Antique pine furniture from Ireland owes its survival in part to two things: paint and peat bogs. This combination has proved to be a boon to Carolyn Franklin, an interior designer in Winter Park, Fla. Mrs. Franklin, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers, has been on the trail of Irish pine antiques for four years, marketing them as the Galway Collection to shops and interior designers around the country.
According to Mrs. Franklin, the tradition years ago in great houses of Ireland was to give furniture the simulated look of mahogany. To accomplish this, rural carpenters mixed red ocher with milk and painted all the furniture.
Later, the pieces acquired from 20 to 30 other coats of paint, since it was the custom that all the furniture be repainted after the death of the head of household. But it was the arsenic and iron oxide in the ocher first coat that helped save many of the pieces, as they prevented the woodworm from destroying the furniture.
Smoky peat fires in the cottages and the proximity of peat bogs also helped much of the furniture to survive to the present day. During the Irish famine years from 1845 to 1848, the population of Ireland went from about 8 million people down to a little more than 4 million. Those who died or emigrated left their furniture behind in the cottages. And during the land struggles of the 1800s, many tenants were forced from their homes. Their cottages were torn down and the furniture tossed out and nat urally embalmed in the peat bogs, which served as a perfect guardian.
Today, some old pieces are still being found in bogs and behind barns and hedgerows, and many are discovered in still-standing cottages and country pubs. Mrs. Franklin depends on traveling tinkers (or gypsies) for help in locating many of the pieces, as well as on three professional collectors.
The market for these antiques continues to expand. In fact, Mrs. Franklin's business has grown so much that her husband, William, a general contractor in Winter Park, has joined the venture and now helps to search out old pieces and to oversee their restoration. The couple has acquired a 300-year-old thatched-roof cottage in County Galway, Ireland, where they will live several months a year. Next to it they have set up their own restoration center.
``We have to brace some of the pieces,'' Mrs. Franklin explained recently in her interior design and antique shop in Winter Park, ``and most pieces need crowns and new plinths, which I design in keeping with the original Celtic design. In furniture, the Celtic motifs, usually on friezes, include swirls, diagonals, triangles, hearts, and other peasant decoration, not highly refined but all rather charmingly simplistic and full of Irish character.''
The couple employs skilled cabinetmakers to do such renovations, and others are hired to do the tedious job of stripping the pieces down to the bare pine, then waxing them with several coats of bee's wax and brushing them until they have a golden honey glow. One man does nothing but restore grandfather clock cases. Eventually the Franklins' Irish cottage will also include a showroom so that travelers can see and order pieces there, then have them shipped to the US in company containers.
The Franklins' enterprise, Century Design Imports Inc., features both small and large armoires, closed cupboards, wardrobes, open Welsh-type cupboards, and wash benches. ``We know that most of the pine we collect was made before 1845,'' says Mrs. Franklin, ``before the Irish forests were chopped down and there was still plenty of wood available.''
Success has been aided, says Mrs. Franklin, by an intuition about trends. She was aware that pine pieces are not only good mixers with many other styles of furniture, but they have become bellwethers of the long-popular ``country'' look which continues to hold its place in vogue.
``I was a buyer with Jacobsen's, a big department store, and I saw furniture prices going up and the `country look' settling in. I felt the time was ripe to bring in Irish antique furniture,'' she explains. ``The pieces were authentic, had charm, and were reasonable in price,'' says Mrs. Franklin. The price of our genuine old armoires range from $1,900 to $3,500, which is less than many reproductions being made today.''
There is still a turning toward the symbols of farm and farmhouse, she says, and toward the rural past of ancestors who lived close to the land. Pine pieces, made by jack-of-all-trades carpenters in many countries, satisfy that yearning for the aura of a simpler day.