Baltimore's in the grip of a furniture fad. It's hip, it's happenin', it's now. And it's been that way for nearly 200 years.
The fad is for painted furniture -- chairs with gilt filigree on arms and legs and landscapes in medallions on the crest rails, tables with compass stars on top, sofas with shields and arrows on wood framing, end tables with scenes of Mount Vernon, a wardrobe painted to look like a bank building, a child's chair and desk with every element a different color and design.
Such pieces span the centuries, but all have qualities in common: a charm that comes from the marriage of form and decoration; the use of decoration to refer to the past; the embellishment that is clearly a human touch.
At first the furniture was custom-made by fine craftsmen; later it was mass-marketed until almost every parlor in the city could sport an example. That cycle has come around again, as the art furniture of the late '80s and early '90s has been joined by pieces from mass marketers such as Ethan Allen, Lexington and Broyhill.
"It was first popular around the turn of the 19th century," said Gregory Weidman, curator of the Maryland Historical Society and project director of the exhibit called "Classical Maryland," which contains many examples of "fancy furniture" from 1815 to 1845.
"We have a number of recorded orders for painted furniture coming in from England, ordered by wealthy Baltimoreans in the late 1790s," Ms. Weidman said. "It became all the rage around 1800 to 1805, and in Maryland at least, and particularly in Baltimore, stayed extraordinarily popular for about 40 years."
Although such furniture was popular up and down the East Coast of the emerging nation, in Baltimore it was embraced with unusual fervor.
"I think it has to do with the fact that Baltimore was the 'new' town, the fastest-growing city in the country. It was a very lively, sophisticated place," Ms. Weidman said.
There were "a lot of houses being being built, a lot of people making money rapidly and wanting to spend that money on elegant and sophisticated and very stylish household furnishings." Painted furniture, she said, was "the height of fashion."
The pieces were created in the styles of ancient Greece and Rome, symbols, to the fledgling republic, of prosperity, stability and history. Citizens of the democracy of the United States felt a link with the democratic and republican facets of classical society; adopting such styles may have been an unconscious way to infuse some historical credibility into what was very much a social experiment.
The link with history is still a powerful factor in the popularity of painted furniture. Linda Jones, a marketing consultant for Masco Home Furnishings of High Point, N.C., said, "Our consumers feel trapped by the '90s. They feel like they're on the fast track with no place to get off except home. Home is the last place they feel they have some control over their lives." What they're looking for in furniture is something light and casual, something that's "history -- it says it's always been here, it looks acquired."
For many people, she said, furniture about which they can say, "It looks like my grandmother left me this," represents a return to reasonableness after the excesses of the '80s. Of the Mid-Atlantic region, she said, "Your part of the country has held onto that sanity and reasonableness for a long time."
Among the lines helping people forge these links to the past is Lexington, which has a new collection called "Art Cetera." It includes an armoire painted with hunting scenes and a lingerie chest with a rose "climbing" up the front. The "World of Bob Timberlake" collection, also from Lexington, is based on pieces of rustic Americana and includes a small table adorned with a swan.
Ethan Allen's "Country French Collection" includes an armoire with a delicate tracing of flowers and vines and a writing desk to match.
Both Ethan Allen, of Danbury, Conn., and Broyhill, also of High Point, N.C., offer wood pieces with simple painted finishes: a pine hutch and matching table with a whitewashed look; a coffee table with a natural top and accents on dark-green-painted drawers.
Classical furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries was often painted black, red or yellow, and intensively decorated with eagles, sheaves, arrows, medallions, spears, winged thunderbolts, palmette leaves and crossed torches. Landscapes were often included on chair-crest rails or table tops. Examples such as those made by Baltimore artisans John and Hugh Finlay are exquisitely painted. Later examples of similar pieces, made for the mass market, show more stylized decoration and somewhat cruder painting.
Today, however, painted furniture is more likely to reflect rustic or natural elements. Ms. Jones, of Masco, said three factors are at work in the trend. People are easing up on furniture styles, preferring more casual styles, she said; in addition the greening of the American consumer, with recycling and concern for the origins of materials, has led to an affection for natural objects.
"And," she said, "people are inviting into their homes all sorts of texture, which gives a feeling of comfort. And one way to add texture is a painted surface."
Painted surfaces of all kinds have dominated the decorator show houses in the Baltimore area in recent years.
Artist Amy Neill, a faux-finish artist and furniture painter, put a startling stamp on the wooden cabinets in the kitchen of the Lamb Estate, the 1992 Baltimore Symphony Show House. Most of the surface of the room was a strong-patterned tile in shades of blue and terra-cotta. The white cabinets, she said, "looked like fangs" against the tile.
"It was obvious to me what it needed," Ms. Neill said in a recent interview. "It just needed for those cabinets to be aged to the point of ancient, so that you would be able to see that the tile is now new and fresh. The only way to let people know that those are ancient cabinets that I painted was to put on Mayan-Aztec figures, so that you would know we're talking ancient here."
She gave the cabinets a soft terra-cotta finish that looked as old and as natural as clay, and dotted them with occasional figures. Metal drawer pulls in the shape of animals and metallic leather pulls that looked like pieces of vine contributed to the natural look.
Last year Ms. Neill, daughter of Baltimore-area designer Russell Slouck, opened a studio-gallery-shop called the Faux House, to showcase her work and that of other area furniture painters. Among pieces on display recently were a small table painted with a sweep of autumn leaves by Christopher Winslow and a contoured hunt table with a leopard-skin finish by Ms. Neill.
Most of Ms. Neill's work uses botanical motifs, or whimsical elements such as polka dots and half-moons. She makes many pieces of children's furniture; the particolored roll-top desk mentioned earlier is an example. She is also a fan of "found" furniture. "I love awful-looking pieces," she said. "You just know it's going to be beautiful."
Ms. Neill also cited the "grandmother" factor in Baltimore folks' affection for painted furniture. "I think a lot of these pieces are pieces they've seen before, that they can relate to -- 'My grandmother had a piece like this,' or 'I had a piece like this, I never knew it could look like this, I'm sorry I threw it out.' "
She says she wasn't aware of Baltimore's long tradition in painted furniture when she began doing it herself, but she can see the tradition continuing. "Someone said a lovely thing to me -- they said, 'You know, in about 50 years from now, people are going to be collecting your work, a Baltimore artist.' It never occurred to me."
Gregory Weidman, at the Maryland Historical Society, already has her eye on the future. When in 1992 she spotted in the society's own gift shop a tiny folding table on which contemporary Baltimore artist Harry Evans had painted a scene of Mount Vernon, she snapped it up for the society's 20th-century collection.
"We thought, how appropriate, for us to buy, one, a well-known local landscape artist's work, but, two, a piece of painted furniture of very recent manufacture," Ms. Weidman said. "To me it gives the story of the landscape on furniture literally a 200-year history."
"Classical Maryland, Fine and Decorative Arts from the Golden Age," continues at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St., until Sept. 25. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
The Faux House, at 3508 Harford Road, is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, other times by appointment. The phone number is (410) 889-5828.