A flair for the simple. Amish design finds success far from the farm
New York — A HALF dozen or so years ago, Deanna Wish of New Castle, Pa., came up with an idea for a small business right at her doorstep in the surrounding Amish countryside. She operated at first from home, on a mail-order basis, offering the handmade quilts and twig furniture so carefully made in the neat white houses and weathered barns of the Amish farm people.
But the fledgling business, which she called the Amish Country Collection, quickly outgrew her home, the family garage, and the back of one of her husband's office supply stores.
To launch her business, Mrs. Wish visited neighboring Amish women whom she knew were still making quilts. She also asked them for names of relatives and friends who were still making traditional quilts in such authentic patterns as Lone Star, Log Cabin, Jacob's Ladder, School House, and Old Maid's Puzzle.
It wasn't long before she had located 35 quilters, living as far away as Minneapolis and Canada, who were willing to supply her with quilts. Today, the quiltmakers number 50, and the retail value of their quilts has gone up to between $900 and $1,200.
``Antique Amish quilts,'' she explains, ``have become both scarce and costly, so we are offering reproductions of those found in the finest private collections, made with today's colorfast fabrics.''
As for the twig furniture, she found that for more than 100 years, Amish craftsmen had been making distinctive bentwood rockers and other pieces of furniture from bark-covered hickory saplings. They were usually sold at fairs and roadside markets.
``This cottage industry has always been here,'' Wish says. ``I am merely marketing it on a far broader scale, and netting the makers more dollars for their efforts.''
Today, Wish buys furniture from 27 small groups (usually consisting of a few men working in the back of a barn) within a 50-mile radius of New Castle. She picks it up herself by truck, checking the quality of each piece as it is loaded.
More and more farmers are becoming interested in the crafts, she says, because they present an opportunity to make money, aside from farming, by using skills that have been handed down for generations.
The pieces they make include the popular Amish rockers, babies' high chairs, rocking cradles, bishop's benches, courting settees, Amish porch swings, twig beds, and pine slab tables. All are made from oak and hickory carefully selected from the nearby woods.
For an Amish person, Wish explains, the value of material things lies in their function and usefulness. Most of the pieces are products of a continuous Amish heritage, although new pieces are developed as well. She has added fabric and leather ``dust catchers'' that can be used as area rugs or hung on the wall, and Amish character dolls.
Much of what the Amish people produce, says this entrepreneur, has been recognized as an indigenous American art form, the expression of a rural culture that prefers a utilitarian life style far removed from the mainstream of the modern world. Yet it goes into posh apartments from Manhattan to Los Angeles, furnishes rustic hotels, and is sought by top interior designers to complement modern interiors.
Wish ``went national'' six years ago by opening a showroom at the twice-annual Southern Furniture Market in High Point, N.C. Her wares attracted both store buyers and interior designers. She also established representation in decorator showrooms in major cities, and is showing Amish furnishings this month at the Cologne Furniture Fair in Germany.
In October 1984, Wish opened a ``working warehouse'' off Intersate 80 in Grove City, Pa., which includes warehousing and shipping facilities as well as a retail shop.
Despite its steady growth, the business is still largely a family project. Deanna Wish is assisted by her businessman husband, Ed, her 20-year-old daughter, Merit, and her 16-year-old son, Michael.
Another businessman, Freemon Borkholder, himself Amish, has for more than 25 years been reproducing antiques owned by his own family.
His first piece was a dry sink that had been handed down through several generations, and his second was a somewhat refined copy of his grandparents' old kitchen table.
His factory for his line of Amish Crafted Furniture is in Nappanee, Ind., where 80 percent of his workers are Amish, and 20 percent are Mennonite.
``These men are skilled woodworkers,'' he says, ``trained to work with their hands and to take great pride in their work.''
The pieces they make, Mr. Borkholder explains, are reproductions and adaptations of furniture originally produced by American-European craftsmen 200 years ago.
Included are a pie safe, hanging cradle, armoire, rocking chair, country sideboard, a jelly cupboard table, a primping mirror, and a Dutch country breadbox.
Probably the most popular piece in the entire line, he says, is the pine kitchen cabinet, which retails for about $1,240. The line is sold through more than 300 dealers around the country, at upper-medium to high prices, and big-city stores are the biggest market.
On a larger scale, the manufacturer Nichols & Stone Company of Gardner, Mass., is now presenting its own collection of Amish pieces, being produced from drawings discovered by designer Henry Lapp.
``Our pieces are country, traditional, and transitional, all in one,'' Mr. Lapp says. They are light and functional and made in pine and birch.
``We are not trying to do reproductions,'' says Ron Kirwood, vice-president of marketing, ``but are adapting the look, the purity of design, and the quality to today's living styles. We have also merged a few Shaker designs into the collection, which we call Declaration Americana. The same pieces will be part of the licensee program, now being put together by McCaffrey-Lydon Inc., called Images of the Amish.''
A catalog is available for $5 from the Amish Country Collection, R.D. 5, Sunset Valley Rd., New Castle, PA 16105.
Amish designs spring from a life devoted to simplicity
The first Amish arrived in Lancaster County, Pa., in 1727 at a time of religious tolerance, says Barbara Janos, a New York Amish historian and collector of Amish artifacts. In almost every major respect, she says, their lives have changed little since that time.
Each settlement or community is self-contained and almost self-sufficient, relying on farming for its livelihood. Families still lead simple, austere lives, guided by the principles of ``doing without.''
The Amish number about 100,000 and live scattered in small but fertile and picturesque farming communities in most American states and Ontario, Canada. The principal Amish settlements are in Lancaster County, Pa., Holmes County, Ohio, and the counties of Elkhart and LaGrange in Indiana.
``Their three basic beliefs,'' Mrs. Janos says, ``are in a devout religion, an agrarian way of life, and a cohesiveness of family and community. Simplicity and humility, says the historian, are the guiding principles of Amish life.
``Their large, rectangular-shaped family houses are remarkable for their immaculate whiteness, simplicity, and orderliness,'' she says.
Their ``plain'' life style is also seen in their mode of dress - for the men, black broadfall trousers with suspenders, short black jackets, solid-colored white or blue shirts, and black broad-rimmed hats in winter and straw hats in summer. The women wear black capes, bonnets, shoes, lisle stockings, and white prayer caps.
In Amish society, she says, the woman is subordinate to the man in almost every facet of life. She leads a full but somewhat routine life; her role is to see that the home is properly cared for. Her pieced quilts, usually made from scraps of old clothing and remnants, satisfy her need to interact with color and to express her creativity.
Brilliant color, combined with fine, precise stitchery, became the Amish woman's singular means of self-expression. Mauve, black, lavender, purple, peacock, maroon, pink, red, green, and shades of blue were her favorite colors, and the quilts she made were born out of economic necessity. Antique Amish quilts, especially those made in Pennsylvania and the Midwest between 1870 and 1940, are among today's most sought-after American antiques.