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Books Received

M.A.D. staff | October 13th, 2013

These are brief reviews of books recently sent to us. We have included ordering information for publishers that accept mail, phone, or on-line orders. For other publishers, your local bookstore or mail-order house is the place to look.


American Decoration: A Sense of Place by Thomas Jayne (The Monacelli Press, 2012, 223 pp., hardbound, $50 plus S/H from The Monacelli Press, [www.monacellipress.com] or [212] 229-9925).

“One of the most remarkable aspects of American design is that the diversity of our population encourages the use of virtually every style from traditional to modern, western to Asian, formal to informal,” writes Thomas Jayne in American Decoration: A Sense of Place.

Jayne acknowledges that his education gave him an understanding of English and French design. His studies at the Attingham Summer School in the U.K. made him realize that the scale of American rooms is vastly different from that of their European counterparts. He confesses that spending two years as a Winterthur Fellow proved to him that “an American room is often comparable in beauty, if not scale and enrichment, to its foreign counterpart.”

He reminds us that American decorators from Elsie de Wolfe to Albert Hadley “interpreted French and English taste for the American house.” Jayne started his career with Parish-Hadley. Sister Parish and Albert Hadley were two decorators who often incorporated American furniture and decorations with French and English pieces. He admits his work owes a debt to Henry Francis du Pont’s good taste.

Jayne admires “the sculptural qualities of antiques, their novel shapes and surfaces, which are unmatched by new pieces.” He is not afraid to use classic elements such as established upholstery models or pedestal dining tables in modern interiors. He quotes the words of Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman: “A classic is a classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions; it is a classic because of a certain eternal and impressive freshness.”

Perhaps those who read Jayne’s book and study the pictures of the rooms he designed over the last decades will look at the auction catalogs for upcoming furniture sales with this in mind. Jayne’s book pictures interiors in New England, the South, and the West that show how to use antiques to give a room a sense of place.

A house in Scarsdale, New York, and one in New York City are the only ones he shows furnished almost entirely with American antiques. They are not arranged as period rooms might have been in the 1950’s. These rooms have modern colors and various styles and types of wallpaper, rugs, carpets, and floor clothes, together with some comfortable furniture—even an English piece or two. In a New York town house Jayne combined Anglo-Indian dining chairs, a Georgian table, an English Aesthetic Movement sideboard, and a candelabrum by Louis Comfort Tiffany in a room with 18th-century Chinese wallpaper with birds in flowering trees. This is the new old-fashioned.

In Jayne’s own apartment on the parlor floor of a modest Creole town house built in 1836 in the French Quarter of New Orleans, he incorporated historic elements into contemporary decoration. He uses scenic wallpaper here and in a number of other interiors, inspired, he says, by the way du Pont used them at Winterthur. For his own house, his made-to-order scenic wallpaper, inspired by Modernist drawings from a childhood book, The Story of the Mississippi, forces the perspective to shift around the room above a chair rail, below which the wall is painted bright blue. The room is furnished with Neoclassical furniture popular during the period of the house but out of favor elsewhere. Chinese matting, which was used in American houses for much of the 19th century and early 20th century, covers the floor.

Jayne uses fancier Neoclassical furniture for southern clients and for a house in Dutchess County, New York. He uses pedestal dining tables with Chippendale chairs in several dining rooms but pulls up a set of Portuguese Queen Anne chairs to a blue lacquered Parsons table in the dining room in a Philadelphia town house.

His mantra seems to be that any period goes as long as it has artistic merit, and it doesn’t have to be old. He says his partner, Richmond Ellis, regularly affirms, “If it wasn’t pretty then, it’s probably not pretty now.” That seems to be what the current market is reflecting. In these leaner economic times collectors are demanding good design along with comfort and personal associations. A rich, old surface helps, and it is OK to mix periods.

Jayne does it well. His success is due to his keen eye and his philosophical approach as a historian who considers American decoration simply an expression of a sense of place.

L.S-C.


