Behind the feathery crown

Whether or not you find a piece of furniture attractive at first sight, your opinion of the piece will certainly be enriched by insight into how it was made.

For years I’d seen a grouping of pieces made by the Showers Furniture Company prominently displayed at the Monroe County History Center:

Showers 2 Showers 1

I thought them grotesque: gaudy, cheaply made, masquerading as something of higher quality than the ample signs of their factory production revealed. But in the course of researching and writing my book about Hoosier cabinets I developed a surprising appreciation for such modest furnishings, which, precisely because of their factory production, were affordable for millions of families during the early 20th century.

So when you look at the odd piece in the snapshot below, where my friend Mary Beth and I were hamming it up for the camera at the opening of a furniture exhibition, I hope you’ll see beyond the goofy, two-dimensional “crown,” the overwrought legs, and the busy mix of wood species to the solid materials, traditional craftsmanship, and scholarship I invested in the piece, which I produced as part of an educational project funded by an Indiana University arts grant.

State Museum Opening w MBR

***

This page from a 1933 edition of the Sears & Roebuck catalog shows the china cabinet pictured above. This model and the other pieces in the suite were sold for several years, into the '30s.

This page from a 1933 edition of the Sears & Roebuck catalog shows the china cabinet and sideboard pictured above. This model and the other pieces in the suite were sold for several years, into the ’30s.

This magazine advertisement shows another popular Showers product: fancy cabinets for radios.

A magazine advertisement shows another popular Showers product: fancy cabinets for radios.

My design followed many hours at the Indiana State Library researching Showers pieces from the early 20th century. It’s a riff on the mass-produced treasures of the 1920s that flaunted the day’s most popular trends for everyman. What’s contemporary about my take is the use of materials that were locally grown or salvaged{1}, with traditional joinery in place of fabrication processes designed for mass-production.

To wit: Traditional mortise and tenon joinery for the drawer section of the three-part ensemble…

Corona 039

… and dovetails, of both the sliding (a.k.a. “French”) variety, as seen below, and the socket variety, cut by hand, in the making of the drawers.

Here’s a shot of the drawer case’s framework–what you see here is the front, where the drawer face will eventually go–routed with a dovetailed slot that will hold the decorative bracket at the left side of the front. The decorative bracket destined to be glued into this dovetailed slot lies on the bench.

Corona 040

To make the legs for the base framework I turned the rounded sections on the lathe, then carved the flutes by hand with a gouge and mallet.

Corona 042

Here’s the base assembly with its front and back rails and center stretcher:

Corona 044

and now the base frame with the drawer case and drawer:

Corona 007

For the solid walnut top of the base ensemble I wanted to carve a gadrooned edge similar to the one on this Mission style library table I’d seen at a junk shop, but without the intermediate veins:

gadroon

My first attempt resulted in this simple version–carved, to be sure, but not what I was aiming at:

Corona 038

After a carving course with Mary May and before the opening of the State Museum show, I made a new top with better carving that looks more “rolled.”

corona edge carving

The door, like the carved top of the drawer assembly, is made from walnut with traditional mortise and tenon joints designed to fit a rabbeted frame. Here’s the top rail with its tenon partly cut:

Corona 020

and here’s one of the mortises with apologies for the fuzzy shot:

Corona 015

The door is hung on traditional non-adjustable butt hinges:

Corona 024

Next came the scrollwork, my favorite feature of the original Showers pieces that inspired Corona Plumosa. Hands-on investigation of the Showers suite at the Monroe County History Center (with kind permission from then-director Diane Ballard) revealed that the original scrollwork was cut from a material not unlike our contemporary medium-density fiberboard (mdf). Armed with this precedent I chose a sheet of discarded 1/8th-inch-thick mdf that had come to my shop as protective packing for an order of custom-veneered panels. Once I’d calculated the dimensions and layout of the scrollwork, allowing for the parts that would be concealed behind the rabbet, I made a full-scale pattern in 1/4-inch plywood and checked everything for size:

Corona 026

… then cut it out using a jigsaw, spokeshave, and files. I actually preferred the unstained version of the scrollwork shown here:

Corona Negra 4, 4.30.12

… but knew that it looked too contemporary for my piece.

Looking through the door in the image just above, you can see one of the animal faces formed by the burly maple when I bookmatched the panels for the back. I didn’t even see the faces until months after I had completed the piece, when I was showing the maple to a client who was considering using the remaining boards I had in stock for a dining table top. He pointed out the faces.

The finished upper cabinet:

Corona 046

{1} Burly silver maple from Joe Davison of Davison Hardwood Quality Specialists in Spencer, Indiana; quartersawn red oak salvaged from a tornado-felled tree that had once grown on the site of Indiana University’s first home; and walnut from a tree that had lived on my husband’s property in western Monroe County.

 

 

 

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One response to “Behind the feathery crown

  1. Love it and the rabbit faces! new favorite word: gadrooned

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