The revival of interest in the Arts & Crafts movement has been in full swing for more than 30 years now—almost the amount of time I’ve been a collector. In fact, I puff up with pride when people read my name tag at the annual Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Conference and see that I’ve been a regular attendee since 1988.
Does this mean that my Arts & Crafts collection will someday go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Probably not. I started collecting back when I was 15 years old, which means I matured as the Arts & Crafts antiques market did. In my case, maturity meant knowing when to contribute toward the mortgage and when to splurge on a double-oval Limbert occasional table.
I may not have the table, but I do have the experience of being part of a revival that has lasted longer than the original movement itself. The biggest difference in collecting Arts & Crafts now as opposed to 20 years ago is that today, the word “Mission” is part of most people’s design vocabulary. Acquaintances no longer ask me if my Stickley Morris chair is an “early electric chair.” And resources are plentiful—books, auctions, articles, eBay, online retailers, and experienced dealers are all out there and ready to help you find your collecting niche. Personally, I like to group today’s Arts & Crafts enthusiasts into three categories: connoisseurs, history lovers, and modern-day stylists.
Collector Profile: Connoisseur
Mike Witt, co-owner of Boston’s JMW Gallery, describes connoisseurs as “seekers of the rare and wonderful.” They recognize the art in the craft and can argue that the best pieces produced in the Arts & Crafts era hold their own among the artistic achievements of the 20th century. At this level of collecting, investment potential and market conditions come into play, but the adage “buy what you like” still holds true.
The concept reminds me of a man who approached an art pottery expert in the heady collecting days of the 1980s, interested in investing in a very expensive piece of Teco pottery. He really wanted to buy that pot, but fear marked his sweaty brow. He asked the lecturer, “Is that a good investment? Will Teco appreciate the most of any art pottery?” The lecturer tried to persuade the man that he should buy Teco because he loves Teco, not for profit. “Put your money in stocks if you’re only looking at the investment potential,” was the advice.
In light of the current state of the stock market, I wonder if the man wisely purchased the Teco piece. Prices for Arts & Crafts pottery and prints seem to have risen most aggressively, while furniture has stabilized. Perhaps this is due to crossover interest from those who collect pottery or prints from all time periods. Pots and prints also have the advantage of being small. Charles Todd, a pottery collector for more than 30 years, lives with 700 ceramic pieces. “I can always find a place for a new vase,” he says. “On the other hand, I only have room for one Arts & Crafts settle.”
Collector Profile: History Lover
I once had a brush with being a connoisseur-level collector when I purchased an expensive piece of incised Marblehead pottery. That pot drove me crazy—I would glance at it from time to time on the shelf in the living room. It seemed to whisper, “I cost a lot of money, and I’m highly breakable.” Once I sold the vase, a wave of relief washed over me.
Instead, I’ve found my niche as a history lover. My collecting is serendipitous. I will acquire anything in an Arts & Crafts style that is well-made and moderately affordable. Sometimes I get lucky, like when I found a Grueby vase for $2 at a church rummage sale. That one sits on my shelf and says, “I’m lovely—and remember, you only paid $2 for me.”
There can be a bit of the romantic in a history collector. I may appreciate the fabulous design of a reproduction Mackintosh chair, but I’m more likely to purchase a chair produced in 1910 by a Grand Rapids furniture factory. I picture a 1910 lady doing her evening sewing while sitting in my armless rocker. I don’t shy away from pieces with nicks and scratches, because they tell a story. (Not to mention, I can add my own nicks and scratches without having a heart attack.)
History collectors also can enjoy Arts & Crafts pieces on a purely intellectual level. The philosophy that produced the Arts & Crafts style is what keeps the period endlessly interesting. Books and articles from the time discuss Utopian communities, socialism, the morality of beauty, the simplification of form and function, and the breakdown of class and social roles. These are fascinating articles to read; also entertaining are the period advertisements for fake leather wall treatments or paints touting their high lead content.
Collector Profile: Modern-Day Stylist
These days, I believe many new collectors are being drawn to the field because of the mainstream appreciation for Arts & Crafts architectural features. Gone are the days when bungalows were termed “village colonials” by the real-estate ads—people across the country now value Foursquares and bungalows in their own right. Many current architects are incorporating Arts & Crafts features such as shed dormers, stone fireplaces, grouped windows, and natural shingle exteriors into new homes.
A couple in my town told me they were just discovering Arts & Crafts. They’d heard I was a collector, and they invited me to their newly built home. I was surprised to see strong Arts & Crafts elements throughout, such as shoulder-height wainscoting in the dining room, spindled banisters, and copper hardware. The couple was making forays onto eBay to acquire some period pieces and wanted my advice. I launched into a lengthy explanation of the differences in corbel lengths between early and mid-production L. & J.G. Stickley chairs. They smiled politely and somewhat blankly: Those nuances weren’t important to them. They just needed some sympathetic furniture to fit their home—reproductions were fine, too. No period rug would fill their 30′ x 40′ living room, so they bought a new carpet woven with a Voysey-inspired design. It looked wonderful.
Today’s collectors also are willing to mix it up a bit. I love the juxtaposition of Mission oak with modern paintings or Arts & Crafts pottery grouped on a Danish Modern teak table. In fact, this kind of eclectic approach was probably common during the original Arts & Crafts period. As author, historian, and interior designer Paul Duchscherer points out, “We may imagine people in the 1910s living in a pristine Arts & Crafts environment, but those pure expressions were more often found in the idealized renderings of furniture catalogs. People bought pieces to mix with the furniture they already owned.” Whether you mix it in, live up to its ideals, reinterpret it, or lovingly preserve it, enjoy all that Arts & Crafts offers. It can be incorporated into our lives on many levels. If the past 30 years have proved anything, it’s that Arts & Crafts is here to stay.
Barbara Rhines is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who specializes in housing issues, architectural history, and collecting.Old-House Journal January/February 2009