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Breathing New Life Into a Century-Old Art

Two-day show and sale reflects a growing interest in handmade, Arts and Crafts-style furnishings.

March 29, 2000|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In our technology-driven and throwaway culture, it may seem that craftsmanship and originality are dead. In reality--or perhaps in rebellion--the furniture world is seeing a revival of the Arts and Crafts movement that flourished at the turn of the 20th century.

Many of these modern-day craftsmen are flourishing now in California, but, like their counterparts throughout the country, they are a fragmented group and work largely in isolation. Knowledge of their work--referred to variously as "art furnishings," "studio furniture" or "functional art"--is largely by word of mouth.

"In part its popularity is a revival of the earlier Arts and Crafts movement, but now we are also seeing Asian and Celtic and other overtones of globalization," said art furnishings enthusiast Joanne MacDonald.

Providing evidence of this revival in craftsmanship, the "Art Furnishings Show"--for which MacDonald is co-producer--returns to Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on Saturday and Sunday. Billed as "an event for those who live creatively," the second annual show includes 90 artisans exhibiting and selling the tables, chairs, lamps, rugs and other accessories they have created.

"This is a show that increases the accessibility of the public to the designer-craftsman," MacDonald said. "It's not a trade show where you have to present a resale license and it's not a traditional crafts show. It fills that in-between niche."

Exhibitors, mostly from California but also representing other Western states, will include makers of furniture and accessories for the home, office and garden, and architects who design furniture. The show also allows furniture makers to network and to meet the end-users of their products. For the home decorator, it's a chance to see pieces that are unique or, at the most, made in limited quantity.

"Nothing is mass-produced," said MacDonald. "We're encouraging people to think about alternatives for their home--instead of going to mainstream stores like Pottery Barn. Yes, you pay more for these kinds of things, but you get more."

There are two major art furnishings shows on the East Coast (Philadelphia and Providence, R.I.); MacDonald and co-producer Nancy Peck think theirs is a first for the West Coast. "We have noticed that East Coast artists seem to be more organized," said MacDonald. "They belong to guilds and go to arts and crafts shows on a regular basis. Here a lot of artists work in isolation."

Stephen Clerico of the Furniture Society in Free Union, Va., agrees that the Santa Monica show suggests a growing interest in original furniture. His group will have an outreach booth at the show. "We were almost the last of the crafts to organize," said Clerico. "We formed the society four years ago to advance the art of furniture making. It's not about mass-produced furniture--it's about individual artists and craftsmen."

MacDonald and Peck both moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s and met at a newcomers' group, where they discovered a shared interest in the growing world of functional art.

The two formed Peck, MacDonald & Associates Inc., headquartered in Westlake Village, and started putting together a show. They advertised for entries in crafts publications, combed through the guild handbook for names and notified organizations such as the American Crafts Council.

"We knew these artists were around, but we had no idea how many," said MacDonald. They eventually ended up with "60 brave souls who took a chance on a first-year show."

They also didn't know how large the audience would be, she said. But their first show attracted about 2,000 visitors, who proved to be sophisticated shoppers.

"They bought unusual lighting, and when shopping for furniture they were looking at the finishes and the designs of the woods with a really good eye," said MacDonald.

This year they are hoping for between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors and, she said, have fine-tuned their standards, rejecting products that don't look marketable (such as "motorcycle-gang neon art") or looked too Southwestern, such as a deer head with antlers intact.

In addition to indoor and outdoor furniture, the products include floor coverings, architectural glass, ceramics, quilts, pillows, tile work and decorative accessories.

The show can be previewed at their Web site, http://www.artfurnishings.com. Samples of the unusual artistry include Deborah Goldhaft's sandblasted glass tables and lamps, Daniel Oberti's sundials and fountains inspired by trips to Egypt and Crete, and Robert Gauthier's lathe-turned vessels of exotic woods. Karen Silton of Los Angeles creates hand-painted earthenware which has attracted collectors worldwide, and Barbara Butler of San Francisco carves and stains one-of-a-kind furniture for children and adults.

Clerico of the Furniture Society says he hopes to recruit new members this weekend. The current membership, which includes collectors and writers but is largely composed of designer-makers, is approaching 1,000, he said, with almost 200 located in California. "We publish an annual resource directory listing our members and identifying museums and galleries that carry their work."

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"Art Furnishings Show," Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Admission, $6; Information: (805) 778-1584.

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