• U.S.

Design: Handsome and Homemade

8 minute read
J.D. Reed

Like an itinerant artisan of an earlier age, the American Craft Museum has wandered from one temporary space to another over the decades, in need of an adequate and permanent home in which to display the increasing number of diverse, sophisticated and sometimes monumental creations of the country’s craftsmen and -women. This week the roving comes to an end when the museum, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, opens its sleek and spacious new quarters across the street from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The new installation is a cause for cheers among the 33,000 members of the American Craft Council, the body that owns and operates the museum, and for the public too. The facility has set something of a cultural mark as well: it is considered to be New York’s first major condominium museum. To inaugurate the new space, Museum Director Paul Smith has assembled “Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical,” a wide-ranging exhibition of more than 300 pieces of ceramics, jewelry, textiles and woodwork by 286 contemporary American artisans. The show runs in New York through March 22; it will then travel to Denver, Laguna Beach, Calif., Phoenix, Milwaukee, Louisville and Richmond, Va. “Poetry of the Physical” glistens with a surprising uptown-chic patina. It is sure to shock viewers who think of crafts as a matter of candlesnuffers, quilts and weather vanes. The exhibition is rekindling old arguments over such divisions as utility vs. decoration and artist vs. artisan. Smith put together this group of objects produced since 1980 to highlight, he says, “the plurality, the variety of styles and approaches.”

Perhaps the most notable innovation is the fact that the museum owns and controls its own future, a rare condition for a cultural institution, and it does so on some of the nation’s highest-priced real estate. One offshoot of the increasing coziness between the arts and business has been that corporations now offer the use of lobby space in their office towers to cultural establishments. The Whitney Museum of American Art, for instance, displays works in three New York City office buildings. Arts institutions benefit by having highly visible locations; the companies are often allowed zoning easements because of their cultural support. Such deals, however, can be nerve-racking. Companies can borrow back exhibition space and even cancel agreements altogether.

The crafts council has managed to avoid this pitfall with a canny real estate deal. In 1982 a developer agreed to buy the former museum, a cramped brownstone on the present site, to construct the E.F. Hutton office tower. Instead of selling out and shopping for a new home, the council proposed that % it would exchange the land for 18,000 sq. ft. of permanent space in the new tower, 72 ft. of street frontage with a separate entrance, control over its own interior architecture and $750,000 in cash. “It’s very unusual,” says Craft Council Executive Director Norton Berman, “for an arts organization to own its own new facility in midtown Manhattan, free and clear of debt.”

The new museum is a calm and elegant presence on 53rd Street. Fox and Fowle, the New York City architectural firm, has created an airy space within Architect Kevin Roche’s Hutton tower. Although the museum’s facade is faced with the same pinkish granite as the tower, it is free of Roche’s flamboyant touches — mansard roof and lobby fit for the enthronement of pharaohs.

Inside the museum, pale maple floors, terra-cotta tile and fiber matting create a neutral background for the displays. What saves it from being merely one more ocean of architectural white space is a soaring four-story atrium- lobby, dominated by a magnificent oval staircase that leads to the exhibit levels. “What we wanted,” says Smith, “was a simple environment that would be a good backdrop for our exhibits.”

Although one might expect a craft museum to be a kind of citified log cabin with rough walls and hand-hewn doors, the touches here are smooth and understated. With the exception of Furnituremaker James Schriber, creator of the austere maple reception desk, craftsmen were not invited to contribute because, officials felt, their ornamentation might detract from the objects on view. The very presence of the museum, however, adds fuel to a long- standing argument. Its large plate-glass windows offer a tantalizing glimpse of the Museum of Modern Art’s new west wing across the street. What is craft and what is art, the view asks, and what belongs in which museum?

Such questions are intensified by the diversity of “Poetry of the Physical.” “What is American about this show,” says Smith, “is that there is no identifiable national style.” Once craft was considered a handmaiden of art. Artisans made useful or decorative objects to enhance daily life. For American pioneers, making tools and furnishings was a necessity. But the 20th century widened horizons by elevating the craftsman’s role. The Bauhaus influence in America allowed the artisan to become a partner of the architect. Later, the abstract expressionist movement in painting and sculpture, with its emphasis on individual statement, swept through woodshops and pottery studios as well as painters’ ateliers. The show’s organization is a declaration that craft has moved beyond the strictures of the useful and even the decorative. Its four divisions are the Object as Statement, the Object Made for Use, the Object as Vessel and the Object for Personal Adornment.

The latest examples of the utile are handsomely represented. The dark, roughtextured pottery of Karen Karnes is a reminder of why crafts appealed so deeply and directly in the antitech 1960s. An outsize salad bowl, meticulously turned from a single chunk of California black walnut by Bob Stocksdale, is notable for its revelation of the wood’s grain. A fiddleback, hard-rock-maple- and-ebony rocking chair, a fortunate meeting of Copenhagen and Big Sur by California Master Craftsman Sam Maloof, invites the viewer to experience the best of contemporary artifacts while sitting down in comfort. Maloof, 70, bristles at new developments. Younger artisans, he said during a pre-opening tour of the museum, “don’t seem to have any ideas. They work over a piece for two or three years, and they work the soul right out of it.” Replied Potter Karnes, who was standing nearby: “Oh, Sam, they don’t even use words like soul.”

Many craftsmen, young and old, have a different vocabulary and a more idiosyncratic intent. The life-size Three Bicycles by Fumio Yoshimura, for instance, painstakingly carved and laminated in linden wood, down to the chains and pedals, is a joyful piece that greets visitors in the lobby. Purple Violetta Macchia Set with Green Lip Wraps, a sensuous and delicate assemblage by Glassblower Dale Chihuly, takes the vessel to new limits.

Some contributors explore the revelations of art instead of the decorations of craft. Near Maloof ‘s rocker are nine chairs, none of which should be sat upon. One represents a jagged half of an ancient Aegean throne; another sports a sharp-edged projection for a headrest. Three humorous constructions by Alphonse Mattia, Primates, Geometric Valets, are ironic comments on the gentleman’s valet stand, meant to be used when dressing. Woodworker Jon Brooks, who has never made “purely functional” pieces, is represented by a pair of twiggy, seatless pieces called Styx Ladderback Chairs. Brooks sounds more like an art critic than a craftsman when he describes his work as “walking the thin edge between furniture and sculpture.”

The traditional view of craft as one of objects beyond the whims of fashion is also challenged. Some craftsmen are copying interior-decoration fads. A particular favorite is the zany, post-pop, limited-production furniture of Milan-based Memphis, a loose association of designers and architects. It is reassuring, however, that craftsmen honor their materials, whether they be humble clay or plastic laminate, with workmanship beyond that of any assembly line. The flawless pastel perfume bottles by Andrew Magdanz and Susan Shapiro, for instance, will outlast their Miami Vice trendiness. Says Sculptor-Ceramist Peter Shire, whose Hourglass Teapot is a construct of precariously balanced, primary-hued geometric shapes: “There may be a controversy in all this somewhere, but I could really give a damn. We all come from the same place, basically. We all work with our hands.”

“Poetry of the Physical” is an exhibition that cheers with iconoclastic humor and honest energy. It will surely tempt viewers to acquire pieces of their own. But prospective buyers of the objects that will be offered when the museum eventually opens a shop should be warned: the crafts will not come cheap. Rudy Autio, a ceramist from Missoula, Mont., who was in New York to examine the museum last week, echoed the words of a frontier artist. “Like Charlie Russell said,” noted a happy Autio, “I already get dead men’s prices.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com