40 under 40: Craft Futures by Nicholas R. Bell (Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, distributed by Yale University Press, 2012, 260 pp., hardbound, $50 plus S/H from Yale University Press, [http://yalepress.yale.edu] or [800] 405-1619; or from the Smithsonian [www.americanart.si.edu]).

In the foreword, Douglas Coupland, a Canadian novelist who first worked as a visual artist and designer, introduces us to what he calls the “Post Koonsian” world where “if anybody can be an artist, then anything can be art.” Craft, he reminds us, is not art. Craft is skill-based practice by a “creative person [who] has chosen to limit his or her expression to one medium—one medium— in a post-medium world where it is only the idea that is permitted to generate form.” He declares that a museum is missing its mark if it is not showcasing the new.

Nicholas Bell earned a master’s degree from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture in 2008 and since 2009 has served as the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator of American Craft and Decorative Art at the Renwick Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He showcased this moment in the art of craft by curating 40 under 40, an exhibition and accompanying catalog, which also celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Renwick. The Renwick was founded in 1972 as the national crafts gallery in a building across from the White House that once housed the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Coupland contends that the new generation of craft is “skill married with what seems to be critical rigor, decided political stances, and a willingness to let the medium become an overt part of the message…” and as “art objects that deploy craftsmanship as their medium.” In 40 under 40 he finds “a meeting of ideas, materials and soul” and suggests that “in an ever-flattening world of downloaded, non-physical experiences,” the crafted object may logically become “the next dominant wave of modern art.”

Nicholas Bell, as the primary author/editor of the catalog, reminds us that the studio craft movement has history and that there is a conscious shift away from craft’s older core values and traditional practices; these young artists are hoping for acceptance in the mainstream of art. “The blurring of the disciplinary lines within crafts is a trademark of this generation.” The artists refer to themselves as “conceptual metalsmiths,” “cultural planners,” and “socio-commodity engineers.” Bell claims this “hybridity as the new cultural norm.”

Bell points to materials used in new ways. Jamin Uticone weaves traditional baskets of black ash into a tote shaped to carry a laptop; Stacey Lee Webber cuts up old coins and welds them into shovels and hammers representing labor with currency; Melanie Bilenker makes scenes of herself performing everyday tasks using strands of her own hair as line drawings, going beyond the Victorian style of using hair in mourning jewelry; Sabrina A. Gschwandtner appropriated 16-mm films (from the discarded archives of the Fashion Institute of Technology from the 1950’s to 1980’s) and sewed them into translucent quilts hung in windows. Some of the 40 who are under 40 are affected by war or terrorism. Dave Cole offers teddy bears knit from lead and baby clothes knit from Kevlar vests used during the first Gulf War. In his best-known work, Cole rigged up aluminum utility poles as knitting needles attached to excavators to knit a huge acrylic felt American flag.

Bell reports on the meteoric rise of knitting as a pastime among combat troops in Afghanistan and on the home front. He introduces contemporary craft activists and shows how they participate in the broader green movement with recycling and reuse. There are many examples. For instance, peace silk is made without harming the worms, and some use dyes made only from plants.

This generation of makers still has room for the tangibility of things. “Making something from start to finish and daring to enjoy it afterwards are still profound acts in a hyperlinked world,” writes Bell. Then he notes that at a time when “information—our most valuable commodity—is securest in immaterial form,” such as “cloud computing,” it is no surprise that contemporary makers are questioning the necessity of an object, “if the soul of craft lies in the act of creation rather than its evidence.” For example, even though the crocheted pink and blue cover that Olek made in 2010 for the Charging Bull of Wall Street bronze sculpture by Arturo Di Modica and installed at night did not survive a single whole morning because a maintenance worker removed it, the act of making it was caught on video, and New Yorkers got the message that Wall Street needed a warm hug in a time of need. Other artists have used pink yarn as the material of choice for protest craft, where craft is no longer confined to the studio or gallery but taken to the street.

Craft is also interlinked with aspects of the “slow” movement. What erupted as a response to fast food, slow food, which does not harm the environment and supports local food producers, helped rekindle “the authentic,” the idea of connecting place and community. Many of these artists are interested in upcycling, and some involve the public in creation. For example, Joey Foster Ellis’s first 32' high China Tree, made of Chinese porcelain saucepots, string, and LED lights, was put together by Beijing taxi drivers.

