High chest of drawers designed by John Townsend (1732–1809).
Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Our eye is immediately drawn to the carved mahogany concave and convex shells, fans of radiating flutes, and ribs with lyrical edges that act as dynamic protrusions and recesses across the front of the eighteenth-century desk. This “block-and-shell” design, a unique symbol of our distinctly American aesthetic, was the product of the woodworking titans of one very small region—Rhode Island. The miniature state has historically been given the lion’s share of credit for virtuosity in American decorative arts, and its masterpieces have dominated furniture scholarship as...

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