Renwick spotlights free black cabinetmaker who studied the whole room

April 12, 2013

Designing furniture and interiors to express a singular vision is an idea associated with modern architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. But a new exhibit at the Renwick Gallery credits this concept to a free black cabinetmaker, Thomas Day, who ran a successful business in North Carolina during the pre-Civil War decades.

Among Day’s customers were white planters and politicians who bought his furniture and hired him to remodel their antebellum homes in the same neoclassical style.

“Day had the same ability as Wright to think holistically about the architecture, interiors and furniture of a home,” says preservation architect Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is co-author of a book on Day. “His designs are bold, robust, fluid and three-dimensional. They are very different from what you find in other Greek Revival houses of this time.”

Organized by the North Carolina Museum of History, the Renwick exhibit reveals Day’s creative vision through 37 pieces of furniture and photographs of his architectural interiors. The complementary designs make a convincing case for neoclassicism as a rich source of decorative possibilities.

As compelling as his creativity is Day’s personal history. Born in southern Virginia’s Dinwiddie County in 1801, the cabinetmaker learned his trade from his father. Both his parents were free people of color and among the small percentage of African Americans in the South who were not slaves.

While in his 20s, Day moved to Milton, N.C., near the Virginia border and opened his own workshop. Success came as he met the gentry’s demand for high-style furnishings resembling those made in Philadelphia and New York.

Day owned a home, a shop, a farm and even slaves — 14 of them, according to the 1850 Census. By then, his cabinet shop had become the largest in the state.

His design inspiration came from pattern books, but Day used sensuously curved shapes to give his work personality. Often decorated with scroll motifs, his sideboards, secretaries, tables and shelving “what-nots” exude both strength and playfulness.

Many of Day’s pieces have a practical side that resonates today. Chairs with cutouts in their backrests, easily disassembled wardrobes and a pint-size commode for tots are designed to be moved from room to room.

Day’s expressive neoclassicism became more idiosyncratic when prosperous planters hired him to create architectural elements throughout their new homes. Between 1834 and 1861, he fabricated woodwork for about 80 houses.

These curvaceous designs include newel posts carved into exaggerated S-shapes and undulated pilasters around doorways. Some of his fireplace mantels and archways are detailed to resemble the open pages of a book.

Among Day’s few nonresidential commissions were pews for Milton Presbyterian Church in North Carolina. The craftsman accepted the job on the condition that he and his family could sit among the white congregants. The church accepted the Days as full members, and the pastor gave the cabinetmaker a Bible.

That Bible now belongs to Thomas Baker Day, a dermatologist and descendant of the cabinetmaker, and his wife, Donna. The empty nesters, who live in Columbia, are among the few collectors of Day furniture in the area. They own two tables and a sofa made by their ancestor.

“It’s the way he used mahogany that stands out for me,” says Donna Day. “He achieved quality craftsmanship and details without having what is available today in terms of furniture-making.”

In the exhibit, videos of woodworking demonstrations show how the 19th-century cabinetmaker would have created the pieces using such tools as the spring-pole lathe and treadle saw.

Despite his wealthy clientele, Day’s business began failing in the late 1850s when a banking crisis shook the nation and legislation restricted the activities of blacks in the state. Some of his last designs were for David S. Reid, a governor of North Carolina, whose patronage of Day is evident throughout the exhibit.

But this commission wasn’t enough to save Day from financial ruin. The cabinetmaker died bankrupt in 1861, the same year the Civil War began.

Leimenstoll hopes the Renwick exhibit will broaden the appreciation of Day’s legacy and prompt visitors to think differently about their own homes. “It might encourage people to be less timid in how they combine furnishings with woodwork in a more holistic way.”

Dietsch is a freelance writer.

“Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color,” is on view through July 28 at the Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Ave. at 17th St. NW.

Free admission. Call 202-633-7970

for museum information or visit www.americanart.si.edu for more details.

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