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by Max Henry
|High in the Hudson Valley, filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory spend part of their summers between movie projects at the Mill, a nationally landmarked property that is home to their Merchant Ivory Foundation. Set on a bucolic 60 plus acres in Claverack, N.Y., the Mill has a program of yearly exhibitions. This year's show features the furniture of Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932).
A Hudson School painter and relative of Frederic Edwin Church via marriage, de Forest was a member of Associated Artists, the eclectic but prestigious interior decorating firm that lasted four years (1879-1883) and included Louis Comfort Tiffany, Candace Wheeler and Samuel Colman.
De Forest made a fateful tour of India in 1880 on a honeymoon with his new wife, Meta Kemble. His search for indigenous carved wooden architectural artifacts led him to the town of Ahmedabad, a region that had become prosperous thanks to its skilled weavers, dyers and artisans, but that had suffered greatly from the influx of cheaper goods with the arrival of the railroad in 1864.
Unable to purchase these family heirlooms, de Forest set up a workshop with a local businessman. Together they formed the Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company, which produced furniture from 1883 to 1893, and was instrumental in preserving the tradition of handcrafted woodwork passed on from one generation to the next in India.
Curated by David Petrovsky, a Lockwood de Forest expert and collector, the exhibition of 18 works includes arm and side chairs, room screens and doors, plus a rare dresser and fire mantel. Carved mostly out of teak, the pieces feature geometric patterns and scroll motifs that were frequently taken from Islamic Mosques or other architectural sources.
The end of the 19th century saw a fad for the exotic and Oriental, and de Forest was ready to cater to this clientele. In fact, there are de Forest mantelpieces and chairs in Olana, the home of Fredric Edwin Church in the Hudson Valley, and an entire paneled room at the Cooper Hewitt Museum (once home to industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie).
A De Forest landmark is right in our backyard. The house where he lived and worked at 7 East 10th Street is still standing. While most of its interior survives only in old photographs, its facade remains very much preserved -- low relief teak carvings around the building entrance and a protruding second story bay window.
A hundred years later, in a period of diminishing rainforests and skyrocketing costs of rare exotic woods, de Forest has gained a renewed stature, his passion surviving the ebb and flow of design trends.
MAX HENRY lives in New York.