Orange County collectors and homeowners who are exhausted by the "more is more" approach to decorating are turning to furniture and designs of the revived Arts and Crafts movement. Works from this turn-of-the-century movement embraced simple, straightforward designs made of quality material with enduring construction techniques.
Though conceived in Great Britain in 1880, the movement has always been quintessentially Californian. When it held this country in thrall until the Depression, its message was so compelling it brought architects and artisans to Southern California to create straightforward--even humble--designs instead of the gaudy froufrou of the late Victorian period.
Not since then have the furniture, pottery, paintings and other decorative arts of the Arts and Crafts movement seemed such a breath of fresh air.
"To many it may yet be subconscious, but there is a cry among us caught in today's web of high-tech, high-pressure, sophisticated, complicated lives for something simple," says Terry Whitcomb, an Arts and Crafts expert at the University of San Diego. "Somehow having in our homes a few beautifully made possessions placed for their function in an austere environment brings us in touch with essentials we don't want to lose."
Selected pieces from the movement can be seen through May 26 in "The Arts and Crafts Movement in California: 1880-1918," an exhibition Whitcomb curated at the Center for the Study of Decorative Arts in San Juan Capistrano.
Among the Louis C. Tiffany inkwells and Ernest A. Batchelder tiles, the California Faience vases and plein-air paintings, are: a Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass window in his characteristically spare "Prairie School" style; a Gustav Stickley Morris chair with its original, well-worn upholstery, and a rustic Greene and Greene desk impressively carved in clean, Oriental lines.
But the show is not just an ode to the past.
Mining for lost original pieces is hitting pay dirt in Orange County, local examples of the movement's architecture are being renovated here, and artisans and crafts people work today in local design studios rekindling the Arts and Crafts ideal of quality construction with an emphasis on function, using conventional materials.
"Just as (the Arts and Crafts movement) was conceived as a reaction to an underlying distrust of the industrial age, where we're heading is drawing us toward the very same objects," says Leslie Bowman, curator of decorative arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "And with 100 years on them, their comfortable, cozy vernacular seems even more so."
"Arts and Crafts pieces were created with the spirit that everything (in design) should work together--function and form, a house with its surroundings, a vase with the rest of the room," says Eric T. Haskell, a Scripps College, Claremont design expert who will speak on "Japonisme in the Arts and Crafts Movement" in a lecture series given as part of the San Juan Capistrano exhibition. "The whole idea is that of a well-made object fitting perfectly into a well-made universe."
And when that universe is a comfortable living room or relaxing den, the well-made object contributing the warmth, the character and the mood of soothing and informal sophistication may well be a piece of Arts and Crafts.
There's no question we're drawn to the work.
In December, 1988, Barbra Streisand paid $363,000 at Christie's, the New York auction house, for a Stickley sideboard. Her acquisition set a record market price for the movement's sturdy and supremely clean-lined furniture, and her celebrity was the most visible salute to "a pot that's been heating up for 10 years, boiling for about five and now is just about to boil over," according to Ken Roberts, a longtime Brea dealer in early California art and collectibles who recently moved to Palm Springs.
"We're seeing a lot of first-time buyers who finally are becoming familiar with and appreciating the design of the Arts and Crafts period," says John King of Butterfield & Butterfield auctioneers in Los Angeles, which last September held its first sale devoted to furniture and other items of the movement.
Jim Cline of The Great Exchange consignment company in Laguna Beach has also seen these buyers: "We get so many requests for Arts and Crafts pieces that we could never get enough in to fill the demand."
Whitcomb agrees: "Look at the ostentation kick we've been on. Can the houses get any bigger or gaudier? People are trying to get back to what might have been."
In the humble Craftsman bungalow, for example, rows of casement windows would let in the omnipresent western sunshine, sleeping porches would welcome the pure Santa Ana breeze. The garden was integral to their design and these houses' exposed wood beams, natural stone piers and earth-toned finishes spoke of comfort and simplicity, warmth and informality. Examples of Craftsman architecture can be viewed in Laguna Beach at 290 Diamond Way, 2192 Ocean Way, 466 Aster St. and 155 Sunset Terrance.