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Exhibition explores Louisiana culture through its furniture

The Historic New Orleans Collection retraces the history of early Louisiana furniture in a new exhibition.

One thing I learned when I was editor of Inside Out, The Times-Picayune’s home and garden magazine, is that people love to talk about their children, their dogs, and their houses.

The latter worked in my favor, as my job entailed knocking on strangers’ doors and poking my head into their closets. You learn a lot about people – their character and culture, tastes and attitudes – from the things they choose to put in their living rooms or kitchens.

That’s exactly the lure of Furnishing Louisiana, a new exhibition at The Historic New Orleans Collection that retraces the state’s furniture history from 1735 to 1835. With the Louisiana Bicentennial upon us, it makes for an interesting highway down which to explore the state’s eclectic history.

The exhibit fills two floors and 12 galleries of this superb local museum on Royal Street. Downstairs, artifacts deconstruct the world of furniture-making at a time when New Orleans was in its relative infancy. Tools, hardware, wood samples, unfinished pieces, documents and more document the distinctive craftsmanship of Creole and Acadian America that yielded distinctive Louisiana styles.

“The elements bear on not only the way construction was done, but also the way people lived,” explains John Lawrence, Director of Museum Programs.”We wanted to prepare people for what they would see upstairs.”

Thus, a cypress Creole armoire in mid-completion demonstrates the way large pieces could be disassembled for transport, and its mortise and tendon joints how complex the geometry of connectors could be.

“Even something as simple as a nail was a highly constructed item,” Lawrence says.

Like the houses here, Louisiana chairs and chests were made to accommodate the climate, with joints and panels that could swell and contract with the temperature and humidity. Pieces generally were constructed of hardy native woods like black walnut, black cherry and cypress.

Because most pieces were made here, rather than shipped from abroad, cabinetry, hardware making, milling and the like were lynchpins of local industry. A copy of an early 18th-century map of the city is studded with a couple of hundred pins, marking the locations of carpenters, ebonists, (inlay specialists), meneusiers (cabinetmakers) and others in the furniture business between 1800 and 1840.

The ongoing artisan tradition is marked with a contemporary reproduction chair by north shore woodworker Greg Arceneaux, made virtually the same way it would have been done 200 years ago.

Interactive elements to Furnishing Louisiana include a computer set up with dozens of Internet sites about the “Lower Valley” furniture styles that evolved around the southern end of the Mississippi River, another computer devoted to a searchable Louisiana furniture image database, and a big-screen TV that showcases additional examples of Louisiana pieces.

Thought has been given to broadening the viewing experience, too, with such touches as a mirror to showcase the back of an armoire, planks and caned seats that visitors are invited to touch, and tomes on furniture styles that one can browse.

Upstairs, the exhibition showcases the furniture itself, with examples of beds, armoires, chairs, tables and other pieces that exemplify the Lower Valley style. What’s not there is as telling as what is.

“We don’t have many dining tables, because there weren’t many dining rooms then,” says Director of Publications Jessica Dorman, who spent eight years doing research for the exhibit and accompanying book, Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735–1835.

“Families were big and houses were small, so spaces were multifunctional. Where furniture was placed and what it looked like had to do with how people lived. It wasn’t unusual to have receiving chairs in bedrooms.”

Louisiana furniture makers may have been long on function, but in this creative place they didn’t exclude embellishment. Even a very early, simple Acadian chest bears decorative raised panels.

The furniture falls into two categories: Acadian and Creole. The Acadians were rural, simple and self-efficient, and their craftsmen retained the same techniques well into the 20th century. The dominant color was gros rouge, or big red, an oxidized paint you can still find in hardware stores.

Creole furniture was more urban and less iconic. West Indies styles influenced design with curves, embellishments, recessed-panel sides and flat-panel fronts. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Anglo-American cultural strains traveled south, and Mexican-made, Spanish-style pieces came north.

“New Orleans was a major port and so was a gateway for chairs like these,” said Dorman, pointing out a low-slung planter’s chair based on an earlier Spanish prototype. A similar New Orleans-made chair in black leather is on loan from Monticello, and was ordered from here by Thomas Jefferson.

The oldest piece in the show is a long refectory table from the first Ursuline Convent, dating to the 1730s or ‘40s. The drawers go all the way through, with pulls on both ends, so nuns on either side of the table could access them.

“It’s made of local walnut, so we know it was made here,” Dorman points out.

Tables on view showcase the cabriolet legs and pied de biche feet carved like animal hooves for which local woodworkers were known. Armoires, that quintessential piece of Louisiana furniture, feature elaborate brass hinges and inlays rather than the carvings of their more exuberant European ancestors.

“The American style was a lot cleaner than European designs, more like English furniture,” Dorman says.

One armoire is the work of a master cabinetmaker known only as “the butterfly man,” for the butterfly-shaped joints in his works. Another was made by Celestin Glapion, born a slave.

The final three galleries in Furnishing Louisiana display how the furniture might have been positioned, from kitchen to bedroom. A slat-back chair has a straight-top rail, so that a board could be placed across two of them for ironing. A low rush-seat chair wasn’t for short people, but to hold a chamber pot for middle-of-the-night needs.

Furnishing Louisiana will be on view through June 17 at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 533 Royal Street. Admission is free. Check the web site for upcoming events associated with the exhibits, including lectures, site visits and a bench-making workshop.

Meanwhile, if you’re in the area, stop by for a fascinating look at our past through its most mundane yet evocative items.

You’ll not only learn something about the early days of New Orleans, but also a few timely lessons about adapting to the climate and using natural resources that should be mandatory for contemporary lifestyles.

Renee Peck, a former feature editor and writer at The Times-Picayune, is editor of NolaVie.


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