The American Tradition of Custom Made Furniture
by Shana Watkins, Nashville
Today's Artisan Meets Colonial Values
By Shana Watkins
Custom made furniture is an American tradition dating all the way back to the 17th Century when the land was first being settled. Though settlers' necessities were much different than ours today, we can look to artisans like Robin Wade to produce lasting, quality furniture that appreciates the self-sufficiency and simplicity that inspired American colonists.
Everyone's an Artist
Before the days of mass production and power tools, American colonists, having come here with very few possessions, found it necessary to make their own furniture. Colonial farmers were interested in being as self-sufficient as possible, so because most had come to the New World with strictly agrarian interests, their domestic furniture creations, while functional, lacked vision or beauty. (It would be some time before they lovingly attempted low relief carvings of simple patterns like the maple leaf.) But their efforts eventually gave way to what we now call American colonial style; furniture characterized by a homespun roughness that reveals its makers' reliance on hand tools rather than mass production's powered machinery of the eventual Industrial Revolution. The colonists' furniture was America's earliest "custom made" furniture; it featured legs turned by hand on a lathe and drawers whose slates were joined solidly together like puzzle pieces.
Ironically, these trailblazing amateur craftspeople created the underpinning and, as their numbers increased, the need for the Industrial Revolution, which would award some with a higher and more luxurious standard of living while creating disadvantages for the poor working class who were often treated to horrendous working conditions. The Industrial Revolution, after all, focused on producing more goods at a faster pace than ever before. It was a harsh departure from the colonial settlers' focus on self-sufficiency. Colonists produced most of their food, clothing, furniture, and tools at home or in small groups while their Industrial Revolution counterparts slaved away in enormous factories and workhouses. Society had ceased to focus on the simplicity that characterizes American colonial life, and had shifted to focus on wealth and material accumulation.
Today, consumers miraculously still have the luxury of custom ordering the furniture they need from artisans like those that were extremely scarce during the onset of what is now the U.S. And those who order from Robin Wade Furniture know they are choosing responsibly: no one understands the value of replacing natural resources like Robin Wade Furniture. RWF plants trees to replace the ones it has felled, and relies mainly on wood it has rescued or salvaged.
Products created during our nation's infancy required only two things: human skill and a workable, solid, trustworthy, abundant resource. New World forests abounded. What luck that the settlers were surrounded by cherished wood such as oak, cherry, and walnut while their European counterparts "were already beginning to feel the effects of deforestation" (Romualdez)! Wood was such a valuable resource to the western world that it became one of the American colonies' most widely exported goods to Europe's other colonies, particularly those of the Caribbean.
The New World's newest inhabitants fashioned almost everything they needed out of wood: their boards for buildings, shingles, barrels, containers, kitchen utensils, and coffins were thanks to the abundant forests. The colonists also consumed enormous amounts of wood as fuel, a typical family annually using up the "equivalent of one acre of woods to heat their homes and cook their meals. […] The abundance and the use and misuse of this abundance would shape long-term values" (www.engr.psu/mtah…). Robin Wade Furniture has learned from the past, and works to reverse these "long term values" of thoughtless consumption.
Custom Craftsmen, Artisans
While wood was abundant in the New World, craftspeople and artisans were certainly not. Only about 10 - 18% of colonists could claim any specialized skills or artisanal experience. A concentration of such skilled workers could only be found in populous towns and cities where the market appreciated and could afford what artisans had to offer. So, colonial craftspeople were themselves a very valuable commodity. Their value is no less now.
Robin Wade's studio is in many ways a throwback to those early colonial artisans'. The colonial crafter would see one project through from its beginnings to its resulting end, and he also took on the daunting task of selling his wares personally. For these reasons, the colonial artisan would only fill custom orders; later, as the market grew, he could risk the production of ready-made goods. So Robin Wade Furniture does. A concentration on custom orders prevents overproduction that would only contribute to the deforestation present day world citizens contend with.
Ordering custom furniture not only provides a household with a one-of-a-kind heirloom, but also pays tribute to the artisans, craftspeople, and do-it-yourselfers who shaped our very values. Today, artisans such as those at Robin Wade Furniture are more important than ever because they have the power to turn the market's attention toward sustainability and appreciation for natural resources while acknowledging their exhaustibility.
The American Tradition of Custom Made Furniture