5 Elements of Primitive Furniture

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When applied to furniture, the term primitive can conjure up images of rickety and useless pieces of furniture but nothing could be further from the truth. Primitive furniture actually refers to simple and unpretentious furniture items that are designed and built for comfort and function.

There are several different styles that can be labeled primitive but all have their roots in early America when life was hard and people had little space in their homes for fancy, non-purposeful items. All of these design styles, primitive, shaker, early American, country, and Amish, have these elements in common:

  • Straight lines
  • Little or no ornamentation
  • Mortise and tenon joints
  • Use of local woods
  • Cane chair seats

Antique primitive furniture

If you are looking for antiques that will add an authentic touch to your country decorating, primitive furniture items can be found in antique stores and at estate sales and flea markets. One of the best sources just might be your own grandmother’s attic. Look for functional pieces that include:

  • Quilt racks that can hold and/or display your prized quilts or other textiles in a bedroom or casual living space
  • Pie safes will add storage to a kitchen, bath, utility space or craft room.
  • Jelly cupboards are a popular item that will add a sense of history to your kitchen storage. Use it in the bath to store extra towels and supplies or in the bedroom for out of season sweaters. It can act as a unique hutch in the dining room or even display collectibles in a corner of the living room.
  • Dry sinks often feature a durable marble top that makes a great pastry and baking center in a country kitchen.
  • Ladderback chairs are a classic look that can be used in any design scheme.
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Seek out pieces that feature handcrafted details such as mortise and tenon joinery, woven cane or rush chair seats and a beautiful hand-rubbed finish that has just improved with age.

Reproduction primitive furniture

While owning “the real thing” is always desirable, it can be expensive and is not always practical. Reproductions will provide you with the primitive country decor you are seeking along with furniture pieces that are affordable and most likely, more durable for everyday use than a valuable antique.

Reproductions can be found in many specialty furniture stores, large retail outlets and even some home discount stores. A local craftsman often creates these reproductions so, to support your neighbors and your local economy, seek out these nearby artists and purchase your reproduction primitive furniture from them.


Wholesale primitive furniture pieces are often available to members of the design trade who can purchase it at a wholesale price and resell it to their clients. These pieces are most likely reproductions but some antique dealers will sell authentic pieces at wholesale to those in the industry.

Design elements of primitive furniture and decor

As we said, most primitive furniture was simple in design with straight lines and little or no ornamentation such as carving, finials, etc. However, early American furniture does feature some specific patterns that appear in chair backs, cupboard doors, etc. Circles, diamond shapes, scrolls and floral patterns such as tulips and roses can be found. These simple designs were relatively easy to create and did not interfere with the primary function of the furniture.

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To add to the authenticity of primitive decor, other design elements can be incorporated. For example:

  • Like furniture, primitive curtains and window treatments are also simple in design. Made of homespun fabrics like unbleached muslin, burlap or linen, these are hung at the window for privacy and light and heat control and are void of any decorative details such as fringe, ruffles, etc.
  • Accessories add personality, color, and texture to any interior space. The primitive decor might include handwoven baskets for storage, large wooden bowls, heavy metal utensils, candlesticks and simple textiles used as blankets, throws and table linens. Hand-carved wooden toys and hand-sewn dolls can also be found and will add a touch of whimsy to these sometimes stark interiors.
  • Women spent the evening hours working on country samplers that were proudly displayed as wall art. Common themes included passages from the Bible, family trees, the alphabet, folk art patterns that celebrated a marriage or birth and other simple designs. A collection of antique samplers creates a stunning wall gallery but you can also make your own with reproduction patterns that are available in specialty shops and from online retailers.

All aspects of primitive design are functional, informal and comfortable, as are the furniture styles that were born from it. These elements can be successfully incorporated into any interior design scheme to create an inviting home that you, your family, and your guests will enjoy.

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