The Byrdcliffe Furniture Shop
“The community must earn its food and raiment, and to this end will want to sell part of its produce” Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead wrote in Grass of the Desert. “Consider the future of the arts when wood, and wool and brass and leather are worked into shapes, no longer by machines, and by workmen who are as mechanical as, and only more slovenly than, the machines themselves, but by men and women imbued with all that the culture of past ages and the beauty of living nature has shown them.” To that end, Whitehead relied on the sale of handcrafted and artistic goods, especially furniture, to financially support Byrdcliffe and to bring his dream to fruition.
The Byrdcliffe furniture shop, known as "The Bottega,” was the site of furniture making both for sale and the use of the colony. Although it burned in 1978, it was originally constructed in 1903 and equipped with five workspaces, a bathroom, as well as three large storage areas. British Art periodicals such as The Studio and International Studio provided inspiration for Dawson Dawson-Watson, Zulma Steele, and Edna Walker to conceptualize designs. In practice, Steele and Walker sketched the piece and then sent it over to Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead for approval. If accepted, it was sent to The Bottega for construction. There, much of the building was done by head carpenter, Fordyce Herrick, a hardworking and demanding local carpenter who built many of the structures at Byrdcliffe. However, he was not alone, he was assisted by Swede, Olaf Westerling, Noregian, Riulf Erlenson, and Italian head woodcarver, Giovanni Battista Troccoli. After construction the pieces were finished with a light or clear stain and then Steele and Walker returned to paint decorations on the finished carvings. The collaborative nature resulted in an eclectic, hard to define, but unique Arts and Crafts aesthetic.
Ben Webster, later the leader of the Byrdcliffe Players, recalls that Ralph was not the only one with authority over design and execution; Jane Whitehead was also demanding. She “had very definite ideas on art and she’d go swish around in the Bottega (unfortunately she never got caught in one of the belts of operating machinery) and she’d tell them, ‘Oh, that’s a little too dark a green. I’m afraid that you’re going to have to sand-paper that down.’ They had one piece of furniture that had been sandpapered down eighteen or twenty times.”
Although an abomination to Arts and Crafts purists, such as John Ruskin, who loathed the use of machine technology, Whitehead saw no issue with the use of machines as long as they were used as a tool, rather than a device meant to enslave the artisan. To that end, The Bottega was outfitted with “a band-saw, a circular saw, a planing machine, and a moulder” powered by gasoline engines. Machinery was used for roughing out so Byrdcliffe furniture was largely hand made from quarter-sawn oak, constructed with mortise, tenon, and dovetail joinery, and hand carved with motifs taken from the Byrdcliffe environment. The result was furniture meant for moral uplift, the improvement of the tastes of ordinary people, and to demonstrate that handcrafted furniture could exist amidst the industrial revolution.
Despite the great work put into this endeavor, it was short lived, only lasting from the fall of 1903 to the summer of 1905 during which only fifty pieces of furniture were made. Even so, Byrdcliffe furniture has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance recently, often commanding high prices at auction where collectors eagerly seek out furniture from this important art colony.