Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who trekked across the prairie to Utah in 1847 were in search of religious freedom, not a new lifestyle. So they took a chunk of Victorian life with them, reproducing even the ornate furniture they had left behind. "They were trying to create culture in a desert," says Marilyn Conover Barker, author of The Legacy of Mormon Furniture ($29.95, Gibbs Smith), due out Oct. 1.
Today, that culture brings high prices. Californians discovered 19th century Mormon furniture--characterized by its exag- gerated dimensions and hand-painted wood grain--a decade ago. But now it's catching on with East Coast designers and collectors of religious folk art.
Mormon furniture's appeal, says New York decorator Timothy Macdonald, is its "rustic quality and a sense of whimsy that comes through the interpretation of pioneer craftsmen." He assembled a collection for Lionel Pincus, chairman and chief executive of E.M. Warburg Pincus. Yet most collectors are individuals snapping up items for a few hundred dollars each.
Salt Lake City dealer Jonathan Sweet (801 359-4852) says good Mormon pieces "should appreciate the way Shaker furniture has." Prices, increasing some 10% a year, should continue to go up. A top-grade rocker by an anonymous craftsman that sold for $500 five years ago now fetches $3,500, and a museum-quality settee costs $6,000, a fourfold increase. But you can buy a Windsor chair for as little as $65, or a pedestal table for $300. F. Weixler (801 534-1014) restores authentic furniture and custom-builds reproductions for about 40% of the price of old pieces.
While a limited amount of furniture was made from 1847 to the turn of the century, pieces are still coming onto the market as dealers scour barns and outbuildings. Most Mormon furniture is still sold through Utah dealers, who have a pipeline into small towns across the state. But if you know what to look for, you can find items in antique stores in adjacent states as well as California. Since the Saints are known for keeping every scrap of paper from pioneer days, pieces are often documented. "Ask for the grandma story," advises Mormon-furniture specialist John Told in Midway, Utah (801 785-5224).
Mormon furniture has nothing to do with religion, although an occasional piece uses a beehive or other church symbol as a design element. Instead, the furniture, much of it made by English and Scandinavian converts, copied conventional styles--but with a difference. Utah had no hardwood. Carpenters made do with cottonwood and pine, woods so soft they compensated by making oversize legs to support the weight of tables and chairs. "Proportions are cartoony and fun," explains Told.
Most surfaces were painted, often with ox blood, or grained to produce the look of hardwoods, such as walnut and mahogany. Faux oak graining, used in both church woodwork and furniture, was called "Brigham oak" for church President Brigham Young, himself a carpenter and grainer. In the 1970s, when natural woods were popular, many Mormon pieces were stripped of their hand-painted grain, decreasing their value up to 90%. They're still highly collectible, though, because of their styling.
WIDE ROCKER. Look for settees and daybeds that expand to accommodate two or more sleepers. They are marked by a country Empire style with a pediment in back. Rockers are popular, especially the oversize "Brigham rocker"--contrived when a furniture maker asked the portly Young to make an imprint in the snow so he could fashion a rocker to fit the church leader's dimensions. Also desirable are grained flour and sugar bins.
Finely made furniture by craftsmen such as Ralph Ramsay, Henry Dinwoodey, and William Bell bring twice the price of anonymous works. Pieces stamped "Public Works" also bring a premium. They were made by converts working in church-owned shops to repay transportation costs to Utah.
Occasionally, Mormon furniture was constructed of hardwood that arrived in Utah as packing crates. Told recently sold a New York collector what he calls a "dynamite settee." It was made from a packing case stamped "dynamite"--a word collectors say could apply to all Mormonfurniture.