Twenty years ago, you could get lucky and find a chair by Gustav Stickley or a Rookwood vase at a garage sale or flea market.
No more. Today, furniture, metalwork, ceramics and other objects produced during the American arts and crafts movement are the stuff of museum shows. Once sold from catalogues as decorative arts for the American everyman, the honest oak furniture and hammered copper accessories of the early 1900s now belong, if not to the very rich, at least to those who can afford to pay $5,000 for a simple bookcase.
One of the world's premier collections of American arts and crafts--that of local art patron Max Palevsky and wife Jodie Evans--forms the core of a new show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibit, which opens today, is called "American Arts and Crafts: Virtue in Design" and features more than 250 objects, including 20 pieces by Stickley and works by such leading California figures as architect-designers Greene & Greene and metalworker Dirk van Erp.
Palevsky, who made a fortune in electronics, began collecting arts and crafts objects 15 years ago. Already a notable collector of contemporary art at the time, he doesn't recall which oak settle or table first caught his eye, but he remembers where he found it--in a now-defunct shop in Manhattan's SoHo district that was one of the first to specialize in arts and crafts.
Palevsky had grown up with the furniture of Mies van der Rohe and the other masters of the International style. Although the moderns used chrome and other non-traditional materials, Palevsky saw a similar purity of line in the sometimes severe wooden furniture of the arts and crafts movement. "This furniture had the same feel," he said.
By the mid-1980s Palevsky's collection was sufficiently important that he remodeled his Beverly Hills house--one of several he and his wife own--to accommodate and complement it.
When not on exhibit at the museum, a favorite woman's rocker is the sole object in the Palevsky foyer. It was designed by Harvey Ellis, the brilliant but alcoholic architect-designer who introduced floral inlays into the otherwise austere line of Stickley. Other treasured objects in the house include Frank Lloyd Wright's geometric "Tree of Life" windows, which are also in the show. Not that the home is a shrine to arts and crafts. Works by Picasso, Matisse, Donald Judd and other modern artists fill the house, which is also home to the Palevskys' collection of antique Japanese prints.
In 1984, Palevsky approached the museum for help in developing a museum-quality arts and crafts collection, with the aim of eventually donating it to the institution (the Palevskys have given an initial gift of 32 works). Working with museum staffer Leslie Bowman, now curator of decorative arts, Palevsky learned more and more about what he came to see as the closest thing to a genuine American style (although his collection includes related British and European pieces). Bowman was able to help him home in on top-quality pieces. "Some of the early purchases had been heavily restored," he said, citing an example of how museum expertise has helped refine the collection.
Predictably, Palevsky is in the Rolodex of every major auction house. Touring the exhibit before it opened, he showed Bowman a photo sent to him by a prospective seller. It was a piece by Charles Rohlfs, a woodworker who made ornate, whimsical furniture and accessories in Buffalo, N.Y. "It looks like a stewpot," Palevsky joked of the metal bowl atop a curving wooden stand. "It's a jardiniere," Bowman said instantly.
Bowman is exhibition curator and author of the large-format catalogue.
Evans, who has been married to Palevsky for four years, said she quickly learned to love the pieces her husband had collected. "Max's passion is pretty contagious," said Evans, who runs the grief recovery center at Santa Monica Hospital.
Inevitably, the couple's taste has changed over time. As an example of that evolution, Palevsky cites the succession of sideboards in the dining room of their Beverly Hills home. "Our first sideboard was a Stickley. Our second was an early Stickley, and the third one, the one we have now, is an English sideboard by a man named Ashbee."
The Ashbee, with its floral decorations, has an almost feminine quality in contrast to the squared-off lines of the sideboards by Stickley, who had, Palevsky observes, "a very Calvinistic take on design."
As Palevsky explained, the arts and crafts movement began in 19th-Century England as a reform movement, promulgated by writers and artists who saw the Industrial Revolution as a calamity that chained workers to machines spewing out ugly, shoddy goods.
To John Ruskin, William Morris and the other leaders of the movement, handcrafted objects were symbols of a pre-factory Eden in which even the poor lived among functional, beautiful things. To some degree, Palevsky shares that view.