James M. Legare plastic cotton bookcase

Bookcase adorned with plastic cotton by James M. Legare, featured in Grand Design: Nineteenth-Century Furniture

Regular viewers of the popular PBS program Antiques Roadshow will be familiar with the term “brown furniture” and the contention that younger buyers are eschewing fine wood furniture, including vintage pieces, in favor of modern chrome, plastic and glass. Formal is out, we’re told, and casual is in.

For the lover of history and admirer of fine craftsmanship, however, “brown furniture” holds an abiding allure. Just ask JoAnn Zeise, curator of history at the South Carolina State Museum. On view in the fourth-floor Palmetto Gallery is her latest project, a large-scale exhibit, big in size and big in quality, entitled Grand Design: Nineteenth-Century Furniture

Organized according to various period styles, such as Federal, Empire and Revival, the exhibit offers visitors a chance to admire and contextualize these impressive furniture pieces either made or used in our state. Many of the items on display, especially those passed down from generation to generation, also come with interesting stories.

Take, for example, a sleigh bed once owned by George and Anne Huggins of Columbia. The piece is itself a staple of the Empire style representing the second phase of neoclassicism associated with the French empire under Napoleon Bonaparte. In addition, the bed whose curved headboard and foot make it resemble a sled or sleigh has an interesting associational history.

The Hugginses lost their home in February of 1865 during the fire that destroyed much of the city. Whether the blaze was caused by retreating Confederates or occupying federal troops under General Sherman is still a matter of debate. What is beyond conjecture is the fact that George and Anne Huggins needed, at the very least, a new bed, and they purchased this particular article of furniture from Henry Timrod, often called the poet laureate of the Confederacy.

Timrod had been in residence in Columbia since being discharged from the army in 1862 due to his tuberculosis. Because of his ardent support of the Southern cause, he was a target of Sherman’s forces. He actually went into hiding until the end of the war. It is easy to see how health and financial problems would have forced him to sell off some of his worldly goods in an attempt to keep a roof over his head. Timrod died in 1867 at the age of 37.

Each item in the current show might have a similarly riveting tale to tell if we could but unlock the identity of its maker and its full genealogy of ownership. No such mystery attends my favorite piece, one featured in a section of the exhibit that Zeise labels “Unique and Singular.” It is a bookcase made in Aiken by poet and inventor James M. Legare and adorned with his most notable invention. 

After a diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis, which necessitated his relocation from Charleston to Aiken in 1846 because of the latter town’s reputation as a health resort, Legare established a separate workshop and studio next to the small Laurens Street cottage where he and his parents set up residence. Therein he taught painting to the local ladies and worked on his experiments, including a substance he called lignin or plastic cotton.

The bookcase in the State Museum show boasts elaborate plastic cotton decoration along the front frame of each shelf and on the sides. By combining raw fiber with certain chemical substances he mixed himself, Legare devised a product that could be molded and shaped — hence the term “plastic” — to adorn furniture, picture frames and mantelpieces. Though meant to be handled with care due to its decorated surfaces, the Legare bookcase in the state museum collection is in fine shape considering that it has survived for nearly 170 years. In particular, the elaborate cartouches emblazoned on each side give ample evidence of the maker’s skill as both a chemist and a visual artist.

Beyond these two pieces, this show still has much to offer. 

Students of history will enjoy reading the informative placards that accompany most of the pieces. Woodworkers will marvel at the craftsmanship of each furniture specimen, such as the patterned inlay of the Federal-style gaming table or the pedal-operated fan featured on the Beaufort-area shoo fly chair, circa 1820. 

Those who appreciate good design will enjoy examining prime examples of the 19th century’s various aesthetic movements — I was especially compelled by Zeise’s decision to showcase, in a circle in the middle of the exhibit, eight side boards from 1790 to 1890, all representing different variations on the same basic pattern. 

“Brown furniture” will one day undoubtedly come back into fashion. In fact, interior designers are already blending well-crafted antiques with the trendy, mass-produced items popular at this moment. In the end, quality always wins out.  

What:Grand Design: Nineteenth-Century Furniture

Where:South Carolina State Museum, 301 Gervais St.

More:803-898-4921, scmuseum.org

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