11:30 on this Saturday morning, the parking lot
of Richmond's Showplace Exhibition Center is nearly
full. Indeed, given its impossibly large size, it
should be considered full already. Cars circle around
and around, their drivers refusing to accept the
prospect of a long walk from the back rows. But
time is working against them. Inside, nearly two
hundred antiques dealers have set up booths, and
each one contains something unique, something that
might slip away forever, if the car isn't parked
Eventually, the balance is decided.
The pull is too great. Cars are parked in the back,
people emerge and race, perhaps unconsciously, against
the others who, like them, have to cross the long
lot before seeking gratification through objects
of the past.
for all its sprawling size, the Showplace produces
only the low-level hum a large room must produce
when it holds so many largely silent people. Their
silence is peculiar—there are few smiles,
but they don't appear unhappy. Actually, for lack
of a better word, they look concerned. Or possibly
determined. Concerned about finding that perfect
something, perhaps, or concerned with taking in
so much information in so little space (most of
the booths aren't much larger than a '57 Chevy,
bumper to bumper), or just determined not to telegraph
too much interest before prices are negotiated.
The audience is generally cross-over:
a few yuppies, a few lower-middle class, and a lot
of mother-daughter teams in both categories. Indeed,
the number of mother-daughter teams is staggering.
Like everyone else, they say little, but they look
comfortable enough. For the equivalent bonding on
the male side, you'd have to watch fathers and sons
at hunting clubs—guns lowered but ready, the
eyes scanning bushes for the kill.
Showplace will not receive any design awards. Its
floors are cement, its lighting fluorescent. It's
up to the dealers to set the mood for their wares.
The range in booth set-ups is as various as the
goods they contain. Some are nothing more than simple,
cloth-covered tables. Others are elaborate, homey
areas defined by big rugs, screens, embroidery,
prints and mirrors.
The set-ups seem largely determined
by their wares. The Victorian booths are naturally
the most elaborate. The booths selling country pine
and golden oak pieces could be described as quaint,
cute or claustrophobic, depending on one's tastes.
Almost everyone builds walls around their booths.
One dealer does it with a bookcase, another with
a pegboard stand.
Near the front (in fact,
it's the first booth you see coming in), Nancy
Hunt's booth is exemplary for its coordination
of booth-style and furniture. Hunt sells American
Arts and Crafts furniture, pottery, metalwork
and linen from the early 1900s, and, as you might
expect, her set-up is understated but well-proportioned
(which briefly but accurately describes the Arts
and Crafts movement in general—click
to read "The Arts & Crafts Movement: A
Short History of a Brief Era.").
Two low tables covered with a
black fabric are used to define the booth's back
and inner walls. Along the side table are set two
cases of Mexican jewelry; on the back table rests
a three-tiered pedestal on which are arranged twenty-six
pieces of Arts and Crafts pottery (prices range
from a $25 Paul Revere saucer to a $395 Grueby bowl
to a $875 artist-signed Rookwood vase). Also on
the back table is an assortment of Arts and Crafts
accessories: a leather purse from the turn of the
century ($68), a Trent tile (ca. 1900, $28), an
original Roycroft poster (December 1895, $295 framed,
$195 unframed), a box of tiny leather books ($5.50
each) and a pair of Roycroft copper bookends ($195).
On the floor in front of the tables
is a red Oriental rug on which sits a signed L.
& J.G. Stickley rocker ($895) and a signed L.
& J.G. clip-corner tea table ($1550). The table's
top has been refinished, but because smaller Arts
and Crafts pieces are rare, the price is good. (In
an appropriately Darwinian way, smaller pieces tended
to suffer more abuse than larger, less-easily moved
pieces, and hence fewer have survived. Ironically,
this increases their value, which would run contrary
to evolutionary theory, but not economic theory.)
first glance, the rocker is remarkable chiefly for
one feature: it is unremarkable. Or rather, it seems
to be it. For many of the people who walk up to
the rocker and give it a nudge, there is probably
no vocabulary to describe its understated form.
To remark, there must be features to be remarked
upon. And, at first glance, the rocker seems to
That, I suspect, is why so many
people give it a nudge: they want to see it rock,
to make it do something familiar, something which
will declare it to be a familiar object. When the
French architect Le Corbusier exhibited his modern
house at the Exposition Internationale des Arts
Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925,
it also went unremarked, largely because there seemed
to be so little to it—a plain, white box that
held a few pieces of cheap, mass-produced furniture.
Though Le Corbusier's modernism and the Arts and
Crafts movement were a generation apart and are
markedly different in their construction philosophy,
they share one important quality: they overwhelmed
viewers with their simplicity and stripped-down
Of course, in 1925 Le Corbusier's
design was new. The Stickley rocker, and most other
examples of the Arts and Crafts movement, are now
over eighty-five years old. So why does it strike
so many shoppers as unusual?
if we were to transport the rocker from the Showplace
and put it back into its proper context—the
furnished Arts and Crafts home—it would once
again feel familiar—and comfortable. Its stern
lines would be softened by linen pillows, linen
and muslin curtains, and warm, geometrically patterned
rugs. Arts and Crafts interiors are a delicate balance
between simple lines and comfortable textures. Take
away one and you'll miss the effect altogether.
