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DECOR : Bird Cages Are Set Free From Routine Usage

June 12, 1993|From Associated Press

"People see my bird cages and say, 'Oh, you keep birds.'

"I tell them, 'No, I keep bird cages.' "

Leslie Garisto has a small rustic cage filled with dried hydrangeas hanging from a lavender ribbon in the kitchen. In the dining room, a bird cage sits on a table in front of a lace-curtained window. In her daughter's room, a tiny rustic cage hangs from the ceiling on a moire ribbon.

Garisto of Nutley, N.J., is author of the "Birdcage Book: Antique Birdcages for the Contemporary Collector" (Simon & Schuster, 1992, $20). She says bird cages-- sans bird--are turning up as wall and tabletop decor and as an ornament suspended from the ceiling.

Bird cages provide unexpected pleasure when used in these unconventional ways.

"They throw shadows on the wall, and the shadows change as the light changes," Garisto says.

Her book pictures bird cages in a variety of settings. Often, ivy or other greenery is twined among the bars of a flat-backed cage hanging on a wall. A large bird cage or several small ones in front of a window can obscure an unsightly view without cutting off daylight. Some people collect miniature cages, which they display together.

Garisto dates the current fascination with bird cages to the early 1980s, piqued by an interest in Victoriana and romantic interiors. Part of the trend called for garden room accessories throughout the house.

Bird cages are meant to corral the birds yet keep them in view. Thus most have bars, though some are scrolled. Wood, wire, brass and wicker are the most common materials.

As for shape, domes, peaked roofs and simple cubes are most common, but anything is game, including copies of Notre Dame Cathedral and the Taj Mahal.

"There are bird cages shaped like a woman's form, Noah's ark and a cello," Garisto says.

Seldom do decorative cages house birds. If bird cage collectors also keep birds, they normally put them in modern cages which are roomier, easier to clean and made of nontoxic materials.

During the 18th-Century reign of Chinese Emperor Ch'ien-lung, a bird fancier, Chinese artisans created domed cages of silver and other precious metals and exotic materials such as bamboo, tortoise shell, buffalo horn and ivory, Garisto says.

In 1450, long before she financed Columbus, Queen Isabella of Spain paid somebody 40 pieces of pewter to paint her bird cages. By the 18th Century, keeping exotic birds was limited to the wealthy classes of England and Europe. It worked its way down to the middle classes by the mid-19th Century, and a bird cage was often a focal point in a parlor. Wire and wicker models sturdy enough to be moved between house and garden were mass-produced.

Many of the antique cages are in museums today. The Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design in New York has a particularly fine collection, according to Garisto. Cages also come up at auction, commanding thousands of dollars.

Reproductions are widely available. A copy of a bird cage made by English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale, for example, is sold via mail order by the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del. The original is on display at the museum. Inexpensive rustic cages that duplicate old styles can be found in crafts shops and straw markets.

If you must have an antique, late 19th-Century cages are the most plentiful. Garisto offers guidelines on how to separate antiques from reproductions. A highly ornamented old-looking cage that costs only a few hundred dollars is almost certainly a reproduction. Bamboo and wicker cages, even those that look beat up, are rarely old. Because they're so fragile, few old ones have survived in one piece.

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