Decorate a garden in natural fashion Materials: Artisans are using twigs and branches to create rustic furniture and ornaments.

September 28, 1997|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Blake Warner is an artist with an eye for twigs and branches. Warner makes rustic garden ornaments and furniture for a growing number of enthusiastic clients in the Seattle area. He's one of a great many artisans across the continent contributing to the strong revival of "nature's twisted treasures."

Since at least the 17th century, people have been putting together tables, benches, gates and gazebos using branches and lots of imagination.

It's not just an American craft. In the late 18th century, well-to-do Europeans began to replace the classical temples and sculptures in their gardens with rustic bridges and other structures made of materials found in woods and copses.

"I cannot tell if the garden is a backdrop for the furniture or the furniture is the reason for the garden," designer Abby Ruoff says of her rustic creations. Ruoff is the author of "Making Twig Garden Furniture" (Hartman & Marks, $25.95).

Rustic garden decorations suit landscapes large and small. The great American landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted included rustic benches and shelters in his plans for New York's Central Park. Olmsted believed that such picturesque ornamentation was relaxing to look at, and the public evidently agreed. By the early 20th century, the National Park Service had adopted a rustic style for lodges and furniture, always made of locally available materials.

Warner and others -- such as David Robinson, who recently restored and rebuilt Central Park's rustic structures -- are experts who make such furniture full-time. If you're inspired to try it yourself and are handy with tools, you can make your own.

It is by nature a very accessible technique. Jim Long, an herbalist and historic-garden enthusiast in Oak Grove, Ark., has published a book and teaches workshops on the simplest of all rustic structures: bentwood trellises. These vertical garden accents are relatively easy to make, although they do demand patience and a free Saturday morning.

It always makes sense to use materials found nearby. Warner uses a great deal of driftwood from the beaches around Seattle. He also picks up branches knocked down by storms, and sometimes asks permission to take freshly cut limbs from construction sites. Long cultivates friendships with farmers, arborists, nursery owners and others who might be able to provide the twigs and branches he needs.

Wood from any number of trees and shrubs, from alder to willow, can be worked into rustic furniture, Ruoff says. Avoid branches with tiny holes and other signs of insect infestation, she advises.

For your first project, start small. Try a trellis or a birdhouse or a stool to get a feel for the materials and techniques you'll use to make odd-shaped pieces fit together.

Tables, chairs and gazebos are rather more demanding. Nails or screws can be used, but make sure they don't show or they'll spoil the natural look. If you're good at carpentry, experiment with mortise and tenon joints to add strength.

Warner, also a skilled cabinetmaker, says his first rustic pieces were inspired by driftwood's smooth, ghostly shapes. He took his work to farmer's markets -- where rustic furniture and ornaments often are available at reasonable prices -- and did well enough that he decided to rent a booth in a local crafts mall. The first piece he sold was a two-seatbench for $150. Now his contorted chairs and benches, often with tangled roots as fanciful embellishments, sell for $900 to $2,500.

"The crazier-looking the piece, the quicker it sells," he says. "I'm always looking for the most odd-shaped, bizarre-looking pieces of wood and trying to somehow incorporate that into a comfortable piece of furniture with a cohesive form."

Warner's work can be seen every winter at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle. For the 1998 show (Feb. 4-8), he's making a fanciful rustic train station. After the show, the depot will be turned into a potting shed.

Rustic garden furniture, old and new, can be found at flea markets, crafts fairs and garden shops from coast to coast. Ralph Kylloe, a rustic furniture enthusiast and gallery owner in Lake George, N.Y., sells new pieces by contemporary artists and hard-to-find antiques. There is strong demand for both, says Kylloe's wife, Michelle, co-owner of the gallery.


* The Ralph Kylloe Rustic Gallery, P.O. Box 669, Lake George, N.Y. 12845; 518-696-4100. Kylloe is the author of several books on rustic furniture and garden ornaments, including "Rustic Garden Architecture" (Gibb Smith, $37.95).

* "How to Make Romantic Bentwood Garden Trellises" by Jim Long. Available from Long Creek Herbs, Route 4, Box 730, Oak Grove, Ark. 72660; 417-779-5450; $6.95, including postage.

* "Making Twig Garden Furniture" by Abby Ruoff (Hartley & Marks, $24.95).

* Blake Warner, Wild Side Rustic Furniture, P.O. Box 1958, Port Orchard, Wash. 98336; 360-895-2276.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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