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The Desk Set

The furniture and pieces Elbert Hubbard made popular in the early 1900s stand the test of time.

July 19, 1997|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This isn't the functional-but-boring stuff you can get at Office Depot or Staples. In the arty setting of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, these pieces are meant to inspire thoughts of the good-ol' days when a great-looking chair or desk was expected to last until, well, men visited Mars.

The show is called "Roycroft Desktop," and it fills a few small rooms at the Fullerton museum. What you'll find are furniture items, most designed for the study or office of the early 1900s--well-formed desks, stylish chairs, copper and brass inkwells, bookends and lamps.

The exhibit conjures a turn-of-the-century cool: solemn guys with mutton-chops smoking pipes in their libraries while reading a leather-bound book or a business ledger.

"The stuff takes you back in time and looks super, really because of the loving workmanship," said Brea resident Harold Linney, a recent visitor. "You think about how excellent [homes must have looked] with these pieces in them . . . they're substantial, really something."

All the items are products of what is now called the Roycroft community, founded in 1895 in East Aurora, N.Y., by Elbert Hubbard, a leader in the period's Arts and Crafts Movement and one of the era's true characters.

Hubbard, who looks a little wild-eyed under his shaggy hair in the photos displayed at the Muckenthaler, had a dream--part Bohemia and part pure business. Like many Americans at the time, he wanted to make pots and pots of money.

But he also wanted to create literature and art. He spent part of his time publishing a series of widely circulated magazines, but he mostly oversaw the Roycroft community, which produced the company's furniture.

Both ventures were profitable and made Hubbard a wealthy man.

"Hubbard was an outrageous character in many respects, not the least was his physical appearance, a mixture of high-art dandyism . . . and American cowboy," said John L. Vanco, the director of the Erie (N.Y.) Art Museum and author of the exhibit's lengthy catalog.

"Hubbard remains unique today when weirdness counts, let alone in 1900 when conformity was king. . . . Hubbard's flamboyant persona and his success as a promoter alienated many of his contemporaries, especially those for whom outstanding artistic ability did not translate into financial and organizational success."

Much of that success came from the New York compound, where artisans worked on the furniture while embracing Hubbard's call for a utopia where commerce and aesthetics could be combined. According to Vanco, the items were selling decently by 1897, and Roycroft Shops, or outlets, opened in major cities throughout the East over the next several years.

To promote the business, and espouse his views on everything from American politics to the joys of baseball, Hubbard circulated such magazines as the Fra (described by Hubbard as "a journal of affirmation"), the Philistine and Little Journeys. He frequently spoke on women's rights, female suffrage and equal pay for equal work. The articles were full of homespun Hubbardisms, like "God must dearly love the fools, otherwise he would not have made so many of them," and "To escape criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing."

Mingled with the aphorisms were ads for his furniture. In fact, Hubbard was considered something of an advertising pioneer, according to Vanco.

"Hubbard was the consummate salesman," he said. "He sold [Roycroft] products along with Gillette razors [and] Cleveland Railway Stock. . . . He was an innovator and led the way in developing coupons and giveaways and direct-mail marketing."

When Hubbard died in 1915 aboard the Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat, his business was booming. It continued to grow once son Elbert (Bert) Hubbard II took over. But the good times slowed during the Great Depression and eventually stopped in 1938, when a gradual drop in quality and lagging interest closed the shops and the East Aurora plant.

What remains are the pieces, most now in collectors' hands. Items that sold for a handful of dollars in 1900 now go for several hundred, even thousands. All carry the distinctive Roycroft brand, an almost calligraphic design in which a cross with four branches intersects a circle containing a stylized R.

The more interesting furniture is described by Vanco as borrowing from the Viennese Sezession design movement, a precursor to the more familiar Art Deco.

That influence can be seen at just about every turn at the Muckenthaler. Hard-edged geometrics are softened by spirals, ovals and other more delicate and fanciful patterns. Some pieces--including pen trays, bud vases, stationery holders, blotters, calendars and candlesticks--are almost elaborate in their decorations. Others are more simple and less adorned.

"What appeals to me is how beautiful the wood and metal work is," said Carol Simmons, who came to the exhibit from Fullerton with her husband, Robert. "I don't think I'd call them art objects, but they do look special to me."

Robert Simmons agreed, but for another reason.

"Sure, they have style, but I can appreciate how sturdy they seem. I do some crafting with wood myself [and] can see the care in these. You just know that these are going to be around for along time."

*

The Roycroft Desktop exhibit continues through Aug 17 and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.. Cost is $2 for adults, $1 for seniors and students. The Muckenthaler is at 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton. (714) 7380-6595.

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