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Carving out a name for a master designer

Samuel McIntire's ornamental objects at PEM

SALEM - Samuel McIntire was a man with an eye for the latest vogue.

He lived two centuries ago, from 1757 to 1811 to be exact, but like some architects of today, he had a gift for catching and riding the wave of a new style. It was a skill that helped make him a star architect and interior designer, one of America's first.

McIntire is now the subject of a major exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in his old hometown of Salem.

McIntire is best known as an architect, one of those who worked principally in the sophisticated style known as Federal. His houses in Salem are the source of his fame. But this show comes at him from a slightly different angle. The title is "Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style." This is a show of the master designer's work not as an architect but as an ornamental woodcarver.

The carvings are fascinating, full of vernacular energy and craft. But what makes the show a success is the skill with which the curator, PEM's Dean Lahikainen, places them in the larger context of McIntire's world and the clients he served.

Those clients were the rapidly rising wealthy families of Salem, in the brief period when it was one of America's major ports. Like the Vanderbilts of a later era, the Derbys, Pingrees, and other Salem families engaged in a sort of contest to see who could trump the others with the newest, most fashionable, most elegantly ornamented mansion.

In the course of satisfying that desire, McIntire, who began as a homebuilder working for his father, developed into a decorator and architect who moved smoothly from the bold, sometimes heavy Georgian style of the 18th century to the far lighter, more elegant, so-called Federal and Regency styles of the early 19th. Whatever McIntire did, he did beautifully.

There are 209 objects in this generous show. There are chairs, mirrors, mantels, highboys, every kind of interior furnishing or ornament. There are crisp, clear ink-and-watercolor drawings this self-taught draftsman made of his designs. We notice the repeated themes that so often underlie McIntire's carvings: patriotism, for example, in the many eagles and the carved portraits of George Washington. Or plenty, as in the cornucopias and sheaves of grain.

Like any kingpin of fashion, McIntire lived by the media. The media were different then, of course, but their role was similar. McIntire's media were pattern books, volumes of the latest styles in architecture and furniture as those styles were emerging in the trendy Old World centers, particularly London. McIntire's library was found to contain six such books, and he had access to many more.

Most creative people are sponges. McIntire soaked up influences everywhere: from ancient Greece and Rome, from the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, and from his Boston contemporary Charles Bulfinch. Both Bulfinch and McIntire, however, share a single major source, the Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), famed especially for his interiors. What we Americans call Federal style (because it arrived at about the same time as our federal Constitution), the Brits still call Adam style. It's a manner characterized by smooth painted surfaces with flat, attenuated details that often look thin and stretched, with sources in classical architecture, usually ancient Greek.

Federal and Adam are a kind of deliberate understatement by which rich Bostonians and Salemites and Brits sought to show they were just a little more civilized than the previous generation, with its beefier, richly textured Georgian. A distinguishing difference between the two is the bold semicircular fanlights over Georgian front doors, versus the flatter, more delicate Federal ones.

PEM owns a number of McIntire houses in Salem, and it's possible to follow the march of styles by looking at them. His Peirce-Nichols house of 1782, in particular, is a sort of lecture on interior architecture. It's a fine example of Georgian, but McIntire returned in 1801 and remodeled the east parlor in his later Federal style. Earlier this year, the parlor was restored, and you can see the change in style from the old rooms to the new one. The Peirce-Nichols isn't exactly part of the PEM "Carving" exhibit, but it well could be. It's now open on Thursdays and Saturdays, from 1 p.m.-3 p.m.

PEM has come up with a winner. Wall panels and videos are concise and informative. Even sound has been thought of: McIntire-era music plays unobtrusively in the background. My only real complaint is that the skylights above the galleries are closed. Maybe that's necessary for conservation of the artworks, but I couldn't help remembering these same second-floor galleries, by architect Moshe Safdie, as they looked last summer when sunlight floated down to the canvases of the fine "Painting the New England Summer" exhibit. As at PEM's recent, gloomy Joseph Cornell show, the galleries are not permitted to add anything to the McIntire exhibit.

Robert Campbell, the Globe's architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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