evoked the surrounding wilderness. They filled their lodgings with rustic furniture that took its name for this region and became known as the Adirondack style.

Initially, Adirondack furniture was crudely made and intended for outdoor use, but sometime about 1880, people began to use it indoors, so artisans shifted their focus to creating pieces that were both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The furniture was made by hand, often by local men who worked as guides, or carpenters. Tree parts were scavenged to make furniture from twigs, branches, bark and burl. Animal horn and antlers were incorporated into furniture and accessories, and wilderness motifs became an integral part of a piece’s decoration.

A rustic Adirondack “Brandy Cabinet II” realized $7,500 at Schwenke Auctioneers in October 2016. Photo courtesy of Schwenke Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

“An Adirondack camp does not mean a canvas tent or a bark wigwam, but a permanent summer home where the fortunate owners assemble for several weeks each year to live in perfect comfort and even luxury, although in the heart of the woods with no very near neighbors, no roads and no danger of intrusion.” This definition was written by William Frederick Dix in Summer Life in Luxurious Adirondack Camps, 1903, according to the website of the Adirondack Experience (formerly called the Adirondack Museum) in Blue Mountain Lake, New York.

Blanchards Auction Service in Potsdam, N.Y., has held a specialized auction of Adirondack furniture and accessories every August for years. “The stuff that does the best was custom made with the right provenance and made for certain camps,” said owner/auctioneer Kip Blanchard. Rustic furniture, especially Old Hickory, does well at Blanchard’s sales. Blanchard’s summer 2018 auction featured several pieces of Rolfs furniture expressly made for the Ziegler camp, and the previous year’s highlights included mosaic furniture made for another camp. “The pieces that do best are the ones with the most provenance — [a record of] who owned it and where it came from.” Arts & Crafts style also does very well in the company’s specialty sales, Blanchard noted.

A Rohlfs Mission oak table with a pine tree motif, 1907, built for the Ziegler Camp in Loon Lake, N.Y., sold for $8,000 at Blanchard’s Auction Service in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Blanchard’s Auction Service and LiveAuctioneers

Collectors avidly seek Adirondack style, be it in the form of an antler chandelier or log furniture with the bark still on the logs, to convey a certain mood. “It’s almost like bringing a piece of nature inside,” Blanchard said. “It gives people of a sense of relaxation. The same family at home in Connecticut or back in New York City would have very formal mahogany furniture that’s inlaid, but when they come to the Adirondacks, they want a piece of Old Hickory that looks like it was made from the trees out back.”

The loosely used term, Adirondack style, may have originated with camps in the Adirondack lakes region, but its popularity has spread to other lakes and mountain areas from New York to New Hampshire and beyond. It’s a style that works well in many informal homes.

Among rustic furniture makers, perhaps none is as well known as Old Hickory, which began with a father and son selling hickory rockers and chairs in Martinsville, Indiana, in the 1890s. They grew their business and gained such a loyal following that their furniture went to many of the Adirondack camps and resorts and even ended up in Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn. Sturdy Old Hickory dining chairs sent to the national park’s inn in 1904 are still in use there today.

Many contemporary custom furniture makers are also specializing in rustic pieces, including Barney Bellinger, Randy Holden, Doug Nordberg, and Ralph Kylloe, who gets the lion’s share of the credit for introducing the Adirondack and rustic style to a mass audience thanks to his 20 coffee table books on rustic design.

A custom-made Lake George cabinet by Randy Holdens sold for $33,000 at Blanchard’s Auction Service in August 2014. Photo courtesy of Blanchard’s Auction Service and LiveAuctioneers

The top price for rustic furniture on LiveAuctioneers’ online price database is a Lake George cabinet custom made by Holden and epitomizing the elegant twisted rustic furniture for which he is best known. Made in 2006, the cabinet that brought $33,000 eight years later at Blanchard’s. It is pictured in Kylloe’s Cabins book. “Many small pieces of manzanita root make up the textured surfaces,” Holden was quoted as saying in the cabinet’s auction-catalog description. The shelves, doors and top are bird’s-eye maple, while birchbark blankets the sides and interior.

George Wilson’s furniture is also desirable to Adirondack camp collectors. A circa-910 Adirondack mosaic wall shelf by Wilson from a camp on Twitchell Lake in the southern Adirondacks brought $21,000 at Blanchard’s in August 2017. Wilson was known for his twig mosaic work, a type of American folk art made with round or half-round twigs secured to a flat base.

This George Wilson Adirondack mosaic wall shelf brought $21,000 at Blanchard’s Auction Service in August 2017. Photo courtesy of Blanchard’s Auction Service and LiveAuctioneers

“The best advice for those just starting out, so they don’t make too many mistakes, is to visit one of the only shows for Adirondack rustic furniture at the Adirondack Museum [now called Adirondack Experience],” Blanchard said. Every September, the museum hosts its annual Adirondack show  featuring contemporary makers and dealers in antique/vintage rustic furniture. “It’s a great place to meet people, talk and see things. All the artisans are there.”

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