I'm spending my weekends performing a task all baby boomers dread: I'm clearing out my parents' house. It's a cavernous place packed basement to attic with books, decorative objects, and furniture. During their nearly 60 years of marriage, some of it spent living overseas, my parents assembled a formidable collection. My mother, Sarah Booth Conroy, was the curator. When they lived in Vienna, Austria, in the early 1960s, she bought inexpensive Art Nouveau and Secession pieces other people were melting down for precious metals. Back in the States a decade later and working as the design editor of The Washington Post, she combed the classified ads for mid-century modern furniture cast off in favor of “real” antiques and their reproductions. Now, each astutely acquired item raises the same tough question: Does it stay or does it go?
What's coming to my house? The rusty-legged Eames chairs? The cracking leather Barcelona settees? The Bertoia chairs with peeling vinyl cushions? The Saarinen couch with crumbling foam padding? The Noguchi dining tables with chipped tops? My mother bought all these items used and then used them hard herself. She interviewed and wrote about many of the designers, reintroducing them to readers who had forgotten their accomplishments. I have her thank-you letters from George Nelson (a loopy signature done in red felt-tip pen), Florence Knoll, Russel Wright, and the like. What to do with these collectibles that are in so-so condition but have sentimental provenance?
As much as I love these modern period pieces—I have collected a few of my own—lately I'm drawn more to the Art Nouveau objets. The intricate designs were intended to look beautiful, not just handsome. They were inspired by nature but guided by a human need to order and control. Every item is functional—a wine holder, a pitcher, a lamp, a writing desk, a vitrine—but the forms exalt in decoration for its own sake. Every crafted piece reaches for artistry. There's an amazing spirit embedded in these compositions, an exuberant hopefulness and a passionate exploration of the limits of design and workmanship. Interestingly, the Art Nouveau pieces, despite an additional 60 or so years of age on them, are holding up better than the modern work. Both eras' designs were mass-produced, but superior materials in the older products have stood the test of time with fewer blemishes.
In this issue of the magazine, we consider what modern craft means today. Our cover architect, Anne Fougeron, AIA, whose work probes the reaches of technology and materials, ponders how the houses she designs will endure over time. It's an important question, because many of our modern achievements of the past really aren't aging well. They don't invoke an image of permanence in the minds of the general public. Instead, they're reminded of shoddily constructed split-levels in the suburbs.
Thanks to magazines such as Dwell and the pendulumlike quality of our aesthetic zeitgeist, Americans are developing a taste for contemporary work again. It's gratifying to see. Still, architects must tread carefully now. You have another opportunity to make the case for modern, and the public may not tolerate another so-so performance. Design excellence is important, but materials and workmanship are what sustain it for the long haul.
Comments? Write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: email@example.com.