past & present: twig furniture history


Image above: illustration by Julia Rothman

I feel as if I’ve been heralding the arrival of spring for eons. If you live somewhere with a mild climate (or are enjoying an Australian summer), you’re probably sick of hearing about our long, cold winter. But then, you live somewhere with a mild climate (or are enjoying an Australian summer), so I don’t really feel that sorry for you. We’ve finally had a little taste of warm weather, and I’m starving for more. As a kid, my family would spend every summer hiking and fishing in Mammoth Mountain and these sorts of rustic, twig chairs would be everywhere. So now, whenever I see twig furniture, I feel like summer’s on the way (that and I’m looking for a fishing pole). — Amy A.


Image above: Pair of twig chairs in original varnish. These served in a pulpit in a church in Rainsburg, PA. from The Melrose Project

There are two basic types of rustic furniture construction: twig work and bentwood. For bentwood construction, the twigs are harvested fresh and then steamed (to make them soft) and bent in a variety of directions (think the bentwood design classic — the Thonet chair). In twig work, sticks are usually peeled and then assembled into structures. Twig chairs made their way to English gardens in the 18th century via China. Eighteenth century Brits had an insatiable appetite for all things Chinese and that, combined with the rise of the great landscape gardens with their follies and gazebos, meant that there was a demand for chairs made in naturalistic forms.


Image above from top: Gardner’s Willo’work by Andrew Gardner and set of 1930s twig furniture from 1st dibs

In colonial America, gentry usually carted common chairs outside whenever the weather permitted. Gardens and yards were a much-welcomed extension of cramped indoor living spaces. The real moment for rustic, naturalistic furniture in America came in the 20th century when the rustic furniture satisfied dual economic sectors – those suffering from the Great Depression, who made their own furniture out of whatever materials were available and wealthier Americans whose desire to escape to the country created a fascination with camps and ranches.

CLICK HERE for more Twig furniture history + wood accessory favorites!


Image above: Greta Garbo posing with the MGM mascot in an Old Hickory Chair

Prior to the 20th century, most of these rustic seats were produced by artisans. The creation of factory-made rustic chairs was inspired by early hickory pieces made in the Southern states. The first and largest manufacturer was the Old Hickory Chair Company in Martinsville, Indiana. The Hickory Chair Company produced the dining chairs for the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone in 1906 (and the same chairs are still used today). Do you have any summer furniture memories? Let me know, if you’d have favorite summer furniture that you’d like to see in an upcoming past & present.


Books to Read

  • Chairs: A History — One of my absolute favorite books. I’m a huge fan of author Florence de Dampierre
  • Rustic Furniture I found this at the Strand for $7 — and honestly, I probably wouldn’t pay more than that, unless you have a serious rustic furniture obsession.


Since an actual twig chair might look a little out of place in my Brooklyn apartment, (I’ll save it for my “dream cabin file”) I rounded up a few of my favorite wood-themed products to add a little rustic touch to my home. I don’t have that many wood accessories but I pretty much love anything with a live edge so I’m drooling over that cutting board!

*Just click items in the post images to go directly to their shop pages. We finally learned how to image map the links!

  1. jc says:

    That nifty little bowl with twigs is a PET BOWL? I was envisioning myself eating potato soup out of it already.

    I love how you can click the images, its very cool.

  2. Bethany says:

    <3 My bf works at an exotic lumber importer. Its unbelievable the pretty wood he comes across. He just got in a log of african bubinga that is 27 ft long and a 6 ft diameter with a raw edge. PURE-T BEAUTIFUL!

  3. Lydia says:

    I actually bought a twig planter yesterday, and it needs a little work. I immediately clicked on your article looking for some helpful hints or sites/books to look at on removing paint, staining and just general refurbishing for twig furniture.

    Thanks!

  4. Lydia says:

    oops. I meant to ask if you had any additional suggestions.

    Thanks!

  5. the chairs in the first image are my favourite!! xx meenal

  6. oops says:

    19th century = 18xx
    20th century =19xx
    21st century = 20xx

    This sounds silly, but obviously it makes a major difference and it’s especially crucial when buying vintage pieces. When mislabeled in that context, it’s not just extremely deceptive, it’s actionable. Please let’s get it right!

    1. amya says:

      @oops – I think there was a confusing transition in talking about colonial Americans and then those in the Great Depression. I fixed that. However, I assure you, I do know which century I’m talking about. :) When talking about English landscape gardens in the 18th century, I was referring to the great Capability Brown (1716 – 1783) and other landscape designers in the 1700s. When talking about The Hickory Chair Company, I did indeed mean the 20th century. Other than the round-up at the end – the 21st century did not figure into the post. Thanks for your close read. -Amy A

  7. Kayt says:

    I would love to see a piece on Adirondack style furniture. I love this series so much, it satisfies my not-so-inner nerd. ;)

  8. amya says:

    Hi Kayt! Adirondack furniture is on my list! :) I’d love to do something about those great old summer camps! Thanks! AmyA

  9. Carin says:

    How perfect I caught a glimps of these chairs in a magazine and it reminded me of the movie Phenomenon, with John Travolta and Krya Sedgwick. She made the chairs and he bought them to try and get her to go on a date.

