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Arts and Crafts furniture now designed with comfort in mind

Saturday, October 07, 2000

By Patricia Sheridan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

B arbra Streisand has sometimes been credited with single-handedly reviving the Arts and Crafts movement in America. But for true aficionados, the simple, solid furnishings have always deserved star treatment.

Arts and Crafts chair and ottoman from American Furniture Co. sell for $3,285 and $1,299 at Perlora. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Proving the point were the fans that gathered last week at the Perlora furniture store on the South Side for a lecture/reception on the subject by Dennis Blankemeyer, a scholar of the period and president and owner of the American Furnishings Co.

"I'd say it was about 1988 that the movement was rediscovered by consumers, and Barbra Streisand's influence on that is mixed, with a little bit of myth and reality," he said.

Arts and Crafts, also known as Craftsman and Mission in this country, reigned from the 1890s through the 1920s. The movement started in Europe as a backlash to the Industrial Revolution and evolved into a philosophy of simple, well-crafted pieces that were elevated to a fine art. The furnishings, which included pottery and textiles, were beginning to enjoy a higher profile when the singer/actress purchased a Stickley sideboard for a phenomenal amount of money.

"At that time, the price she paid, which I think was something like $350,000, was unheard of for that particular style," Blankemeyer said. "This definitely brought about a certain awareness."

It also motivated lovers of the look to search for less expensive alternatives to the antiques. In 1996, Blankemeyer, a trained architect, started his company for that reason.

"My wife Denise and I have always liked the style of the Arts and Crafts movement, but when we went searching for it, we found the prices extremely high," he recalled.

They soon discovered a wealth of talent among independent American craftsman.

"They were doing wonderful work in small shops using superior wood selections," he said.

He now buys from them and sells these completely hand-crafted objects from his store in Columbus, Ohio, where he also does design work.

 
 
For more information


American Furnishings Co., call 1-614-488-7263 or visit the Web site at www.american
furnishings.com/
.
   
 

What fascinates Blankemeyer about the period are the many layers of interpretation stemming from regional origins, that came to be recognized as the Arts and Crafts style.

"For example in California, the Greene brothers' work is very tight and very much in the Japanese style, but [Gustav] Stickley was doing straight, beautiful, simple pieces on the East Coast

"If you put their chairs together, you'd recognize that they came from the same period, but they aren't the same."

One common thread was the frequent use of quarter-sawn oak.

"The advantage of cutting through the medullary rays of the tree is that the lumber shrinks half as much, is twice as strong and grain patterns are stunning," said Blankemeyer, whose craftsmen use the same technique today.

But defining what constitutes the Arts and Crafts look is as complicated as its many schools. The English version represented by William Morris and John Ruskin and the American translation, which was interpreted by Frank Lloyd Wright, Stickley and others, incorporate varying design details.

The early English practitioners favored Gothic elements and motifs. Among those having a major impact on the American Arts and Crafts movement were architects Charles Rennie Mackintosh (he looked to nature for design ideas, which he transformed for dramatic effect) and C.F.A. Voysey, who believed that the purpose and placement of a piece determined the design.

Focusing on function and an uncomplicated aesthetic, most of the early furniture was reflective of architectural details in the house.

"Many of the original chairs, tables, lamps, etc., were created for a specific home," said Blankemeyer. "They were never intended for mass production."

his lamp, representative of the Arts and Crafts style based on the philosophy of simple, well-crafted pieces, sells for $459 at Perlora. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

But later technical innovations made that possible. Today, Canal Dover manufactures many reproductions, including the Hill House dining chairs and table designed by Mackintosh that were on the floor at Perlora.

"The very high back of these dining chairs were made to create a room within a room feeling," said Blankemeyer.

A re-creation of Frank Lloyd Wright's reclining chair and ottoman by Bexley Heath, with a tufted black leather seat and spindle-supported arms, is another example of a current reproduction.

What accounts for the popularity of Arts and Crafts style? Is it the inherent directness of these furnishings? Or their uncluttered, often geometric profiles? Whatever the case, new technologies have made the furniture more comfortable than the originals.

"The newer pieces are more ergonomically designed to fit the proportions of people today without sacrificing integrity and the cushioning is no longer wood, horse hair and leather," Blankenmeyer said.

Perry Sigesmund, owner of Perlora, was pleased with the informational program and said he planned to hold more.

"We find that customers appreciate this kind of informative evening," he said.



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