By Laura Beach
MILWAUKEE, WIS. — It has been a decade since Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee published its premier issue of American Furniture. Since then, readers have been treated to a wide variety of articles intended to enlighten, entertain and even provoke.
“…Our goal is to make American Furniturethe journal of record for its subject,” wrote editor Luke Beckerdite, who has since welcomed to his pages a generally harmonious, if disparate, collection of voices. The work of professors, curators, dealers and collectors published in American Furniturereflects what is exceptional about the field, our field: it is, and always has been, a partnership between public and private, for-profit and charitable enterprise.
A fresh, new volume of American Furniturehas just arrived in bookstores and on websites, but it is worth remembering and acknowledging some of the best work of recent years. Three volumes, especially — 1995, 1997 and 1999 — come to mind. American Furniture 1995, co-edited by Beckerdite and William Hosley, looked at regionalism, particularly in the study of New England furniture. It included outstanding essays by Hosley, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Philip Zea, Edward S. Cooke, Jr, Kevin M. Sweeney and Neil D. Kamil. Just as rising prices confirmed a burgeoning interest among collectors, American Furniture 1997 shed light on Southern furniture, publishing the work of another group scholars — among them John Bivins, J. Thomas Savage, Sumpter Priddy III, Ronald Hurst, Wallace Gusler, and Anne McPherson — now much better known on the national stage. American Furniture 1999 returned to Rhode Island, a cradle of early scholarship, to offer breakthrough research by Wendy Cooper, Tara Gleason and others on the arts and crafts of not only Newport, but Providence.
“American Furniture studies have changed dramatically since the publication in 1891 of Irving W. Lyon’s Colonial Furniture of New England,” Beckerdite wrote in 1993. Thanks to American Furniture, they are changing still.
American Furniture 2002
Five essays in American Furniture 2002are examples of meticulous sleuthing by authors who, through close study of artifacts and documents, enhance our understanding of finite topics. Perhaps more interesting are several essays that look beyond objects themselves to the cultural circumstances that created these pieces, and to the values and motivations that continue to shape the way we collect, evaluate and display antiques.
Jonathan Prown and Katherine Hemple Prown invoke Sir Christopher Hill’s 1972 observation, “History has to be rewritten in every generation because, although the past does not change, the present does….” Scholars who do not challenge dated assumptions have failed themselves and their public, the Prowns and several other essayists suggest.
From a market perspective, the most breathtaking of these essays is “Furniture Fakes in the Chipstone Collection.” As authors Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller write, Stanley and Polly Stone of Wisconsin began collecting American furniture in 1946. By 1975, they, like most major collectors of their generation, had purchased objects meant to deceive. After the death of her husband, Polly Stone and the couple’s Milwaukee-based foundation, Chipstone, showed courage in publicly exposing these fraudulent pieces. There would be far fewer fakes if others were so brave.
“The prevalence and persistence of fakery are intimately linked to the demands and expectations in the marketplace…,” observe Beckerdite and Miller, who offer a methodical analysis that is both technically brilliant and unflinching in its conclusions. In their illustrated argument, the experts dismantle upholstered armchairs (one of the most commonly faked types of seating furniture); card tables; an oval table and candlestands; dressing tables; and a Boston desk-and-bookcase with disguised repairs. Their tips on physical clues and ploys fakers often resort to make for fascinating and valuable reading.
The fraudulent pieces were the work of a small group of fakers practicing from the 1940s to the 1980s, say the authors, who pointedly refrain from identifying the culprits. For the curious, a look at American Furniture at Chipstone, 1984, will reveal the prominent dealer, now deceased, who sold the Stones the fakes. If the authors know the cabinetmaker by name, they do not say. Our own queries to dealers and conservators prompted speculation but provided no definitive answers.
The Prowns’ essay, “The Quiet Canon: Tradition and Exclusion in American Furniture Scholarship,” takes the broadest view of all the essays in this volume. The authors question the validity and purpose of current scholarship that, out of touch with contemporary scholarly perspectives in the humanities, makes use of interpretative paradigms created to meet the needs of museum more than a century ago.
The Prowns identify the opening of the American Wing in 1924 as “the defining moment in the historiography of American decorative arts interpretation.” At its most overt, the American Wing and similar installations “sought to expose the public to the refined tastes and lofty principles of colonial elites.” Just below the surface, say the authors, were imbedded pernicious assumptions about race, gender and class.
Similar biases, now mostly corrected, existed in American literary and historical theory of the time. But while scholars in those fields have updated their approach, furniture studies seem intractably conservative, mired in jargon and numbing to the general public. The status quo needs to change or be abandoned altogether, write the Prowns, who recommend a transdisciplinary approach to studying furniture that incorporates contemporary models from other areas of cultural study.
New installations of American decorative arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum have served as a laboratory for putting the Prowns’ theories to practice. Rather than observing the “time-honored strategy of teaching the distinctive stylistic, structural and regional features that distinguish one group of early American furniture from another,” curators there took a thematic approach, looking for “continuities rather than ruptures,” as literary critic Jane Tompkins put it, among objects that are diverse in traditional criteria such as age and origin.
