George Washington didn't eat here.
April 5, 2010 4:29 PM   Subscribe

I need inspiration and suggestions for bright, clean, unfussy interiors... incorporating early-American-style furniture.

A friend has asked for help planning and decorating her first apartment. I'm excited, but there's a catch: she already has a set of dining room furniture, and it's, well, kind of ugly. ~80s Ethan Allen, very very Early American in style, complete with lots of fussy curves and super-knobby legs; warm orange-golden maple-colored wood, something like this. The set was purchased mainly because it was cheap and sturdy, and I don't think she's really thought about the aesthetic one way or another, but for a variety of reasons I doubt we're going to be able to replace it, or even modify it in any major way (by painting it, for instance).

Although a rank amateur at this whole design thing, I'm a fan of blogs like Apartment Therapy and would like to make suggestions that help incorporate some of the qualities of their interiors-- brightness, simplicity, livability, a clean, organic feel-- into my friend's room. Thing is, my mind's eye invariably associates the Early American furniture style with stodgy, heavy, busy, or grandmotherly interiors; I have a feeling a really creative person could probably break free of this stereotype, but mediocre me is finding it hard to imagine how a room with knobby orange-colored furniture could also be made to feel open and unfussy and bright.

The design blogs I've seen aren't much help, since they seem to bring up Early-Am/Colonial-Revival style mainly to deride or dismiss it. I really need some inspiration here. Does anyone know of suggestions where I can find pictures of pretty, modern-small-m interiors that incorporate Early American elements? Failing that, any suggestions of how else I might go about getting my head around this?
posted by yersinia to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Footnotes to Mad Men : On Colonial Revival (more and more and more!)may be a good place to start. With the basic concepts to update it a bit?
posted by The Whelk at 4:48 PM on April 5, 2010

I think one of the best ways to deal with this older, more traditional furniture is to have a sense of humor about it--try mixing it with things from other decades.

One of my favorite design blogs, coco + kelley, uses this technique to great effect.

Also, are you willing to paint the thing, if you can't find a way to embrace the warm wood tones? White or a fun pop of color might be a good alternative. This image is sort of the inverse of what you are doing, but it might give you some ideas.

Good luck!
posted by chatongriffes at 5:06 PM on April 5, 2010

From my wife:

Our dining room is full of Early American furniture because we both inherited some and then when looking for certain types of furniture (like a dining room table) we found good stuff for cheap. Our house was built in the mid-fifties, so it is the perfect era for this furniture (which really hit a peak around then). One thing that I really like about it is that most of it is really solid and all wood. Also, I like it. I don't find it fussy at all. It has really nice fairly simple shapes (nicely turned legs with simple tops for instance). You can look at sites like Retro Renovation for how it was used in the 1940s-1960s and see what elements you like (or what you don't- that site is awesome but a lot of the folks on it are a little overboard in their love of everything vintage).

I think one thing about our use of this furniture that hasn't made it feel all stodgy and fussy is to use some of the elements of style from the era our house was built in. In the 1950s, they loved Early American but they also loved a lot of color. In our translation of this, we painted the room a beautiful strong blue (Scanda from Sherwin-Williams). I think if you pick one color (blue, red, yellow, or green), and use that in the room in really simple ways (paint if you can) or textiles, like curtains, rugs, or tablecloths, it can really bring the room together without filling it with stuff. We try to keep our dining room free of clutter. There is little "frilly" stuff. Just keep it simple. It won't look busy if you keep it fairly bare. But, definitely be bold in using color. (In the fifties they loved Early American and lots of color, but they tended to do many bold colors. I think sticking to just one helps to update the style without too much trouble.)
posted by skynxnex at 7:45 PM on April 5, 2010

Try taking a look at books like "The Simple Home: The Luxury of Enough" or thumb through old print copies of the Sundance Catalog.

Or anything that showcases the mixing of furniture styles.
posted by jeanmari at 7:55 PM on April 5, 2010

I agree with skynxnex that American Colonial Revival is not actually all that heavy and fussy- it is actually trying to represent furniture from a time when people were actually trying to do clean, simple, spartan interiors with furniture inspired by English styles like Queen Anne and Chippendale (panorama of George Washington's big dining room, and small dining room. Remove the candlesticks and ornate frames, and that's a pretty plain room.).

Try focusing less on the details of the furniture itself and look at weights, shapes, textures, and colors as you design the space. If you want to be clever you can look for Early American motifs to play up, like pineapples, or folk art designs (I'd just use this flower style for inspiration), or textiles.

Googling "queen anne modern room" brings up this post, which might be useful.

You can also google other mashups with "victorian modern room" or whatever. These sorts of interiors tend to be most successsful with very limited color palettes, IMO.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:21 PM on April 5, 2010

limited color palettes

Avoiding a "fussy" look will depend on this. Not a whole lot of clashing color and detail reserved for a few small objects, not a lot of busy small things.
posted by The Whelk at 9:38 PM on April 5, 2010

I'd combine it with basic, sparse, and white interiors and add some brutally rustic accents like plank shelving. Although "early American" styles vary from something like Shaker, I like the sparse design of Shaker interiors. Maybe you could take some inspiration from that.
posted by JJ86 at 6:38 AM on April 6, 2010

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