"The pottery and metalwork," Hunt points
out, "are really important. The subtle play
of color and the organic ornament and the structure
of the piece is the basis of Arts and Crafts design."
If we look past the rocker's simple
lines, though, we discover a level of sophistication
not often found in more obviously ostentatious furniture.
Let's begin, as an example, with its color—deep
red-brown. It is quiet and mellow, yet rich and,
if such a thing is possible in furniture, wise.
It seems to present its age gracefully, as if it
were the exalted elder in a Confucian household.
This effect, it should be noted, is not accidental.
To give the oak an aged appearance,
the Stickleys (and many of the better Arts and Crafts
manufacturers) exposed the unfinished wood to vats
of ammonia in large tents. The ammonia acts on the
tannic acids in the wood and mellows it. (The process
is called fuming.) The Stickleys' intent was to
make their furniture seem aged fresh off the carpenter's
bench. (This was in keeping with the demand for
antique finishes that had its roots in the Gothic
Revival and English Arts and Crafts movement of
the mid- to late-nineteenth century.)
Then there's the rocker's design:
a plain leather spring cushion (L. & J.G. Stickley
were the first to incorporate automobile spring
cushions into their furniture), low, unadorned arms,
an unpadded, subtly curved back defined by a handful
of broad, vertical slats. Like the best examples
of Arts and Crafts furniture, it is ultimately a
study in proportion, and despite intuitive expectations,
its simplicity makes successful execution all the
more difficult. "It takes a lot to pull off
something simple," Hunt says. "When you're
looking at a piece that's well-designed, the proportions
seem to fit. You can get a very high-style eighteenth
or even nineteenth century chair, but to me, it
just doesn't feel comfortable to live with. It takes
a little more knowledge to understand what the Stickley
rocker is about."
Finally, there is the rocker's
construction. The arms are attached in the front
with mortises and tenons (that is, the vertical
support actually extrudes through the arm, rather
than being held from the bottom with screws), and
the most-stressed joints are held in place by pin
construction. This rocker is unusual in that the
top rail on the back is held in place by two dowels—an
extra measure of security.
As Hunt points out, the pinned
construction and mortise-and-tenon joinery ultimately
add to the rocker's aesthetic qualities. "The
structural elements," she says, "are the
heavy, stable manufacturing methods used in the
Arts and Crafts movement were, like their fumed
finishes, a conscious evocation of the sturdy work
of the medieval guilds. Gustav Stickley, the elder
Stickley brother who is largely responsible for
making Arts and Crafts an American phenomenon, was—like
many practitioners of both English and American
Arts and Crafts—a socialist who saw himself
as something of an evangelist, striving to improve
lives through improved home environments. The rocker—like
the embroidered pillows and curtains, the table
scarves, rugs and pottery—was, ultimately,
merely a means to a higher good: namely, comfort
and respite from a troubled world.
This is one of the things that
makes Arts and Crafts so inviting to antiques collectors:
it was, from its very inception, a call to completeness.
Catalogs of the period sell everything from linen
curtains to rugs to lamps to bookends, as well as
furniture for every room of the house. Gustav Stickley
himself was adamant in his call for the 'whole'
Arts and Crafts home, whose harmony of wood, wall
colors and accessories would, he said, improve the
quality of our lives with "a genuine, homelike
What was true nearly a hundred
years ago is still true today—and collectors
who have caught the Arts and Crafts bug find that
its call for harmony and completeness is best pursued
with what we would, in our best clinical manner,
of the people who approach Hunt's booth are regulars.
For them, the rocker's secrets are an open book.
Some engage Hunt in extended discussions about the
movement. One man lingers for five minutes to discuss
the glazing methods used on Arts and Crafts pottery.
Others muse over the jewelry—they're the sort
who buy jewelry, so a case of it to them is like
a pot of honey to bees: it attracts terrifically.
At one point, a couple—well-dressed,
both in their early forties—strolls up and
begins chatting with Hunt casually. Then they turn
their attention to the pottery. The man's eye is
caught by a small vase. After a moment, he picks
the piece up and balances it delicately in his palm,
as if it were a butterfly or a tea cup in a Japanese
tea ceremony. He shows the piece to his wife, who
seems decidedly less enthusiastic but nonetheless
willing. Moments later, a check is written, the
vase is wrapped, and the couple walk away, happy.
The level of contentment shown
in the exchange—by the husband, particularly—is
rarely seen outside of antique shows, I think. Henry
James referred to it as "the amusement in seeking,"
but the attraction is stronger than this. Or rather,
if there is amusement in seeking, there is also
an intense thrill in acquiring something new for
herself acknowledges that collecting can have an
addictive quality, but she shys away from a word
like "obsessive." "Once you get hooked,"
she admits, "you just can't..." She lets
her voice trail off for a moment. "And a lot
of times, when your house is full, you'll trade
But that word "obsessive"
doesn't sit right with her. She prefers to call
it "a fun diversion." When asked if she
would stop collecting if it were the only way to
cure her of a mysterious cancer, she's quick to
"Of course I could stop,"
she says, laughing. "But I wouldn't want to.
