Buttons, buttons, Epstein and Safro have the buttons


September 22, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

"Buttons," a new book by Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro (Abrams, $49.50), is better than a box of candy and just as addictive. But unlike the candy, once you've finished it you can start right over again.

Ms. Epstein and Ms. Safro run a shop in New York called "Tender Buttons," at 143 East 62nd St., well known in the fashion and button world. Their book shows off what they have stashed away upstairs above the tiny room lined with rows of boxes of buttons and the odd vitrines and frames full of collections ranging from simple four-hole buttons, like the one on their shop sign, to the most flamboyant confections from France, the Far East and India.

And what a collection it is!

Dealers are not supposed to save the best for themselves; it's bad for business. But that is just exactly what Ms. Epstein and Ms. Safro have done over the last 25 years and they've prospered. Last year they opened a branch of "Tender Buttons" in Chicago, at Oak and Rush Streets (so Ms. Epstein would have an excuse to go back home every now and then), and they have button boutiques in Barney's New York and Tokyo stores.

They are always on the prowl for more buttons, traveling far and wide to buy whole collections or a single button. Ms. Safro designs new buttons made in France that are snapped up by the designer trade.

"We see buttons as little works of art, all fantastic and photogenic," says Ms. Epstein. "We wanted to do a book that would be visually thrilling, not scuzzy and mangy like a forgotten box of old buttons."

It took the two women three years to write their short exquisitely illustrated history, a veritable thumbnail survey of the decorative arts through buttons. The photographs by John Parnell catch every detail of French mother of pearl masterpieces pierced, carved, layered and enhanced with foils and jewels. They pick up the tiny particles of colored glass called "tesserae" in Italian micromosaic button pictures of antique ruins. They highlight the glitter of the enamel, pearl, fabric and lacquer on a page of papier-mache buttons and note every nuance of color in the porcelain calicoes, machine made in quantity to match the dress fabrics in the mid-19th century.

Buttons cross over into every field of collecting. There are some with eyes, isolated and realistic, painted by miniaturists in the 19th century as love tokens or for mourning garb. Sure enough, there is a spellbinding page of three rather kind eyes, pencil sketches in marcasite studded frames.

For the collector of textiles there are buttons of "passementerie," in the French technique of decorating fabric with metallic threads and paste stones. For collectors of ceramics there are Wedgwood and Satsuma buttons. Dozens of variations are

mock tortoise shell, the so-called Rockingham glaze, many from potteries that flourished in Connecticut and Liverpool, Ohio in the early to mid 19th century. There are buttons of Battersea or Bilston enamel and scrimshaw buttons of whale ivory engraved with sailing ships or decorated with Eskimos and seals. The plastics, Bakelite and Catalin, were used by American button makers in the 1930s and 1940s in a range of vibrant colors and realistic shapes ranging from fruit to a book of matches and a pack of cigarettes.

Photography collectors seek buttons with ferrotypes, tintypes and prints on celluloid made in America from 1860 to 1900.

As for metal buttons, there are bauble-like buttons from the 17th century resembling the fanciest Christmas balls. The copper and brass ones made for George Washington's inaugural are sought by collectors of political items. Some French 18th century metal buttons are engraved with a Liberty cap, the symbol of the French Revolution; the English decorated buttons with their dogs, horses, sheep and foxes. During the Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century silver and pewter buttons were hand-made to resemble medieval metalwork, some with Celtic motifs.

Among the most appealing and rarest are those hand-painted on porcelain, ivory, paper or silk. Some depict ladies of fashion; one rare set trimmed in diamonds shows the French troops in the American Revolution.

Now that she has helped raise the button to a work of art from a lowly artifact hardly noticed unless missing, Ms. Epstein regrets the good old days. "Where are those collectors, named Prudence, Velma or Wanda who sewed buttons onto paper pie plates in the 1930s and 1940s?" she asks. "They are gone, dying out like the Shakers."

They were around in the mid 1960s when Ms. Epstein bought the stock of a funky little store full of cartons of buttons on East 77th Street and gave up her job as an editor to sort them out. "Millicent came into the store one day and stayed, and organized the black and white buttons as Op Art," Ms. Epstein recalled. "We saw 'Tender Buttons' as an art-oriented happening."

It is no longer necessary to beat a path to the "shrine to buttons" on East 62nd Street for an artful happening. There it is between the pages of a book, "Buttons," by Dianna Epstein and Millicent Saffro, with fitting introductions by artist Jim Dine and novelist Tom Wolfe.

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