I first encountered Kentucky-style furniture when I visited the workshop of Warren May of Berea, Ky., in the early 2000s. While working with Warren on an article for Popular Woodworking Magazine, he invited me to his barn to see his collection of unrestored Kentucky pieces.
I was skeptical that it was a true regional furniture style. At the time I thought it looked like Ohio Valley Furniture that had gotten some airbrushing at the boardwalk. I said something along those lines. That elicited a scowl from Warren.
But it is a real style. And it is something to behold.
Today I spent the afternoon at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., which has the largest collection of the stuff to my knowledge. There’s not a lot of published and public scholarship on the style out there. Some magazine articles. Some data at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA). And a book called “Collecting Kentucky.” So the best way to experience the style is a visit to the Speed.
It has been years since I last visited the Speed, and the museum has been through an extensive and impressive renovation. There’s a good permanent collection of paintings and objects that make it a legit city museum (Mummy – check. Chagall – check. Assorted Dutch masters – check). But it’s the museum’s Kentucky floor that is the crown jewel. This gallery offers an open floor plan. Not only does this allow you to examine the objects from many dimensions, it lets you to get behind and under the furniture pieces. Photography is encouraged.
The truth is that Kentucky furniture does share a lot of structural characteristics with Ohio Valley furniture, which I see all the time because that’s where I live. It’s a slightly heavy frontier style. The Kentucky element is that many pieces feature simple and beguiling inlay. The inlay can mimic high-style furniture, such as bellflowers. But it also can be playful and step outside the norms of what you might find in a furniture pattern book. Also interesting: The woods are local – nothing terribly exotic as near as I can tell (though it’s difficult to say for certain with some of the inlays).
I think it befits the state. It’s not flashy. From a distance, it’s easy to underestimate it as a simple vernacular-style piece. But get close, and it reveals its true charms.
Next time you are on your way to our storefront or points beyond, I recommend you take a couple hours to check it out.
— Christopher Schwarz
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