It's too much fun. I mean, it isn't a sickness or
something. It's a little bit of a bug, is what it
is. It's not terminal.
"You have to realize,"
she continues, more seriously, "that you're
talking to a dealer. This is my livelihood. So a
lot of the people I know want to talk about Arts
and Crafts. I've got other interests as well. But
being a dealer tends to be more of a primary focus.
In all honesty, my clients have got a lot going
on in their lives. Now there are some people known
in the industry for whom collecting is their life.
But it's just furniture, after all," she says,
laughing. "Ultimately, that's what it is."
Watching the faces of buyers circulating
around the Showplace, one has to wonder.
to the Come-Packt Furniture Company Catalogue
a better understanding of how this highly coveted
interior was presented to perspective turn-of-the-century
buyers, let's look for a moment at a catalog illustration
of the time. It appeared in a Come-Pakt catalog
advertising inexpensive Arts and Crafts furniture
that could be ordered partly-assembled (at the time,
shipping rates were based on the space a parcel
occupied rather than its weight).
The illustration shows us a typical
if rather rich Arts and Crafts interior: a large
room with a high ceiling, richly patterned rugs
and elaborate woodwork, it attracts us largely because
of its warm ambiance. Now look at the family using
the room: the husband sits on the far side of the
library table with his back turned so that the lamp
casts light on his newspaper. The chair he sits
in is a large, heavy, comfortable Morris chair—just
the sort of thing a man who's worked a long day
would like to come home to (according to a Gustav
ad). Notice also that the library table divides
him from the two children who play, presumably quietly,
behind him. The man, it seems, is in a miniature
study of his own—a quiet retreat offering
salvation from the long work day.
The wife, in the meantime, has
taken an intermediary post at the table's end, between
her husband and her children. She is sitting in
a rocker which, one immediately notices, is slightly
smaller and less comfortable than her husband's
Morris chair. The back is unpadded and its seat
is presumably harder than the Morris chair's. Still,
the couple and their children seem happily settled
into a quiet night together. And this is perhaps
the illustration's most affecting quality: its sense
Here, it exclaims, is a home where
the interior not merely fits the family's needs
but makes them cohere in a harmonious, warm sense
If, in today's world of the single-parent
family, such offerings seduce us, we shouldn't be
let's look again at the illustration. Consider its
lighting: only a single table lamp casts light for
the family's work area. Though it was typical for
its time, such an underlit environment might strike
us today, from within our well-lit, light-colored
interiors as rather severe and stark.
As the illustration suggests,
Arts and Crafts interiors favor dark-wood wainscoting,
dark wallpaper and dark paints, dark-wood built-in
bookcases and drawers (reducing the need to move
heavy furniture when cleaning) as well as low-level
lighting. (Edmund Wilson dubbed the years between
the Civil War and the 1920s 'the brown decades'
for good reason.) But consider how appealing the
illustration is. This setting—dark colors
with low lighting—is well-suited for a warm,
homey style of living. In fact, lighting was a critical
issue at the turn of the century, when electrical
lighting began replacing gaslights and candles,
and Arts and Crafts lamps produce a beautiful, golden
ambiance that must have made the transition to electricity
more palatable for eyes accustomed to low lighting.
Indeed, far from being the white-walled
minimalism of Le Corbusier and the modernists, Arts
and Crafts homes are today readily familiar and
comfortable. Of course, there is an undeniably inviting
quality to the properly furnished home, and if comfort
is a universal principle (and it may not be), individuals
from any era would appreciate it. But for us today,
in the middle of an Arts and Crafts renaissance,
its popularity has been brought about first by a
series of significant museum shows and then an increasingly
prominent role in Hollywood and Madison Avenue.
Indeed, Arts and Crafts environments
have become iconic in some areas, particularly as
warm, feel-good settings for commercials. Among
Hollywood's more prominent collectors are Bruce
Willis, Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand and
Richard Gere. (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle
remains the most thoroughly Arts-and-Crafts-dominated
movie, and NBC's "Mad About You" gets
the nod for largest collection of Arts and Crafts
furniture, though much of it is reproduction.)
Prices, correspondingly, have
gone up. And up. And up. Where, twenty years ago,
Arts and Crafts furniture could be bought at yard
sales for next to nothing, even common pieces have
begun to set auction records. Indeed, many of the
hautier antiques shows have lifted their ban on
pieces less than a hundred years old to accommodate
Arts and Crafts furniture.
the end of the show, though, Hunt has not sold the
Stickley rocker or table. She's sold a lot of jewelry
and pottery, but, uncharacteristically, the furniture
hasn't moved well. As she points out, though, the
country's biggest annual Arts and Crafts event—the
Grove Park Inn's Arts and Crafts Conference, held
in Ashville, North Carolina—is just a few
weeks away, and people are probably saving their
money for the trip south.
And there, she knows, the crowds
will gather, prices will be negotiated, and the
pursuit of a lost (or imagined) past will continue.
And when the perfect piece is found, the amusement
in seeking will again transform itself into something