From necessity, rustic invention. When he had nothing left, Clarence Nichols furnished his house from branches of cedar. Now his craftsmanship is recognized as a treasure of the Adirondacks.
Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y.
CLARENCE NICHOLS'S unique furniture rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Back in 1924, the Nichols's family home went up in flames. The destruction was total. Everything was lost. Adding to the tragedy, their household insurance policy had lapsed without their being notified. Where lovely antiques once stood was now only dust.
Sometime later, while chopping cedar for firewood, the unique shapes and grain of the limbs and branches caught Nichols's eye. He began setting the more interesting shapes aside.
After they were thoroughly dry, he carefully stripped off the bark with a piece of broken glass and sandpapered them until they were smooth. Subsequent sanding and carefully applied layers of varnish brought out the warm patina and highly articulated graining of the red cedar.
Carefully, Nichols butterflied some branches for back pieces, matched others for arms and legs, and assembled his first chair.
Over a period of some 25 years, he added 35 more pieces of this beautifully sculptural furniture to his household collection. As far as is known, Nichols made only those thirty-six pieces for his own family use.
Nichols died many years ago, and in 1972 his daughter gave the entire collection to the New York State Museum. This coming spring, all 36 pieces will be displayed together for the first time at the Adirondack Museum here in Blue Mountain Lake.
Museum director Craig Gilborn, an expert on Adirondack and rustic furniture, is excited about the coming exhibit.
``The marvelous thing about Nichols's furniture is that he wasn't copying anyone else. To use a fancy word, it is suigeneris -- one of a kind.
``It could never be duplicated, not even by Nichols himself. It's unique because each tree and every branch is unique,'' Gilborn said, as he walked around the museum.
``But don't make the mistake and call it Adirondack-style. It's not. That's some of the Adirondack style,'' he said, pointing to several pieces of furniture made from small bits of unpeeled birch and maple that filled the great camps in this area. It is a style that is still seen and copied extensively in the area today.
Nichols's furniture, according to Gilborn, is ``almost Giacometti in its stringiness. It's not just the solids that are impressive, it's the voids -- the open spaces.
``What you have here is handwork of the highest order. Nichols made that wonderful straddle between the functional and decorative arts,'' he added.
The collection will be on display here at the museum from May 23 to October 18 of next year.