I grew up in an rich in “Pennsylvania Dutch” culture and history. Many historic examples of Fraktur originated in Berks, Lancaster, and Schuylkill counties of Pennsylvania. Fraktur is a type of folk art that was brought to the area by 18th century immigrants from Germany and German-speaking regions of France and Switzerland. The term Fraktur relates to the “fractured” style of lettering common in these works.
Families often employed itinerant artists to create decorated certificates to commemorate special occasions such as births, baptisms, and marriages. Schoolmasters might also create these works as awards for exemplary students.
About twenty years ago I was commissioned to make a reproduction of an antique Fraktur document. A descendant of the family referenced in the original work provided me with a photograph of the original, which they had recently acquired. By referring to the photograph, I created the detailed reproduction for them to display in their home, while the original was safely stored.
The process of creating this work sparked my interest in Fraktur and Pennsylvania German folk art.
After completing my first two painted chair designs which are inspired by Pennsylvania Dutch symbols, I made a slight departure. My first two chairs used a similar color scheme on a red background.
This, my third project, is rendered in a subtle, limited palette on a pale yellow background. In contrast with the balanced, symmetrical designs on my first two projects, this piece incorporates an asymmetrical design.
For this chair, I used a matte acrylic sealer rather than the glossy sealer I had chosen in my first two “red” chairs. The design is still Pennsylvania Dutch inspired, but with a more non-traditional approach.
I liked my first attempt at a hand-painted chair so much that I was inspired to create another one. Coincidentally, a friend of mine had purchased an identical old chair at the public auction at my parents’ home. She was kind enough to give it to me. I was generally pleased with the color scheme on the first chair, so I decided to create a complementary design.
With a little experience under my belt, I was more confident in how I approached the second chair. I used a similar set of steps, but modified the design. Each chair is a unique, one-of-a-kind design, but related to the other.
The traditional Pennsylvania Dutch tulip motif, which symbolized the Trinity as well as faith, hope, and charity, is part of this design. Hearts are interwoven into this design. To Pennsylvania Germans, the heart represented the heart of God.
My interest in reviving old furniture was ignited when my daughter rescued an old wooden chair that had been stored in my parents’ large barn-style garage for at least fifty years. In fact, it may have suffered the heat and cold of more than one hundred years. Things weren’t thrown away in my family. They were stored in the garage. Or the basement. Or the attic. Fortunately (or unfortunately) our home had a lot of storage areas.
My parents’ home was built in the late 1800’s. The “garage” had once served as a stable. At some point an “addition” was added to accommodate an automobile. During my childhood, the garage was where I could always find a forgotten treasure which might spark a summer project. A half-empty can of paint, an old porch rocker in need of a seat, rusted bicycle parts, antique gardening tools… there was a lot of raw material for a budding creative.
The particular chair that my daughter rescued was probably hand-made–it was that old. It’s dimensions were not uniform enough to have been mass produced. The seat was cracked and its structure could best be described as wobbly. The finish was peeling, cracked, and uneven. The chair had already been refinished several times a few of my ancestors.
Sanding and Cleaning
After a very thorough sanding, cleaning, and reinforcing of joints, there were still quite a number of small cracks in the surface of the seat. I had a detailed design in mind, so the surface would need to be smooth.
In the past, I have had success with filling cracks–and even holes–in furniture with drywall compound prior to priming and painting, so I decided to try that approach. I applied several thin coats of drywall compound using my spackle knife, allowed each coat to dry, then sanded and repeated until the surface was smooth. Then I primed the entire chair with B-I-N primer sealer.
There were still a few hairline inconsistencies in the surface of the seat, so I re-filled and re-sanded the seat until I had a smooth surface for my design. This process seemed to work well.
The past projects where I used this repair technique were not chairs. I’m hoping that the potential flexing of the surface during normal use will not cause a problem down the road, but so far everything has held up. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of this chair during the process of patching and priming.
Since I was painting this chair as a gift for my daughter, I chose red as a background color. (She uses red accents in her apartment.) To be honest, I like red, too. And I felt it would complement the Pennsylvania Dutch design that I had in mind. I painted the entire chair with Folk Art Acrylic paint. In addition to the red, I chose a limited palette of colors that I would use to build my decorative design.
To gather inspiration for my design, I leafed through several books I’ve collected about Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, fraktur, redware, and embroidered samplers. I considered the shape of the chair seat in combination with the particular types of icons that held visual appeal to me.
I traced the shape of the seat to a paper template. Within that shape I sketched my ideas for stylized versions of Pennsylvania Dutch inspired imagery.
Using the sketch as a guide, I carefully indicated the placement of the major design elements on the seat with pencil. After I was happy with the placement, I painted the background for the largest elements.
I layered my contrasting colors with the opaque folk art paint to build decorative detail. The paint was forgiving, to some extent, in that I could cover over pencil strokes or smooth my strokes with a touch of an adjacent color.
As more of the larger elements were emerging in my design, it was easy to work more freely and spontaneously as I improvised upon the design to fashion the seat’s design.
I added complementary designs on the back rails and bands of color on the legs and rails and sprayed the entire chair with a glossy acrylic sealer. Read about my next project…