Egret and crab

Friday, May 11, 2012


I have been thinking a bit about style of late. And fashion as it relates to the decorative arts. I am in a business where shifting tastes can put an ardent devotee on his or her own destitute deserted island, so it pays for us to keep on our toes and make the right bets. It is possible to misjudge the duration of a trend and end up swimming against the current in the stale detritus of a fading age.

When I was young the word antique summoned an image of something victorian. Victoriana became death in the market at some point and very difficult to sell. Before that empire, soon after that colonial revival and eastlake. The excess of victoriana was smacked right in the teeth by the revolution against ornamentation that was called by the colloquial expression mission or arts and crafts, a child of spanish mission style and 14th century dutch farmhouse furniture with its exposed keys and tenons. This whole design style had the briefest of days in the sun and was not to be revisited for another sixty odd years.

In regard to this aesthetic motif, material and workmanship became paramount, gaudy ornamentation verboten, adopting an aesthetic tempered by the fire of the guilds and decorative gods of England, Ruskin, Ashbee and Morris, championing the handwork of the individual against the insidious industrial machine. Which oddly found its own place later in the cubic sensibilities of bauhaus, itself a product of evil designs for malthusian working housing.

The rather heavy weight and machismo of arts and crafts eventually slimmed down a tad and got lighter on its feet with the work of the brilliant alcoholic designer Harvey Ellis, who worked for Stickley for a very short time before he slipped into eventual oblivion. Vertical elements were tapered and shrunk and his sometimes bowed stiles evoked a Fleischer like sense of humour under Harvey.

I remember reading a furniture book from the nineteens that snidely derided the arts and crafts movement as a bastard amalgamation of this and that. Ghetto trash. Next thing you know Barbara Streisand is spending millions on the stuff. The patrician mantique establishment hated the populist or egalitarian undertones of the movement. It's ascendence was preceded and sometimes segued into older nouveau movement which morphed into secessionism in Germany and Austria, also known as jugendstil as well as the more florid english arts and crafts movement.

Nouveau, with its sinewy tendrils and elegant line died a natural death both under its slight pretension and own weight and the ascendance of the next thing, which turned out to be art deco. Jazz, flappers, hip flasks, more fun. Suffragette city. Instead of a reliance on nature's forms for inspiration in deco its adherents now celebrated the machine and the new budding age of technology and motion.

Nouveau came back on the scene in the 1960's, in the work of Stanley Mouse and Bill Ogden and other members of the wonderful psychedelic schools. I was talking to a big  conventional poster dealer I know the other day and she says that she rarely sells any nouveau posters anymore, any Lautrecs, Cheret's or Mucha's, it just doesn't really resonate with the youth today. Things just don't stay hip for ever.

There is a great scene in Patrick Dennis's 1930's era book Auntie Mame where Mame is talking about those dreadful Tiffany lamps with all the bats and spiders on them. I always laughed at the passage. There was a definite departure in the thirties.Because these lamps that were selling for a million dollars a few years ago were being given away for peanuts for a large part of the last century. Now the market is getting tough again. Tastes change. And recycle, morphing slightly with each new rebirth and iteration.

I could do a scholarly dissertation and trace the lines of arts and crafts into its descendent modernism but will spare you. And finish up by once more invoking the supreme rule of the collecting business that I like to call Robert's rule since I came up with it in some long forgotten epiphany. The rule goes like this. People reject the art of their parents and embrace the art of their grandparents.

When I got an idea about what I thought design cool was, the people that were leaving this mortal coil did their collecting in the teens through the thirties, my grandfather's generation. A fertile time full of deco and the revivals, mediterranean, spanish, italianate, gothic, mission, WPA. There was a lot of great material. Lots of great paintings. They even paid artists to paint in the Works Progress times, hired them all over the place.

Now we run into a problem today. The mid century, for all the glamour bestowed upon it by madmen, was a pretty vacant period for the decorative arts. Unless melmac and banlon come back. And the truth is that we seem to be regurgitating the most godawful artifacts of the modern period, from Parzinger, Dickinson and Dunbar to boomerang tables. The truly great artists of the fifties and sixties work was and is exceedingly expensive, Nakashima, Esherick and Maloof to name a few. Most people's parents couldn't afford a Ruscha or a Diebenkorn or an Arneson, even if they were hip enough to know what one actually was.

I love all design periods but have to admit to being only a grudging modernist. It is a flavor of the week thing now at the modernism shows, horrific seventies now becoming hip, white shag and cork and  horrid lamps not fit for a Ramada Inn. Just because something was once created doesn't mean it's not an abomination and that it is worthy of eventual resuscitation. Some of the work is just plain terrible.

But modernism was a definite aesthetic departure. Sam Maloof used to buy Indian rugs from me that no one else wanted but he loved. Wide Ruins and Chinle's in dissonant and vulgar tones of pink and ochre and coral. He and Millard Sheets, his one time boss, and the Scripps artists had ventured into a radically different palette and rules of engagement and had made a conscious decision to leave the past behind. Took me a while to see what a genius and trailblazer he really was.

I also notice fewer and fewer kids and older and older dealers at the shows, as hand crafted work in metal, wood or painted canvas has less and less resonation with kids born in a world formed of plastic and metal and the latest electric toy. Antique shops are closing all over the country as ebay and horrible material and lack of interest take their toll. Ce'st la vie. A new generation born on over sweetened breakfast cereal and too much television that has the attention span of a hyperlink.

My trajectory has been in more of a classical direction the last five years, feeling more comfortable in the 18th and 19th century than a present I have to pretend to like or understand. Jarre wall sculptures and Nelson and all of this stuff that feels so synthetic and cold to me. But that's just me. I was talking about this general subject with a friend a few weeks ago and we came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as important art, high art or low art or antiques and objects d'art. In a certain sense, everything is visceral and everything is decorative at some level.

A couple in their twenties walked into my store the other day and started laughing at an old sony discman near my P.A. "My dad had one of those," he explained in wonder. The one thing they appreciated for being old and I didn't even realize what a find I really had in the old walkman. Only thing they could relate to. Could have cared less about the rest of the contents of my store. I guess I come from a different age.

I have watched a lot of collecting waves come and go in my years in the business. China, porcelain, sterling, Sascha Brastoff, Bauer, bakelite, the mexican silver boom, Fahrner, cookie jars, Loetz, Pillin, Rolex bubble backs, Griswold, Roycoft, Heinz, the list goes on and on. Each generation creates its own fads. So as dealers we sometimes find ourselves tying our rope to a specific dock only to untie our  rope when that boat maybe leaves the shore, maybe never to be seen again. Tying and untying, trying to stay a step ahead and keep food on the table. It can be a real problem, especially trying to read the future when you wake up one morning and maybe find out that everybody suddenly stopped caring.

So I guess the moral of the story for those of us hardy souls still in the business, is that make sure that you really like it when you buy it cause you just might have it for a very long time.


MC. said...

Great article. Very universal. These observations can apply to just about any realm of life.

Anonymous said...

"...we came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as important art, high art or low art or antiques and objects d'art. In a certain sense, everything is visceral and everything is decorative at some level." You just summed up the world's MFA programs and the entire contents of aesthetic theory right there.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed your post on the state and history of the business. Very
well said.

Great picture of Leslie. l haven't seen her in a long time. I forgot how
much I like that smile.