Having shed his sport coat, Gephard Durenberger stood in the middle of the exhibit room with his hands on his hips and a pleased-as-punch grin on his face.
A truckload of 17th- and 18th-Century English and French antiques had just been unloaded at the new Center for the Study of Decorative Arts in San Juan Capistrano and volunteer Patricia Wheeler was asking center director Durenberger what he thought of placing a hanging cupboard in a corner of the room devoted to early English-country antiques and already filling with such treasures as a collection of 18th-Century pewter and porcelain.
"Why not? I'd love it," Durenberger said with characteristic enthusiasm, moving into the next room where volunteer Suzanne Cecil was setting up an exhibit devoted to formal English drawing-room furniture.
"I think this is great," exclaimed Durenberger, grinning mischievously: "See what talent we have here? And these women all charge at least $100 an hour. And look at the quality! People in the East think we (Californians) all have Melmac and junk."
The antiques for the exhibits that Wheeler and Cecil were helping to set up are on loan from 20 California collectors for the center's inaugural exhibition, "California Style: Collectors and Collections." The exhibition, which features two period room settings and five vignettes, opens Tuesday and will run through May 6.
The choice of spotlighting California collections is a fitting one for the new study center, the first of its kind on the West Coast and one that is already being compared to Cooper-Hewitt, the nationally acclaimed decorative arts museum and school in New York.
While Cooper-Hewitt is in an old private mansion, the Center for the Study of Decorative Arts is housed in a uniquely California setting: A compound of early California-style buildings that enclose a tree-shaded patio and fountain.
The rough-hewn, homey atmosphere of the center is an ideal environment for the study of the decorative arts, a term which, as Durenberger explains, "is synonymous with 'home.' "
"It's everything we deal with in our everyday life--furniture, china, textiles, ceramics, silver--including the house and the garden it sits in," he said. "And that's exactly what we're about at the study center: To offer study collections and lectures and classes whereby everyone--and we mean everybody--will have an opportunity to understand better the way we lived in the past and how we can apply those lessons to today and, hopefully, for our future generations."
Located next to the architecturally acclaimed San Juan Capistrano Regional Library on Camino Capistrano, the nonprofit study center includes a fireside reading room and study loft stocked with books and magazines on the decorative arts.
The center is the culmination of 5 years of cultural activities staged at the library by its parent organization, Libros y Artes, a cultural support group for which Durenberger, a longtime Capistrano antique dealer, serves as president.
The study center is also a culmination of sorts for the 52-year-old Durenberger, a summation of both his professional and personal growth since arriving in Orange County from the Midwest in the late 1950s and landing a job as an apprentice with the respected antiquarian Carl Yeakel of Laguna Beach.
Durenberger not only has deeded the quarter-acre study center property to the city--the 4,000 square feet of exhibit space formerly housed his antique shop, which has been moved down the street--but he has been a guiding light in San Juan Capistrano's growing emergence as a cosmopolitan cultural oasis.
Since he joined a group of citizens protesting the proposed installation of a Kentucky Fried Chicken "bucket in the sky" in 1969, Durenberger has devoted a good portion of his time to civic activities. He served as founding president of San Juan Beautiful, president of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society and the south county's representative on the Orange County Historical Commission.
But it is for the Durenberger Series, a series of study tours abroad and lectures on architecture and the decorative arts held at Folie Gep, the Gothic guest house on the grounds of his showcase Capistrano Beach home, that Durenberger sealed his reputation for being what one admirer described as an "evangelist for good taste."
A vibrant personality with boundless energy and contagious enthusiasm, Durenberger is indeed a man of impeccable taste. But "Gep," as his legion of friends call him, remains as unpretentious as his Midwestern roots. He would just as soon be out digging weeds in his back yard or donning the pair of old corduroy pants and work shoes that he brought with him to the center to help set up the exhibition.