New collection echoes early frontier furniture

A new way to go. That's what a lot of furnituremakers are looking for these days. Hickory Chair of Hickory, N.C., found its own new direction in a group called American Digest, now debuting in stores across the country. In this collection, the company decided to go back to the first half of the 19th century, drawing for style direction on early pieces found in such relatively untapped states as Texas and Louisiana. The result is a group of pieces that look like the kind of furniture you might have inherited, or wish you had inherited, from your grandparents.

After the Revolutionary War, explains Hugh Boyer, Hickory Chair president, a series of migrations took Americans west and south to settle in that broad swath of Middle America that extends from Canada down to the Mexican border. In addition, waves of early immigrants from Alsace and Germany went directly to areas in Texas and Louisiana.

The men who made the furniture for these new settlers were not accomplished artisans, but rather mostly skilled joiners or carpenters. Using the crude equipment they had at hand, they built furniture similar to some of the pieces they had brought with them. Or they designed original pieces that were sturdy, simple, and highly utilitarian.

They did not, Mr. Boyer points out, have the tools, the know-how, or perhaps the inclination to reproduce the fine American and English pieces that had been made in the great cabinetmaking centers of the Eastern Seaboard colonies.

The highly regional aspect of the furniture these settlers left behind, with its German, French, and slight Spanish influences, is the indigenous American look that Hickory Chair has now incorporated into its American Digest collection.

There is no traditional formalism about it. Some people might term it ''upscale or high country.'' But with all pieces made of cherry wood with a distressed medium-brown finish, the group has an understated sophistication that places it well above the more rural and rustic country pieces with which we are familiar.

Whatever the country of origin, most of the pieces have in common the type of turned legs that could be made on a simple lathe. And many have a simple cabriole leg styled after pieces brought in from France, French Canada, and by the Alsatian-Germanic groups.

The Hickory Chair Company, with its extensive James River Collection, is one of the country's most complete resources for 18th-century mahogany and walnut pieces. Last year, when company officials set out to find a new and more informal American mode to adapt and reproduce, they phoned numerous museum curators for leads, and then set out traveling through the length and breadth of the once-frontier territory stretching from Canada down to Texas.

''The pieces we eventually chose to adapt or reproduce are really our own little melting pot of all that we saw, whether it was in the Witte Museum in San Antonio, the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, or in one of many private collections that we visited in several states, including Ohio and Wisconsin,'' says Mr. Boyer.

''Each piece we are producing can stand alone on its own merits. Or several can be used together. And every piece is intended to be a good mixer, equally at home with any other period.

''All will have hangtags describing their origin. The boutac chair, for instance, from the Louisiana State Museum (the original is in the Cabildo in New Orleans), can still be seen in plantation houses from Natchez to New Orleans. Even Thomas Jefferson owned a pair of such lounge chairs at Monticello, which he called campeachy chairs.''

Texas is well represented in the collection of sofas, chairs, chests, stools, and tables. Several seating pieces have the ladder backs or sides, the thumb-back posts, and the simple arms found in the benches and chairs of East Texas.

One such Texas settee is adapted from an East Texas bench with Alsace influences. The original is in a private collection in a restored farmhouse in the town of Castroville.

''The preservation and restoration movement is well developed in Texas,'' Mr. Boyer observes. ''There is lots of interest and money there to support preservation projects, so Texas and its early settlements could prove to be a rich new lode of design references.''

American Digest is expected to be a long-term collection, expanded with new additions from time to time. It is being introduced nationwide by such stores as Lord & Taylor in New York, Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, Barker Brothers in Los Angeles, Woodward & Lothrop in Washington, Gabbert's in Minneapolis, and Miller & Rhodes in Richmond.

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