By Janet Russell, Finger Lakes, New York
Several years ago I purchased a small, contemporary chalet-style cabin overlooking one of the Finger Lakes in New York State’s wine district. Nothing fancy—a few rooms with a half loft, on a couple of private acres. I could barely afford the cabin, let alone furnish it. Hmmm. So how to decorate?
I love antiques, and never have been one for reproductions, so my first impulse was to go "shabby chic.” I figured I could cull a few pieces from my main residence, and get the rest from garage sales and flea markets. Sure, that’s all I need!
Then, one day, I was strolling through an early-20th-century neighborhood in the city, and it hit me! “Why not Arts & Crafts in the cabin?” I thought as I admired the interesting Tudor and Craftsman-style homes. I continued walking and house-watching, thinking up my own architectural descriptions: Tudolow (for a Tudor Revival house with clinker bricks), Bungador (a large A&C Bungalow with a distinctive Tudor-arched doorway). Styles may not be pure, but it came to me nevertheless that Arts & Crafts furniture and decorative arts were way beyond the scope of my mortgage-poor situation.
Who among us "average Joes" can afford $30,000+ for a Gustav Stickley table? Never mind the set of chairs, and the bed and a chest of drawers. Still, I decided to see what local dealers and eBay had to offer. Although it was indeed impossible for me to buy original-condition signature pieces, I found many delicious generic items available. Thus my first tip: unsigned period pieces of good design abound. A third of my cabin’s furnishings are online finds. Some of these turned out to be the most interesting items in my collection.
Second tip: the “recyclable finds.” If you are a purist, please skip this section. But the average Joe or Josette must be practical. For me it started with a beautiful Stickley Bros. (Michigan) side chair with heart cut-outs, for $65. It had been painted black, but I could see quarter-sawn oak through the paint. “Refinish” is a dirty word in antiquing, but this piece was compromised. It needed to be reclaimed.
A generic but beautiful arch-back oak settle, probably long stored in a barn, came to me with no finish left and a broken slat. A local Mennonite woodworker and finisher brought it back in a way that astonished everyone. Then came a McHugh-attributed tabouret table with a wrecked top and its legs cut off to coffee-table height. It’s beautiful once again (but still short).
Under a pile of junk, I found hidden a poor little gateleg youth's desk, original drawer pulls missing and stained all over with colored inks, kid-carvings, and wax. Makeover! The most interesting salvage item was a trestle table rescued from a root cellar. That one was almost beyond the point of no return: the wood was dried out and cracked, there was some rot, and it quite literally was falling apart. Sure, it will never be what it was, but the transformation was amazing! I was surprised to find the most spectacular oak grain under all the dirt.
One dinner guest fell to his knees and exclaimed, "Is that a Stickley?!” We may never know.
A third “cheap trick” is to go European. If you can’t afford that $10,000 Limbert dining-room server, no worries; for just $1,000 you can pick up a European Art Nouveau or Arts & Crafts-inspired sideboard in its original finish. In my bedroom, I have a stylish French Art Deco walnut bed accompanied by an English Art Nouveau-influenced dressing table. My cabin has no closets, so the large Art Deco oak wardrobe that occupies a space next to the front door is handy. (A word of caution: the powder-post beetle is common in furniture imported from Europe, so always turn the piece upside-down and look for small holes. Extermination by gas is the only way to be sure the bugs are gone, and it can be costly.)
An aside: If you are an art-metal enthusiast, but have no budget for expensive work, check out World War I shell-casing art. Although much of it is mediocre, some vases etc. are well crafted and the hammering fine.
For the price of one high-end collectible Gus piece, you can furnish a whole house with period style and charm. It is totally do-able!
Arts & Crafts Homes subscriber Janet Russell, a collector since college days, is a sometime antiques dealers and a mixed-media artist who also does landscapes.