The Roots of Rustic Style

by | At Home in the Adirondacks 2022, Featured

1893 photograph courtesy of Adirondack Experience

Everyone can—and generally does—have their own idea of Adirondack style, making it a knotty concept to nail down. The form has branched into ever-evolving offshoots, but there’s a common origin, a beau ideal that was conceived in the heady days of robber-baron excess. If you close your eyes, you can probably conjure it—satiny wood, coarse bark, tangled sticks, river-smoothed stones. And some very dead animals.

Where did the building blocks of our signature style come from? Like most everything Adirondack, they grew from necessity and backwoods ingenuity.

In the very beginning, before the 1870s or so, rustic was literally rustic: simple, utilitarian, rough. Craig Gilborn, former director of the Adirondack Museum (now Adirondack Experience) and father of its annual Rustic Furniture Fair, called the earliest examples “ramshackle rustic.” These functional pieces were often cobbled together by guides for the convenience of city-slicker clients; they were meant for the outdoors and, after serving their purposes, destined for the fire pit. “The simplest rustic furniture was made of sticks,” writes Gilborn in Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition, “resulting in the kind of seat or table anyone would contrive if given an ax or saw and sent into the woods.”

At the time, Europe had its own (more refined) tradition of twig-and-branch “rustic” for lawn and garden. Nature-inspired pieces stayed politely out-of-doors across the pond, but in the rough-and-tumble Adirondacks the fashion was able to sneak inside. Before it could be welcomed in from the wilderness, however, ramshackle rustic had to become a bit more sophisticated and a lot more comfortable—and it had to have an usher.

Enter William West Durant, heir to a half-million-acre Adirondack barony, and entrepreneur in search of a product. As it turns out, he was sitting on the next big thing: a woodsy playground-in-waiting, just needing a little buff and polish to appeal to 19th-century A-listers.

On Durant’s first visit to the Raquette Lake area, in 1876, he’d absorbed the rustic flavor of the surrounding cabins and lumber camps, and admired guide/hermit Alvah Dunning’s bark-covered shanty on Osprey Island. Liking the vibe, Durant translated his version of from-the-forest chic into Camp Pine Knot, the archetypal Great Camp he created—thanks to the talents of local craftsmen—on Raquette Lake. The foundations of what many think of as Adirondack style emerged from Pine Knot: chalet-esque log construction with flourishes like sapling railings, twiggy trim, a bark-a-palooza both within and without. Furnishings sported intricate mosaic twig-work as well as stick-against-bark stars, diamonds and other whimsical designs. Splashes of color, including bright red curtains, broke up dark spaces. Fireplaces, de rigueur in every room, were topflight—Gilborn writes that Durant was “a stickler for fine stone- and brickwork.”

Durant’s portfolio, which would grow to include Camp Uncas and Sagamore Lodge, had some word-of-mouth success among his well-heeled peers, but his design sensibilities were further boosted by the magic of well-placed press. Seneca Ray Stoddard wrote a glowing review in his 1888 guidebook, The Adirondacks, Illustrated: “The camps of Raquette Lake are elegant affairs, and although built of rustic material found ready to the hand, it is apparent that twisted cedar, shaggy spruce and silvery birch, in their native vestments, were not chosen because they cost nothing there. Some of these camps are works of art, and filled with dainty bric-a-brac; generally, however, pertaining to woodsy things, and in keeping with their natural environment. The pioneer camp of this section and of the most artistic in the woods is ‘Camp Pine Knot’ on the South Bay.”

A founding tenet of this emerging style was the use of über-local material. But there were exceptions. One of the most dramatic, perhaps, was the inclusion of random taxidermy. Thanks to a mashup of the hunting lodge/trophy room tradition and a 19th-century taste for natural history, the glitterati didn’t seem to mind where their stuffed animals originally hailed from, as long as they wore their best furs. So, along with any number of regional critters in residence—black bear, owl and raccoon, as well as deer parts in an expansive variety of forms—the Adirondacks became home to polar bears, bighorn sheep, buffalo and even, in the case of Long Lake’s Brandreth Park, lions, tigers and giraffes.

