Wednesday, May 20, 2009

We've moved!

After months of calling Blogger our home (and a cozy starter home it has been), we have migrated our blog over to our very own website: So head on over there and check it out!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Eye Level view of Greene & Greene

Here's a drive-by post just to point out that the American Art Museum's blog posted an entry about the Greene & Greene exhibition with a different picture than any of the others I've seen (of furniture no less!) so head on over there and check it out.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

American Picture Frames: Choices by Artists and Collectors

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s website, “Carrie Rebora Barratt is Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, and Manager of The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Last night, however, she was the speaker at the latest edition of the museum’s Collectors’ Roundtable series: American Picture Frames: Choices by Artists and Collectors. She spent a good portion of her time discussing the renovations they have just completed or are starting at the Met, but she did go into some detail about choices that have been made regarding the frame of a very high profile Met painting: Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

The painting was acquired by the Met in 1897. A picture from 1910 shows the painting in a great old frame, but in pictures from 1917, that frame is already gone. That said, the curators weren't satisfied with just their own archival photos and they decided to do some more research.

Further archival research was done to determine the sort of frame that the artist would have preferred to see on the work. The Met turned up pictures from the New York Historical Society that showed the painting the same year it was painted (just after the Civil War) and the wild Federal Revival frame the artist had commissioned for it in a fit of mid-19th century nostalgia. They have commissioned a reproduction of that frame to show in their new galleries starting in 2011. Keep your eyes peeled for this because it’s truly something else—gilded with a huge carved rampant eagle on the top. Here’s a brief story about it from the New York Times that doesn’t have nearly enough pictures.

Though Barratt touched briefly on the craftsmanship required to create such a frame and professed to appreciate frames as works of art in themselves, it seemed clear that at heart, she truly is a paintings person and not so much a craft person. After all, her focus was what the artist would have wanted to see on their picture and not what the framer would have considered most appropriate. And she was fairly dismissive of collectors who change frames to suit their interior design.

This was underscored in a conversation I had with an American Art Museum docent during the reception after the lecture. Apparently getting docents for the American Art portion of the museum is much easier than getting docents for the Renwick. I had been under the perhaps mistaken impression that craft had gained more respect in museum-world than it appears that it has, at least among scholars and docents.

The final lecture of the spring series takes place Tuesday, May 19th when Dr. Walter O. Evans, major collector of African American art will discuss Collecting Outside the Canon.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

CraftWeek DC April 22-26

Local blog DCist has a great post about activities happening during CraftWeek DC, taking place between today, April 22nd and April 26th. Included are studio tours, lectures, a special tour by the curator of the Greene & Greene exhibition at the Renwick and any number of galas and benefits that mainly support the Smithsonian's craft acquisition, research and education programs surrounding contemporary craft.

For fans of Etsy or Sugar Loaf, DC this weekend is going to be a veritable playground.

And don't forget that Hardwood Artisans carries a range of American craft, from Ephraim Faience pottery to Motawi Tileworks decorative tiles to Robert Hargrave's unique sculptural wood clocks and mirrors.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The treasure in our backyard

Having the Smithsonian in our backyard is real gift that most of us take for granted. Not only do we get great exhibitions like the Greene & Greene show I wrote about a few weeks ago, we also have a ton of educational opportunities and experts right nearby.

Take today, for instance. I got an email from a customer wondering what to do about a Nakashima dining table she needs restored. She wanted to know if we could help her with it. Now, we’re pretty good, but we’re not conservators. Though I’ve had a lot of luck having my own flea market finds refinished by our expert finishers, I think even they would hesitate before taking on a Nakashima table.

The reason I knew this was that I went to a Smithsonian program last year about American craft where they gave some auction estimates for Nakashima, Maloof and other modern studio furniture makers’ pieces. Some were, to put it mildly, astronomical and sometimes value can be hurt by refinishing.

So rather than send her the name of our standard refinishing guy and call it a day, I decided to find the phone number for the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian and see if they could recommend someone. Thanks to the Smithsonian’s Twitter person, I got a name and a phone number and met a very nice woman named Julie who put our customer in touch with their conservators. All this took less than half an hour.

So lucky me. I get to make a local phone call the little museum in our backyard and put our customer in touch with some of the foremost furniture conservators in the world.


Nakashima dining table (not the customer's)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Redwood of the East

I was reading an interesting article in the local paper about the American chestnut restoration efforts. The article by Alice Felts, in the Fauquier Times Democrat, discussed efforts by the students, teachers, and arborists to re-introduce a new chestnut tree that is 15/16th’s American chestnut, and 1/16th Asian chestnut. The Asian chestnut was the source of the blight that killed all the American chestnuts. As of this writing, the article was not up on the web.

This introduction seems a bit like allergy treatments. They inject you with a bit of the thing that is the problem so that a natural immunity can occur. The efforts by The American Chestnut Foundation, is very interesting as to how to ever so slightly alter the genetics of the tree to allow it to grow once again. The American chestnut has been described as the “Redwood of the East”, a giant of a tree that created huge eco-systems almost single-handedly. Its nuts fed whole communities of wildlife, and its wood a prime source of naturally rot resistant building material.

I’m thinking I need some chestnuts in my forest………

Friday, April 3, 2009

Livable Modernism

I just finished a book called “Livable Modernism: Interior Decorating and Design During the Great Depression”.

Most people have ideas of the Great Depression drawn from Dorothea Lange photographs of migrant workers, John Steinbeck novels and Annie, the Musical. I know I did before reading this book. The fact is though, 12% of the population at the height of the Great Depression was unemployed, which granted, was horrible for those families that were affected. But that also means that 88% of the population was employed. Perhaps their hours had been cut or they’d taken a lower salary to keep their business afloat, but for the great majority of the country, life remained less changed than we might realize from our vantage point 70 years into the future.

The history of decorative arts is such a fascinating subject. Sure, we can study the Great Depression in history class as kids or in economics class as university students, but textbooks and economics professors generally don’t tell very good stories. For me, one of the most revealing cultural tells is furniture advertising. Take a look at this ad from 1935 for the “Coronado glider”.

Not only does it showcase the aesthetic sensibility of the day (which, sure, may leave a little to be desired to the modern eye), it shows the price (average: around $40) and the tagline: “There’s a Hettrick Glider for Every Purpose and Every Purse”. Though the ad displays a sensitivity to perhaps straightened circumstances, look at the imagery and the language. The “Coronado”: a warm place with beautiful beaches in the promised land of California; the cactus: popular imagining of California from the point of view of the company in Ohio or the advertising agency in New York; a speeding modern metal train: ready to catapult you out of the past and into the future.

But most of all, this is outdoor furniture. This isn’t a bed, a dining room table, a sofa—anything resembling essential furniture in a home. Yet it is priced for a middle class consumer who is budget-conscious, but not unwilling to pay quite a bit of money for what most would consider, even today, to be a fairly frivolous item.

Though Livable Modernism does spend a bit of time chastising the past for its traditional gender roles and the inability or unwillingness of “modern” designers to view the woman’s role in the home as anything other than somewhere between homemaker and servant, which didn’t seem fair to me, it still presents a unique view of a time in our history that most of us probably feel like we know by heart. But, like any good exploration of the history of decorative arts, it shows that we might not know quite as much as we think we do about how our ancestors really lived.