Some works invite use that is denied in a museum exhibition (and thus makes its point of tension). Marc Maiorana’s wrought-iron Renwick Gate has iron bars looped over as if they were strings of taffy. Andy Paiko’s working spinning wheel of blown glass, cocobolo, steel, brass, and leather and his seismograph of glass and motors are meant to be used but not necessarily in a museum setting. Jenny Hart’s Braillepillow, a throw cushion with Braille words embroidered with French knots, was made for a museum exhibition where it could not be touched to be read.

Access to new technologies is also affecting craft. As Bell writes, “A design need only be uploaded to its [a 3-D CAD file printing company’s] website and the object will arrive in the mail shortly thereafter.” A prime example is how Joshua DeMonte uses 3-D ink jet printers in university labs and sends designs to larger SLS printing labs to design gypsum/cyanoacrylate bodyware (a.k.a., jewelry of a new order). Bell suggests that we are on the cusp of another industrial revolution. “There may be no need to mass-produce an object for the consumer market if the market fulfills its own needs.”

Then Bell asks, “Is craft necessarily defined by hand making, or can it be defined as the production of bespoke things through individual volition, regardless of process…?” He worries that the individuals who want to express themselves though the production of things may have to become computer programmers/designers removed from the physicality of making. “The point [of who does the making] is simple but crucial: objects come into being through process, and process is delineated by skill. Thus the skilled hand, not the mind, defines the materiality of the final object.”

There is more to this argument, but as a museum curator he must examine craft in all its dimensions: “as traditional art, as aesthetic movements, as political and economic tools, as a means of empowerment, as a kaleidoscope of processes, and, collectively, as a way of living judiciously in a modern world.” He thus assures us that traditional hand arts will survive through our need to understand the past and probably our future.

The work of 40 under 40 does just that. The book is illustrated with several examples of their work and accompanied by short essays about it. Biographies added at the back of the book provide a good survey. Three essays by academics provide more food for thought. Julia Bryan-Wilson, an art history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, writes about “preaching, performance, and process.” Bernard L. Herman, a professor of American studies and folklore at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, offers notes on the uncollectible nature of things, such as a stack of books made of cake, buttercream, fondant, and gum paste, or hand-cultured oysters. Michael Prokopow, on the faculty at OCAD University in Toronto, discusses “craft, creativity and boundlessness in the contemporary field,” noting that “contemporary craft is in a moment of radical flux.” This book shows us how longstanding inequalities between craft and fine arts have diminished. Prokopow suggests that new interpretive models need to be devised.

For those who missed the exhibition, the book provides food for thought and plenty of good illustrations. Those who make it to the Renwick (before it closes in December until early 2016 for renovation) can see some of the works on view on the second floor, alongside some earlier masterpieces of studio crafts.

L.S-C.


Arts and Crafts Embroidery by Laura Euler (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2013, 176 pp., hardbound, $49.99 from Schiffer Publishing, [www.schifferbooks.com] or [610] 593-1777).

In this overview of Arts and Crafts embroidery, one travels from the beginnings of the Arts and Crafts movement to the present day. Euler focuses on the influence and designs of well-known people associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, such as Henry Cole, William Morris, Candace Wheeler, John Henry Dearle, and Gustav Stickley, and on others who may be less well known but were equally important in promoting the movement through embroidery, such as Arthur Lasenby Liberty, Jessie Newbery, Margaret Whiting of the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework, and many more. Euler begins with a brief history of the political and cultural influences that led to the movement and its ideals, and a look at what needlework had been since medieval times. She then introduces William Morris and discusses schools, societies, and companies, and the individuals associated with them.

Over 300 examples of beautiful, eye-catching embroidered pieces are pictured. Patterns from original source books are reproduced. Most of what is illustrated is English, Scottish, or American, along with a few Irish, French, and German examples. It is apparent that Euler appreciates the craft and has researched the topic well. She uses original quotes from newspapers, books, and pamphlets that discussed the work of societies or guilds, that printed critics’ opinions on exhibitions, or that promoted the craft. She has included some biographical information on people, such as birth and death dates and their education, but she mainly focuses on their involvement with embroidery.