Victorian fancies that managed to worm their way into the Adirondack milieu went beyond mounted mammals. There was a partiality to wicker, for one, and a strong appetite for all things Asian. Exotic accents, with their aura of “away,” were a fine match for the concept of camp, as were explosions of clutter—or, forgive me, omnium gatherum—that signified a certain devil-may-care informality. Durant’s Pine Knot incorporated all of these trends, and like a time capsule, helped pass them down through decades of decor. 

According to armchair historian Alfred Donaldson, author of A History of the Adirondacks (1921), “Before [Pine Knot] was built, there was nothing like it. Since then, despite infinite variations, there has been nothing essentially different from it.” Like many things Donaldson wrote, that’s a bit of a stretch. One significant difference emerged almost immediately, owing to the requirements of Durant himself. Pine Knot grew slowly and organically, in stages, starting in 1877. But Durant’s subsequent camps, Uncas and Sagamore, were built and hawked within two or three years, so furnishing them in the full twig-and-bark treatment was impractical. (Not to mention that a houseful of dust-catchers can be hard to keep tidy.) To solve his problem of scale, Durant transitioned to more easily produced standard designs and chunkier, peeled poles—a look that was folded into the expanding regional stylebook. Kamp Kill Kare, a Raquette Lake masterpiece built for Lieutenant Governor Timothy Woodruff, and William Distin’s Eagle Nest, on Blue Mountain Lake, became peeled-pole showplaces.

Though Durant was an important influencer, the notion of Adirondack style was pieced together by generations of hands—including some outsider Cottage and Craftsman infusions—and has morphed into countless adaptations. Wayne Ignatuk, a modern artisan from Upper Jay, favors the spartan lines of the Craftsman tradition to bark and twig overload, but uses native elements in his furniture, such as burls or live-edge slabs. Meanwhile, Barry Gregson, a veteran furniture maker from Schroon Lake, plays with organic shapes in chairs and tables that look like they could have grown from the forest floor. Paul Lakata, of Caroga Lake, incorporates Hudson River School–inspired paintings into his bars and cabinets, but also relies heavily on natural elements from the Adirondack landscape. The team at Au Sable Forks’ L. Post Rustics—Larry, Joann, Ryan and Jillian Post—showcases local flora and fauna, hand-carved by Jillian, on much of their custom furniture. The goal, Joann says, is to reconnect people to the wilderness, bridging “the gradual distancing of nature due to human modernization.” It’s an impulse the world-weary Great Campers of yore would have surely embraced. 

Perhaps it was inevitable that our region’s style is so fluid and susceptible to individual interpretation. As Craig Gilborn writes, “Branch, twig and root are visible tokens of a domain outside human society…. Rustic is nonconformist, unpredictable, antic, ambiguous.” Still, a common root has remained—the back-to-Eden yearning toward a simpler life, one grounded in nature, craftsmanship and beauty. Architect Augustus Shepard, who designed camps and clubhouses for the Adirondack League Club, near Old Forge, reminded readers in his 1931 Camps in the Woods that “the occupants of these camps get their greatest inspiration and their greatest joy from the restful, carefree life that they lead there.” And since that restful, carefree life is intertwined with the natural world, living quarters should be designed “so that one feels no change in environment in going from the woods into a camp or in going out from a camp into the woods.” Whatever else it may be, Adirondack style is, at heart, an immersive experience.

WOOD-O-PEDIA

Yellow birch is prized for its strength, the beauty of its bark, and its architectural roots. Craig Gilborn calls it “the aristocrat of rustic wood.” 

Though white birch bark is practically synonymous with Adirondackana, its wood isn’t as strong as its yellow cousin, and is prone to punkiness.

White cedar (as opposed to the more fragrant red) is lightweight and resistant to insect infestation and rot. Its branches are easily bent into curves. Cedar bark, like spruce bark, is suitable for exteriors.

A taste for hickory, a non-native, was popularized by the Old Hickory Chair Company, of Indiana, starting in 1899.

Yellow birch and maple are susceptible to burls, a boil-like growth in response to infestation or other stressors.


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