The summer after my mission I got a job restoring Mormon pine furniture. Over the course of its life, the furniture had been painted many, many times. My job was to painstakingly remove layers of later paint with an exacto knife and Q-tip swabs soaked in paint thinner while leaving the original layer of paint unharmed. It was very slow work — generally no more than a few square inches a day — and it involved breathing in a lot of toxic fumes.
The isolation, chemicals, and slow but steady pace gave me lots of time to think with the furniture as I worked. Pioneer Mormon pine hasn’t achieved the popularity of antique Shaker furniture, but it has enjoyed a modest amount of interest in recent years. From my father, I learned that most of this furniture was produced in the 1870s and 1880s in United Order co-operatives in Utah, mainly in Brigham City, as I recall. The furniture was made from the local (mainly white) pine from the Wasatch Mountains, and then painted in a process known as hand graining to look as though it was made from expensive hard wood — maple, oak, mahogany, etc. Today, the appeal of the furniture among antique buyers lies in a sense of rustic, pioneer purity. As a result, the paint gets stripped off and the furniture is displayed with the bare pine. The original goal, however, was not rustic purity but as close a copy as possible to the modern and fashionable furniture being turned out by the new factories in Michigan.
The other irony of Mormon pine is the timing of its production. There were furniture makers in Utah from at least the time that Brigham Young (a furniture maker) rode into the Salt Lake Valley in July of 1847. Most of our surviving “Mormon pine” however was made rather late, and came from the United Order factories. These factories, in turn, were not constructed until after the completion of the transcontinental railroad had dramatically slashed the transportation costs from the Michigan factories. In other words, most Mormon pine furniture was produced for tastes that were decisively influenced by Eastern styles at a time when economic logic pointed toward buying directly from the East. (This is a bit of a simplification, of course. Even with falling transportation costs, pine painted to look like oak was still cheaper than actual oak.)
Which leads us to a question: What is Mormon about Mormon pine furniture? Despite the efforts of some to argue the contrary, there is really not much in the way of stylistic innovation in Mormon pine furniture. Unlike the Shakers, the Mormons never developed a distinctive look to their furniture. Hand graining is an venerable craft, and the Mormons produced no real innovations there. And yet the more that you learn about the furniture the more that it becomes clear that there is something undeniably Mormon about it. Its Mormoness lies not in its style but in its story. The furniture sits right at the intersection of the confrontation of Mormon economic communitarianism with industrialized economic liberalism. Furthermore, it instantiates the odd mixture of quixotic resistance (United Orders against the railroads) and pragmatic adaptation (the furniture was tailored to appeal to Eastern-influenced tastes) that characterized (and I think still characterizes) the Mormon confrontation with the world.
So is Mormon pine furniture an aesthetic failure or an aesthetic triumph? If we think of art as the inspired and novel creation of a heroic genius, then Mormon pine furniture is going to be banal and derivative. If we think of art as a purely stylistic experience then Mormon pine furniture probably doesn’t even exist, since it is virtually impossible to identify it using stylistic criteria. And yet the furniture is powerfully evocative of a story and a theology (Zion), and the not-inconsiderable craftsmanship that went into its production was quite literally consecrated for its creation. I would submit that the furniture is powerful and successful Mormon art, but it is art that defies most of our stereotypical notions of art — particularly those that we inherit from Romanticism — and requires that we approach it through the categories of Mormon history and doctrine.