The Prowns value objects not for their formal attributes, or their adherence to received notions of good taste, but for what they tell us about the past. Within the museum world at large, the so-called material-culture approach has not caught on in a big way, perhaps because it is difficult to do well.
In his seamless essay, “The Politics of the Caned Chair,” Glenn Adamson provides a near-perfect example of a material-culture analysis. He begins with the wry observation that curators are often accused of elitism in the sorts of objects they study and display, yet they do it for a good reason: these upper-class fineries “seem to have more to say.” Caned chairs, made in the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Century for the middle class, are an exception, says Adamson. Assimilating a wide range of source material, he delves into the history of the cane chair in England before turning his attention to 30 examples made in Boston. The chairs, he concludes, “occupy a complex position in furniture history. They are structurally simple objects, but extremely complicated texts”; they are “representations of fashionability itself.”
Peter Follansbee also comments on the historical biases that color scholarship in “Manuscripts, Marks and Material Culture: Sources for Understanding the Joiner’s Trade in Seventeenth Century America.” Follansbee discounts the romantic, early Twentieth Century notion that craftsmen valued creative self-fulfillment above all else. Discussing tools, materials, patrons and makers, he shows that craftsmen’s lives were “far more challenging than we imagine today.”
Several well-crafted essays redefine specific topics. In “The Claypoole Family of Joiners of Philadelphia: Their Legacy and the Context of Their Work,” Andrew Brunk sifts through documentary evidence on three joiners — Joseph Claypoole and his sons, Josiah and George Claypoole — in the interest of forming a clearer picture of the late Baroque or Queen Anne style in Philadelphia. As Brunk explains, the scarcity of dated pieces from this period has “prevented scholars from developing a chronology of forms and stylistic conventions….”
In “Pennsylvania Clouded Limestone: Its Quarrying, Processing and Use in the Stone Cutting, Furniture and Architectural Trades,” R. Curt Chinnici offers details that will aid experts in the identification and restoration of Philadelphia’s marble-ornamented furniture and buildings of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
In “An Early Cupboard Fragment from the Harvard Joinery Tradition,” Robert F. Trent, here with co-author Michael Podmaniczky, continues his impressive scholarship in the area of Seventeenth Century Massachusetts furniture.
Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, in a lengthy study of several generations of the Lloyd family of Maryland, makes an interesting argument that family assemblages have more to say than institutional collections because they are “the result of choices made over and over by individuals with different tastes, aspirations and attitudes about historical value and family identity.”
There are some blunt book reviews. An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur Museum,Wendy Cooper’s catalog to accompany the 2002 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, gets a thumbs down from Kenneth L. Ames. “It is a pretty book and very enjoyable to leaf through. Reading it is another matter,” writes the Bard Graduate Center scholar, who calls the work “superficial, simplistic and unfocused.”
Glenn Adamson draws a sharp contrast between The Furniture of Sam Maloofby Jeremy Adamson and Made in Oakland: The Furniture of Garry Knox Bennettby Ursula Ilse-Neumann. “Maloof and Bennett are antithetical in both personality and style,” the reviewer writes. So, apparently, are the books. Adamson praises The Furniture of Sam Maloofas an “authoritative” if “somewhat old-fashioned” study, but criticizes the author for failing to come to a critical conclusion. Made in Oakland”also achieves a pleasant indeterminate complexity.” In the latter, contributor Arthur Danto’s observations are breezy and entertaining; Edward S. Cooke, Jr’s essay is “a welcome about-face from Danto’s overreaching.”
Clive Edward’s Encyclopedia of Furniture Materials, Trades and Techniquesand Witold Rybczynski’s One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdrivercompares volumes that could hardly be more different. Reviewer Gerald W.R. Ward calls One Good Turn”the kind of book perhaps only an established and well-known author could get published” and regrets that the Rybczynski did not spend a few hours with a curator or conservator, “who could have brought him up to speed.” Nevertheless, he concludes, “it is always a pleasure to follow the thought process of a great scholar, and Rybczynski doesn’t disappoint.”
Each year, American Furnitureincludes an admirably complete list of recent publications. Compiled by Gerald W.R. Ward, the ecumenical selection surveys books, cataloges and articles, academic and otherwise, published between 2001 and 2002.
American Furniture 2002. Edited by Luke Beckerdite, with contributions from Allen M. Taylor, Luke Beckerdite, Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, Alan Miller, R. Curt Chinnici, Peter Follansbee, Andrew Brunk, Glenn Adamson, Jonathan Prown, Katherine Hemple Prown, Robert Trent, Michael Podmaniczky, Gerald W.R. Ward, David Wood, Robert C. Cheney and Kenneth L. Ames. Published by the Chipstone Foundation, Milwaukee; distributed by University Press of New England, 37 Lafayette St., Lebanon, N.H. 03766. (603) 643-7710; 289 pages, $55 softcover. Back issues of American Furniture are also available from 1994-2001 for $55 each. A two year subscription for current issues can be purchased for $100, a three year subscription for $145.