The ancient Romans invented the word. After creating big cities, they found they needed a quiet country retreat, away from all the bustle and noise. The Latin adjective rusticus means belonging in the country, and we still use “rustic” to describe a lodge or cabin environment.
In the days of total climate control, it may be hard to imagine hot days in the city long ago, when no houses, theaters, or public buildings offered respite. High temperatures brought not only discomfort but unpleasant smells and even contagious diseases to the narrow streets.
City dwellers fled to the mountains or seashores for relief. The wealthy had country villas, more modest folk built simple cabins. A new type of furniture was required, often made from natural materials – bent wood, twigs, cane and wicker. The best examples were light, airy and easily moved to catch the breeze.
Vintage rustic furniture ranges from whimsical one-of-a kind chairs to large porch sets manufactured in a factory setting. Jamie Shearer, one of the Americana specialists at Pook & Pook in Downington, Pa., said, “We sold a big suite of rustic furniture in October 2009 that did very well.”
The five-piece set, which sold for $8,109, included a settee, two armchairs, a rocker and table manufactured by the Old Hickory Chair Co. in Martinsville, Ind. “That seems to be the company everybody gravitates to. They were one of the few companies that did label things, and people like to collect things they can identify,” Shearer said.
“A lot of it was referred to as camp furniture,” he continued. “They had it in their weekend getaway houses. I’m always amused because – in Lancaster – they might have gone north to Mount Gretna. Today it’s just 30 minutes up the road, but by horse and buggy it took longer to get there.”
As pointed out above, rustic pieces could also be homemade, one-off creations. Shearer pointed out the “neat form” of an armchair sold at the auction house several years ago for $556. The piece is constructed of irregular branches incised with spiral turnings and the handholds on the arms are formed from polished roots.
Shearer emphasizes that condition is important when buying any sort of vintage outdoor furniture or decorative accessories: “Since these pieces were basically porch furniture, condition depends on whether they brought them inside for the winter or if 6 inches of snow fell on them. Structurally the frame is always sturdy; the problem is the seats didn’t always take the beating well.”
“Typically the rush seats are damaged. The frame itself holds up great – they were very well made – but the seats do not. That was one of the reasons we did so well with that set sold last year – the condition was so nice.” Look for the next the firm’s Americana sale on Oct. 1, at www.pookandpook.com.
Pieces used in a conservatory or a covered porch survive in far better shape than seating exposed to rain and sun in a garden. If some pieces seem a bit twiggy for comfort, remember that most were enhanced with custom-made padding and pillows in colorful fabrics.
One distinctive outdoor style flourished in the Adirondack region of upstate New York, where wealthy families like the Vanderbilt and Whitneys had family vacation compounds or “camps” on a grand scale. A classic turn-of-the-century wooden Adirondack chair has a slanted back and wide arms.
Focused on the history of the region, the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake is open from May 28 until Oct. 18. An antiques show held there each year in mid-August brings together dealers specializing in Adirondack and rustic furniture.
Kamelot Auctions in Philadelphia has done so well with outdoor antiques that they have an annual garden sale each April. President Jeff Kamal said, “There’s no one else in the industry that’s doing it. We felt there was a need for an auction house that specialized in garden. The first couple of garden auctions we had were a mix of garden and other things; the last two have been pretty much exclusively garden.”
Kamelot carries only antique and vintage pieces, not the newer reproductions that often show up at shows and sales. The auction head regrets that some collectors fail to distinguish the new from the old: “Retail buyers at times are more interested in the condition of items and how well-made they are and a little less concerned than they used to be regarding the age of the item.”
Kamal has been pleased with the variety of consignments they have offered in their garden auctions. “Since we’re only player doing this and we advertise nationally, we get calls from all over the country. In fact, we just did a pickup of about 25 garden lots in Michigan,” he said. Lots in the sales typically include everything from rustic furniture to wrought iron gazebos and decorative statuary.
“What comes to mind when I think of rustic furniture is something naturalistic, primitive, hand-made, rather than machine-made,” said Kamal. “Anything that looks like it took time to make. And I think the craftsman really enjoyed making it, it was meaningful to the maker.”
Looking over the results of past auctions, he noted, “Patina is important as well. People want that old surface and are willing to pay more for that kind of silvery patina on outdoor pieces.” Last April, a rustic wooden bench with great patina brought $1,320 in Kamelot’s garden sale.
Auctions coming up at Kamelot include a Sept. 25 general estate sale with decorative items, lighting, paintings, and Asian antiques, and a Nov. 20 event with architectural antiques, popular industrials and Victoriana. Information: www.kamelotauctions.com.
Looking for more information? Gibbs Smith publishes a selection of informative illustrated books on rustic style for cabins, camps and lodges. Collectors can find references such as Hickory Furniture and Rustic Elegance, both by Ralph Kylloe, at www.gibbs-smith.com.
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