The book is well illustrated. There are photos of women working and portraits of the individuals being discussed. The illustrations are on the same page as their text reference and are clearly numbered in the text and captions, thus making the layout a treat for visual learners. A chapter on the silk thread industry in America, a chapter on embroidery on American clothing, a sidebar on the challenge of embroidering figures, and a final chapter on modern-day Arts and Crafts-inspired embroidery round out the informative text. A bibliography and index complete this book, which is recommended for students of the movement, textile historians, and embroidery artists.


American Scissors and Shears: An Antique and Vintage Collectors’ Guide by Philip R. Pankiewicz (Universal Publishers, 2013, 304 pp., softbound, $35.95 plus S/H from Universal Publishers, 23331 Water Circle, Boca Raton, FL 33486-8540; [www.Universal-Publishers.com]).

This guide represents a daunting amount of research on the manufacture of some utilitarian objects that we take for granted: scissors and shears! The two-page table of contents lists by state the manufacturing companies that are included. What follows is historical information on mid- to late 19th-century and early 20th-century U.S. manufacturers and the products they made.

Some companies are featured on a single full page, while others receive three or more pages, depending on how much information there is. Black-and-white photos, line drawings of designs, advertisements, closeup photos of manufacturers’ stamps, and old pictures of factories augment the text. Left out on purpose are surgical scissors, scissors made by silverware manufacturers, and farming or lawn care shears. There are also pages that illustrate and briefly discuss ball-bearing and folding scissors, buttonhole scissors, pinking shears, and wick trimmers. “Mystery Scissors (Candidates for Further Research)” lists companies that have been discovered but about which nothing more is known. An intriguing study for tool enthusiasts, this book would make a great addition to the library of any collector or dealer with interests in small tools, sewing, or American industrial history.


Pictures from a Distant Country: Seeing America through Old Paper Money by Richard Doty (Whitman Publishing, LLC, 2013, 286 pp., hardbound, $24.95 from Whitman Publishing, LLC, [www.whitmanbooks.com] or [800] 546-2995).

The imagery on paper currency is not something the general populace may notice with regularity. When the state quarters program started, it generated a renewed interest in coin design, but generally speaking, currency gets handed over without too much thought about what’s pictured on it, other than to make sure it is the correct amount. This book looks closely at the images on obsolete bank notes and discovers a “new world.”

Before currency was federally issued, private banks and companies issued bank notes, now known as “obsolete bank notes.” The author believes that the number of different images on issued bank notes is in the tens of thousands because issuers changed the imagery slightly about every three years and totally redesigned images about every ten years as a marketing strategy. “The bankers envisioned a broad choice of pictorial design, a host of renditions whose artistry and excellence would distinguish their notes from those of their competitors.”

Doty explores the images thematically, looking at themes of national identity, Native Americans, African-Americans, women, and work, and even whimsical images. He writes in the introduction that these images are “useful for telling the country about itself…where it had been, where it was going, and who was along for the ride.” Throughout the chapters, enlarged portions of the bank notes show off the images clearly and in detail. The 147-page appendix includes the full image of each bank note represented, along with the issuer, city, state, year, and value at the time of issue. All the bank notes are from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Numismatic Collection. An index by state and company helps locate examples in the book.

The introduction explores the history of currency. It explains how the lack of gold and silver in the colonies prompted creativity in settling accounts, and then how the new federal government tried to intervene but failed to provide a workable system of currency, which left the job to private companies.

In each chapter Doty discusses the cultural or historical significance and message of the imagery. Some imply cultural prejudices, such as in the depiction of a Native American sitting and looking puzzled at a white man’s hand plow. The message seems clear; the white man’s ways were superior. Other bank notes show imagery that would be important to a particular state, which, Doty writes, would “establish credibility among…customers.” Historians and numismatists alike may enjoy this book.


Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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