The wood lathe has given the world gingerbread trim, fancy turned stairway balusters, sturdy chair legs and all manner of useful bowls.
But time marches on, and so has lathe-turning--right into the art world. A growing number of collectors are amassing turned-wood items as art objects rather than as articles of daily living.
Wood turning as an art form was part of a craft rebirth that began in the 1950s when James Prestini's beautifully proportioned, thin-walled bowls were shown at New York City's Museum of Modern Art. Bowls combining utility and art made by other modern pioneers such as Ed Moulthrop and Bob Stocksdale also were considered collectible early on.
"The field has moved on," Ronald C. Wornick said. "Many turned-wood pieces today are more like sculpture."
In the past 10 years, Wornick, a San Francisco businessman, and his wife, Anita, have assembled a remarkable collection of more than 400 turned-wood objects by contemporary makers.
Eighty-six of the finest pieces in their collection are on view in an exhibition, "Expressions in Wood: Masterworks From the Wornick Collection," at the American Craft Museum, New York City, through March 22.
A lavishly illustrated catalog (University of Washington Press, $30 softcover) accompanies the exhibit.
Wornick, a wood hobbyist with his own lathe and a technique good enough for an independent curator to have selected one of his pieces for the current exhibition, says he looks at many of the works he owns in awe and amazement. He is not particularly interested in knowing how the maker produced the effect.
"Obsessing on tools obscures what some turners are setting out to do," the collector said. "This exhibition is meant to be a glimpse of where grand masters can take us when they go beyond their tools and make a masterwork."
Wornick made his first acquisition in 1987--it's a myrtle bowl by David Groth of Trinidad, Calif., that looks rather like a spiky flower--and he still regards it as "complete perfection."
A piece by Stephen Hughes of Victoria, Australia, resembles an organdy hat with a wavy brim standing on three delicate legs. Yet another tour de force is by Michelle Holzapfel of Marlboro, Vt. It looks as if a soft scarf has been draped over a wooden bowl.
The Wornick exhibition and catalog exemplify the esteem currently being shown wood-turned art objects, and so does the newfound interest of some galleries.
Barry Friedman Ltd., a gallery in New York specializing in European decorative arts from the first half of the 20th century, is mounting its first exhibition of turned-wood objects with a show of the work of five living artists March 12 through April 25.
An annual gathering of collectors inaugurated last year mustered about 100 people. "I plan to host the next get-together and I have been told to expect 300 or 400 people," Wornick said.
Some collectors resort to warehouse storage when their artworks overrun conventional display space. Not the Wornicks.
"We have them everywhere--guest rooms, bedrooms, on a shelf surrounding the bathtub," Wornick said. "We have redecorated the house countless times to create shelves and display areas for our favorites, which are in rooms where we spend a lot of time.
"My office is also a gallery, and every space in the building from the receptionist area on has lots of beautiful pieces. The ultimate step is a weekend house in the Napa Valley that we have had designed to display the work."