Tramp art, a type of woodworking that became popular in the late 1800s, has ebbed and flowed in usage throughout America’s design history. It is thought that it was initially introduced in the 1860s by German and Northern European immigrants traveling the U.S. countryside, although the true origins are unclear. The art form is characterized by notch carvings and is often seen on wooden cigar boxes and picture frames.
This style of art began as a democratic craft, and pieces were constructed from typical waste materials, carved by a penknife, and layered with 3D pieces attached with glue or nails. The craft of tramp art was easily practiced by farmers and laborers. Tramp art was largely produced by adults, predominantly men, but children also created tramp art.
The term "tramp art" comes from the belief that these works of art were made mostly by people experiencing homelessness. While it has since been determined that this is largely untrue, the name "tramp art" has continued to be used, though it should be noted that tramp is an outdated, dehumanizing, and offensive term for describing people who are experiencing homelessness.
During the Great Depression, the tramp art movement grew. Artist John Martin Zubersky crafted tramp art frames with intricate layering, plus sunflower and tulip accents, while John Frank Zadzora was known for his exquisite heart-shaped tramp art mirrors and wall pockets often used by the Pennsylvania Dutch. While the few artists known by name were White men, people of over 40 different ethnicities in the U.S. alone were found to have created tramp art.
More recently, interior designer Ken Fulk came out with a tramp art-inspired line for Pottery Barn, exposing the humble art form to a more mainstream audience. Other contemporary artists include Scott Lim, Angie Dow, Frances Phillips, and Freeland Tana. Furthermore, 1stDibs has published articles on the subject in the last few years.
While tramp art has been seen in varying interiors, from the traditional to the eclectic, Austin-based designer Killy Scheer saw glimpses of it at a recent Round Top Antiques Week.
“Tramp art has been on my radar for a while now because it’s been around for so long,” she says. “I’ve seen it pop up over the years, but I really noticed it at Round Top this year.”
While each year there are certain themes or trends that surface, as well as specific styles that designers gravitate toward, tramp art made multiple appearances throughout the show. This interest was especially evident at collector Amelia Tarbet’s tent; she has been a vendor at Round Top since 2013.
“She always has so many amazing things,” Scheer adds. “Everything she does is memorable.”
Scheer, who has been in the industry for more than 15 years and classifies her style as “restrained minimalism,” has never personally used tramp art in her interior design projects, but she plans to introduce it in the future.
Tramp art has a very specific look and “there is definitely a way to be too heavy-handed with it,” she says. “It’s highly textural and makes a big statement.” Because it’s so impactful, tramp art can be used as the star of a design, or it can work with supporting pieces, depending on the size.
In lieu of pairing multiple tramp art pieces together, the designer suggests getting creative when it comes to usage and cautions paying attention to scale. “You always want to design to create a visual hierarchy and ensure that a piece’s uniqueness isn’t overlooked by something else,” she says.
For instance, tramp art could be easily introduced into a space via a small box on an entryway table for keys or jewelry. “Because tramp art isn’t from a particular era, it can work well with traditional aesthetics, something more modern, and everything in between,” she notes.
"No Idle Hands: The Myths & Meanings Of Tramp Art". Museum Of International Folk Art, 2021, https://www.internationalfolkart.org/exhibition/2834/no-idle-hands-the-myths-meanings-of-tramp-art."