    I love the metal branch mirror. It’s sure to tell me who is the fairest of them all.

  10. Niki Fulton says:

    I love twiggy furniture. Do you know Russell Pinch’s work here in UK? Its fantastic and he makes a twig bench which I have seen used in an aveda shop.

  11. Simply gorgeous! Love the history on these pieces….

  12. Warren says:

    SO here’s a secret about the Ligna Chair sold at Anthropology. The same exact one is sold at Pearl River on Broadway for $300. From The Source in Greenpoint has them for $350. See here.

    http://www.anthropologie.com/anthro/catalog/productdetail.jsp?id=20809703&catId=HOME-NEW&pushId=HOME-NEW&popId=HOME&navAction=top&navCount=42&color=015&isProduct=true&fromCategoryPage=true&templateType=templateC

  13. Warren says:

    Oops! Here’s the correct link.
    http://fromthesourceny.com/

    It’s a Flash site so there’s no direct product page.

  14. aaaah!!!! love this round up so much!!!

  15. Kara says:

    The links don’t seem to work on my iPhone…or maybe it’s just me. Great product round up. :)

  16. April says:

    Twig furniture is so much fun!

  17. Tian says:

    The Ligna chair is comfortable and beautiful. And WAY overpriced at Anthropologie! I first saw them at Pearl River & got them in Houston at High Fashion Home. When I got mine, they were $265!

  18. Ali says:

    Enough of this Australian Summer……In Melbourne today, rain, mid afternoon and 14 degrees C (thats 57 F to you guys)…..Summer is well and truly over. But love the twig furniture and looking forward to the weekend and heading out to collect branches to “plant” in my garden up which I hope the broad beans and sweet peas will grow.

  19. So happy this is hotstuff!

  20. Nice post! I LOVE twig furniture, but how does one write an article about twig furniture, and not mention the great 20th century photographer AND twig furniture maker, Wallace Nutting??

    1. amya says:

      Hi Elsie – I think Wallace Nutting is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Also, I think Nutting is more Colonial Revival and less the sort of rustic garden furniture that I was focusing on. That said, he does probably deserve his own post – I have to confess – he’s just not one of my favorite people. Perhaps you’ve come across some interesting reading that might change my mind. :) Thanks!
      -AmyA

  21. Tinabobina99 says:

    Just a note on the image links: It’s a great addition, but I also liked the recap you used to have which included where it came from and what the price was. Saved me a lot of time. Can you do both? Am I making you crazy? Thanks for all you do.

  22. oops says:

    @amya – thanks :) The Great Depression of the 19th century is what caught my eye.

  23. Sally Brown says:

    A lot of great things!

  24. Jason says:

    Great Article – How about some more contemporary builders? Rustic Furniture comes to mind. http://www.rusticfurniture.net/

  25. Beautiful work! Wood is just the best!

  26. Marie Hebert says:

    I have to say I have always liked the rustic look but you have a great selection of of rustic items. There is not one item i did not like. That cute little mirror of twigs is my favorite.

  27. Susan says:

    If you live in the Midwest and are interested in making your own twig furniture, check out this cool event in Wisconsin:
    http://www.shakeragalley.com/woodlanders-11.html

  28. Hey Amy,
    Wallace Nutting certainly does deserve his own post. Although he is best known for his charming hand colored photographs, he was a wonderful furniture designer. I’m not sure how Colonial Revival applies to him, but he was interested only in creating beautiful, useful things with materials that honored nature. He was very eco-conscious in his day, as were his Transcendentalist contemporaries. As part of the Arts and Crafts movement, they were against the decline of handiwork, inferior materials, and the impact on the environment that the coming Industrial Revolution threatened. Of that important movement, were the likes of William Morris (textile design), Thomas Cole (painting), Henry David Thoreau (author), Roycroft School (furniture design), to name a few. As a group, they were more interested in preserving, rather than reviving. I’m sure anything you can find on the Arts & Crafts movement, and Wallace Nutting will be of interest to your readers, and pertinent to todays environmental conerns. They were way ahead of their time!!!

    1. amya says:

      Elsie – Wallace Nutting’s photographs were absolutely instrumental in sparking the Colonial Revival Movement – he’s actually more closely related to the Colonial Revival Style than to Arts & Crafts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallace_Nutting (This is also a good article – http://antiquesandthearts.com/CS0-06-24-2003-13-26-18) We spent a significant amount time studying him in school. :) -Amy A

  29. Carson says:

    Garbo looks a bit frightened and the lion is staring….. I do like the twig mirror though.

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