Book Reviews | February 2011 | Deb Burst

The Historic New Orleans Collection presents Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735-1835

The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), housed in a complex of historic buildings in the French Quarter, seeks to preserve the history of culture in New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast. Just blocks from St. Louis Cathedral, the Williams Research Center on Chartres Street, houses more than 30,000 library items including books, pamphlets, periodicals, broadsides, sheet music, and theater programs. Open to the public, students, researchers, authors, and historians have access to more than two miles of documents and manuscripts, a microfilm collection and 400,000 photographs, prints, drawings, and paintings.

And from this massive collection comes one of the most ambitious THNOC projects, Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735-1835.

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In an extensive study of early eighteenth through mid-nineteenth century Louisiana furniture, the book focuses on an era prior to mass production, a time before mobility homogenized furniture design. It's a splendid lesson in unique cabinetmaking traditions grown from the melding of French, Anglo-American, Caribbean, Canadian and African influences.
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The book's 1200 color illustrations catalogs a collage of furniture built in the upper and lower Mississippi River Valley. Although Louisiana's early colonial furniture represented the French models, the influence of refugees from the Haitian Revolution and Anglo-Americans fused the cultured European craftsmanship with American's contemporary style creating the Louisiana Creole Fashion.

As New Orleans became known for its distinctive cabinetmaking, west of the city along the Acadian communities another style emerged known as Acadian furniture. The designs and materials were drawn from their French and Canadian influences joined by the south Louisiana climate and abundant cypress forests and diverse woodlands. 

Together the Creole and Acadian designs represent a culture, a heritage and a people.

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After a brief history and timeline of the furniture, an education on wood preparation and the landscape of primary and secondary woods is detailed in both text and pictures. The third chapter presents intricate inlays that reflect local ornamentation such as vine-and-leaf,  ciphers (monograms or intertwined initials), pictorial inlays as well as stringing and banding patterns. Distinct hardware not only presents a story of function and design but a major factor in dating the piece and one of the defining elements of the Creole design.

The chapter on cabinetmakers draws an interesting study as the influx of immigrants and continued expansion of the state's population brought a diverse labor pool and an evolution of the craft. Home designs and the importing of furniture through the Port of New Orleans is also examined with commanding letters, invoices, and newspaper ads from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. An extensive catalog of armories, chairs, tables, stools, beds, and miscellaneous pieces of furniture are detailed with a brief history, dimensions, and lineage of ownership.
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The book ends with an appendix of craftsmen, retailers and apprentices including names, years, profession and even addresses. It's a fitting tribute to the many talents who contributed to the region's cultural diversity, artistry and the history of Creole and Acadian furniture.

If you go...
Take a short walk to another part of the THNOC, the Williams Residence, located on Royal Street which features exhibits in the house museum with books available at the gift shop. Many of the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival events and classes are held inside the residence and the spacious courtyard.
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