How San Francisco creates new collectors one lecture and layover at a time

It was released in 1956. It appeared in every episode of “Frasier” save one. It was in Chandler and Joey’s apartment in the first season of “Friends.” Larry King is sitting in it on the cover his book. It was designed by Charles and Ray Eames and sold through the Herman Miller furniture company. It’s the Eames Lounge Chair. It also serves as a focal point to Wendy Kaplan’s presentation “California Design: Living in a Modern Way from 1930-1965.” Kaplan recently spoke to San Francisco’s American Decorative Arts Forum of Northern California, (ADAF) an affiliated support group of the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco.

California spun aluminumA display of spun aluminum kitchenware from the exhibit “Russel Wright At Home” as featured in the SFO Museum at the San Francisco International Airport. Photo courtesy McKinley William.

With economic uncertainties an undercurrent of the antique and collectibles trade and a growing concern for just where the next generation of collectors will come from, the ADAF offers a formula that could be replicated in more American cities, forum organizers said. The ADAF is just one of several San Francisco groups using public spaces and presentations to stimulate renewed interest in collecting and preserving American decorative arts.

Since 1983, the American Decorative Arts Forum has promoted fellowship among San Francisco Bay Area antique collectors by providing them with monthly meetings, events, and lectures delivered by authoritative speakers. The presentation made by Kaplan of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), like all others, was preceded by a mini-show of items relevant to the talk brought in and displayed by members from their own collections. The mini-show at Kaplan’s presentation produced an Eames splint which was a forerunner in the development of the iconic chair. Informative tours and seminars, receptions in members’ homes, and additional opportunities to share information and treasures with other members are all part of this effective and fun organization.

“We define decorative arts,” said Gordon Fine, president of the forum, “as anything made or used in America, and that covers a lot!” The ADAF defines American decorative arts as:

” … the surviving objects of American make or use, such as furniture, lighting devices, ceramics, silver, textiles, utensils and other household decorations. Decorative arts are distinguished from fine art—usually paintings, sculpture and architecture—in two ways: First, the objects were usually made to serve a purpose superseding the aesthetic merit they may possess; and second, their makers, whether a school girl, silversmith, itinerant artist or cabinetmaker, generally did not consider themselves an “artist” in the way we define that word today. The decorative arts serve to document a historical period and way of life; they allow us today to understand better our diverse but collective past.”

Iroquois Casual China patterned pieces as exhibited at the SFO Museum in 2009. The yellow “Pepper Tree” dinner plate in the back, probably dates from the 1960’s. Photo courtesy  McKinley William.

The forum has about 200 members. It is an affiliate organization of the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, the flagships of which are the de Young Museum of Art located in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Additional support groups include those devoted exclusively to ceramics, those to textiles, and those concerned about educating young museum attendees.

“Our application and renewal forms ask members to specify their areas of interest and our members are not shy about expressing their interests to me and to other board members,” said Susan Doherty, program chair for the ADAF, who selects the program content and speakers. “We also offer the opportunity to sponsor scheduled lectures for $500. Though that amount covers only a small portion of the cost of each lecture, it allows members to show support for a given topic and/or to honor an individual with an interest in that given topic.”

Doherty comes into her volunteer position having already served in a similar capacity at the Greenwich Antiques Society of The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn. “Our members have a broad range of interests,” she said, “from the 18th century to the 21st, from furniture to ceramics, textiles, and architecture. This guarantees that you cannot thrill everyone with every lecture. But most members enjoy learning how one period influences and/or reacts to another, how one medium influences another, and how history influences the way we live and the objects we choose to live with.” With this in mind, Doherty schedules at least one lecture covering material from most major style periods and varies the mediums covered.

California American Decorative Arts MuseumSeveral San Francisco organizations are teaming up to present American decorative arts in new an innovative ways. A recent display on the design and utility of American motorcycles is open through April 12, 2012 at the SFO Museum.

“The elephant in the room remains the current preference for modern objects and design over antiques,” Doherty said. “Modern design and objects certainly seem to get the most press, and I suppose it is a truism that most ‘young people’ are ‘not interested in antiques.’ But I think too much has been made of the dichotomy between the two styles—the false choice. As many of our 2012 lectures will show, antiques and folk art improve the best modern interiors. They give an elegance, richness, and warmth to interiors that risk sterility and coldness. This is true at all economic levels.”

Kaplan’s presentation explained how Charles and Ray Eames warmed up their “democratic” ultra-modern house with an extensive collection of folk art. Last month, Architectural Digest’s Mitchell Owens’ presentation explained how designers for the super-rich incorporated antiques into the chic-est modern interiors of the 1960s. “Those who claim to hate modern and love only antiques, or vice versa, often fail to see how each influences the other,” Doherty said.

“I also plan to address another false notion in the modern vs. antiques comparison: that of cost and practicality,” she said. “While antique masterpieces continue to shatter auction records, furniture at any level below that is now incredibly affordable—often costing less than low-price mass produced modern furniture, let alone high-end modern pieces from Roche Bobois to Ruhlmann. The value proposition improves with time, since antiques are so much more durable. The wear and tear of daily living, including that with young children, merely adds to the patina, rather than ruining the object.”

Which topics attract the largest crowds? “Anything involving textiles or clothing draws especially well, with many non-members attending.” Doherty said. “Other big winners with both members and non-members are jewelry and modern topics. Lectures about the marketplace or market trends for antiques are also popular.” She’s looking forward to a large crowd for “Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns” presented by Cynthia Amneus of the Cincinnati Art Museum March 13. Members are, regardless of their past behavior, all encouraged to wear white.


SFO Museum exhibit microscopes june 2012The exhibit “A World Examined: Microscopes from the Age of Enlightenment to the Twentieth Century” is on display at the SFO Museum through June 2012.

Another ambitious step toward raising the public’s awareness of antiques in daily life and culture is the SFO Museum inside the San Francisco International Airport. Since 1980, the museum’s 20 galleries in four terminals have featured diverse exhibitions: from pottery to motorcycles, microscopes to kitchenware, counter culture to California history.

“It’s difficult to answer the question of how the SFO Museum rates the popularity and profundity of each of its exhibitions,” said Timothy O’Brien, curator of the SFO Museum. “Exhibitions on such a diverse range of subjects such as Meissen porcelain, African masks, Chinese jades, and Scandinavian design, all appeal to distinct, built-in audiences among the travelers who visit SFO.”

The SFO Museum is committed to creating greater awareness of the objects it displays and giving credit to the local residents who have amassed important collections. “The museum’s primary concern is to attract and inspire those who may not have a pre-existing interest in or affinity for the exhibited subject,” O’Brien said. “That said, the exhibitions which seem to attract the most attention, both in the gallery and on the internet, are those dealing with popular culture—the history of the pinball machine, industrial design, and presently, our television and phonograph/vinyl record exhibitions. There seems to be a natural interest in examining the origins and social impact of those ubiquitous items in modern culture that maintain a tremendous presence in all of our lives.”

Joseph Truskot is a collector and freelance writer based in Salinas, Calif.

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