The market for handmade objects is steadily growing as buyers seek beauty and function


October 08, 1995|By ROSEMARY KNOWER

When first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton invited the press and the American people to see the astonishing diversity of the White House Collection of American Crafts last year, the reaction was universal enthusiasm.

Seventy-six contemporary crafts artists, working in glass, fiber, metal, wood and clay, had created 72 masterworks for the show. Scattered throughout the public and private rooms of the First Residence, set like jewels on tables, on sideboards, under portraits, they looked perfectly at home with the Chippendale and Duncan Phyfe furniture. Naturally. Although those 72 pieces were modern in feeling and design, they were tributes, too -- to the unbroken line of artists who have made beautiful things to be used stretching back to prehistory.

1600 Pennsylvania Ave. isn't the only address that's showing off American crafts. Take a look at all those perfect rooms in Metropolitan Home, Country Living and Architectural Digest. Interior designers, architects and ordinary people are combing museum shops, crafts fairs and galleries in pursuit of that special piece that will make a house a home and an office a showplace.

They fall in love with the ordinary objects of everyday living transformed by the artisan's imagination. They want to take those handcrafted wood cabinets, glass panels, ceramic platters and fiber hangings home, and live with them. The contemporary crafts movement has prompted a passionate union between the maker and the user.

That's the view of Barbara Tober, incoming board chairman of the American Craft Museum in New York. "The artist's hands are there to invest daily life with beauty and pleasure in the work for everyone who uses these things," she says. "Sunday, I served salad in bowls by Wendy Williams and Patrick Dougherty, two contemporary crafts artists. People were charmed. 'Look at those faces!' they'd say. 'Where did you get that?' I love the idea that the artists create these pieces to be used. It's not vitrines full of artwork. It's alive for every day."

Ms. Tober has been collecting since the early '70s, and has seen the crafts market steadily improve in quality and prestige. In the beginning, there were few galleries and fewer museums willing to display American crafts, she says. Now there is no dearth of shows, and the work of crafts artists is bringing big sale prices at the auction houses.

Ginny Tomlinson, owner of the Tomlinson Craft Collection, the venerable Baltimore crafts shop, has noted the latter trend:

"The Robert Levin cups that I originally sold for $200 are bringing prices over $2,000 at Sotheby's. The pieces have become more sophisticated, as the artist has responded to the consumer. They're doing things with glass in this country -- new techniques with old materials -- that have brought about a complete revival of interest in the possibilities of the medium."

Like Ms. Tober, Ms. Tomlinson has seen the market for fine crafts grow over the last 20 years. "More artists are able to support themselves," she says. "And there are gallery and museum shows all over, now."

How does she select pieces for display and sale? "I want people to be able to collect at any level, so we have lots of things that are appropriate for wedding presents. My idea has always been, 'Why buy something machine-made, when you can have something unique, stamped with the artist's personality?' I recently went to a dinner party where the young couple had set up the casserole as a work of art. Why not?"

Ms. Tober agrees. "For centuries, only the very wealthy could afford to commission and collect. Today, the nurturers of the crafts artist are the ordinary people who choose to surround themselves with unique pieces. They fall in love with the artist's vision and skill, and they want to have it where they can touch it, use it."

But where can you go if you want to commission a piece to fit that odd corner, or buy a present to celebrate a golden wedding anniversary? Savage Mill, where you can see the artists at work, talk to them, tell them your ideas, and settle on a piece that's yours alone, is a good place to start. Housed in an old spinning mill just south of Baltimore are studios, workshops and galleries for contemporary crafts, as well as antique stores that carry, among other things, artisan's work from days gone by.

Jerome Louison, who works hardwoods into the beautiful commissioned furniture pieces that surround him in the Louison Woodworks studio and shop, is typical of the contemporary craftsmen working at Savage Mill. He began working in wood during his stint in the Navy. He had only a few tools and the idea of letting the wood tell him what it wanted to be. Now he is a skilled artisan whose natural-edge library table, sleekly shaped and subtly finished to bring out the grain and color of the wood, is worthy of heirloom status and sells for about $2,000. "I think I was always a woodworker in my heart," he says.

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