Who Designed Byrdcliffe Furniture?

In Celebration of Zulma Steele (& Edna Walker)

Zulma Steele Artist Craftswoman

Catalog of the Zulma Steele exhibition at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild.

Before I started writing about the American Arts & Crafts Period of the early 20th century (more than 20 years ago) I thought that the history would be the easy part. One of my motivations for writing my first book was my dissatisfaction with what had been written about Gustav Stickley and his work. I’ve been researching Byrdcliffe furniture for quite a while, and when I was an editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine I built a reproduction of the “Sassafras Linen Press”. Since then I’ve continued researching the Byrdcliffe colony and last spring I released my latest book “Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture.”

Part of my research was to read everything I could get my hands on about Byrdcliffe and I found myself reading “facts” over and over that didn’t seem quite correct. The easy way out for an author is to repeat what someone else wrote. I’ve done that myself and I was embarrassed that I repeated a misleading quote about Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead in the Popular Woodworking article that turned out to be the opposite of what Whitehead had written. I decided to go back to square one and question everything I thought I knew about Byrdcliffe furniture. I dug into original material and drawings from the Winterthur Museum and period publications. The biggest thing I realized is there is a sexist slant to much of what has been written about the design of Byrdcliffe furniture. Nearly all of the designs are clearly the work of Zulma Steele and Edna Walker despite the numerous attempts to give credit to any male with a recognizable name who happened to be in the vicinity.

Last fall the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild held an exhibition of Steele’s work and the image at left is the cover of the exhibition catalog. This is the first comprehensive exhibition and publication devoted to her life and exceptional body of work. You can get a copy directly from the guild, and I highly recommend it. If you’re not already a fan of Zulma Steele, you will be. In addition to her work designing furniture, Steele was a wonderful painter and an active artist in Woodstock for decades. You’ll discover more about her life and her work in the 104 page catalog. Steele and Walker were far more than “decorators of furniture”, they deserve a rightful place in the history of furniture design and American art of the 20th century.

The video below is a discussion of the exhibition by the curators and includes images of most of the works in the exhibition. At the 11:15 mark is a never before seen version of the “Lily” table.

If you have a chance to visit the Woodstock, New York area much of the original Byrdcliffe colony still exists, and the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild has a gallery and shop downtown. “Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture” is now available at the guild, or signed copies are available directly from me.

Bob Lang

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