When Henry and Clara Bryant Ford enjoyed visits from family or a cup of afternoon tea on their Sun Porch at Fair Lane, they may not have considered every detail of the chairs they sat in -- beyond the obvious: They are brown, made of wicker, comfortable and conducive to sitting for long conversations while looking out over the banks of the Rouge River.
But interior designer Leslie Curtis has thought a lot about the chairs – the style, the measurements, the color, the materials -- and why Clara Ford and her interior designer chose those pieces to complete the room at their dream home in Dearborn.
Curtis, owner of Camden, Maine-based Leslie Curtis Designs, is overseeing the replication of the wicker furniture the Fords used at Fair Lane, as the Henry Ford Estate restoration team works to bring the Sun Porch back to the way it looked in 1919.
Style and function
It’s clear, she says, that the Fords were influenced by the trends and style of the time, but also by a desire to keep a house that was very much for living.
“In early 20th century, you didn’t save your parlor for special guests,” she explains. “If there was a lovely view or interesting paintings, the room evolved to become more approachable, more comfortable.”
There’s a quality particular to wicker furniture, says Curtis, where even the most high end pieces have a way of making a room more welcoming. And though the Fords were one of the richest families in the world, they wanted their spaces to be welcoming.
“It seems they were concerned with design and appearances, but I think they were equally concerned with comfort and family and availability,” Curtis says. “People were welcome into their home, and so they made it a ‘home’ and not just a showpiece.”
Craft and care
Curtis specializes in the design of wicker furniture, hand-crafted at her furniture studio in Los Angeles by artisans.
She and the research team at Fair Lane used photographs and videos of the original pieces to create their designs. And, thanks to researchers at Fair Lane, the designers had an advertisement and the actual original receipts for the pieces the Fords bought 100 years ago from the Reedcraft Co. out of Chicago.
Framing and weaving the reeds for the Sun Porch took about 50 hours per piece. Then the artisans lightly sanded the wicker before adding a hand-mixed, custom color tailored for each piece.
“I wanted it to look like it did back then,” she explains, “so there are slight variations in the color.”
A personal touch
Curtis has a personal connection to the Ford family. In 1995 she was asked to make several pieces of furniture for Josephine Ford’s home. The sale grew into a lasting relationship. When Curtis’ son passed away, she received an unexpected note of condolence and support from Josephine Ford. She remains touched by Ford’s kindness and thoughtfulness during that rough time.
“When I got the phone call about this project, I was excited and pleased,” she says, “because in some way I could do something that would be repaying the family.”
As for Curtis’ relationship with historic buildings and design, it’s one she hopes to share with the world through her work on projects like the Fair Lane estate.
“I think it’s important that we acknowledge the value of historic homes, historic buildings and museums, “ she says. “Restoring a home is a beautiful gift. I like that connection to the history of our country and the people who made it what it is today.”
By Jessica Carreras for the Henry Ford Estate-Fair Lane