Inside Philadelphia’s New Museum of the American Revolution

As published in 1stDibs' blog, The Study on July 2, 2017

Philadelphia’s Old City is thick with American history. Within a short walking distance, visitors can see the Liberty Bell, stand inside Independence Hall and behold the ruins of the original President’s House, where George Washington and John Adams both lived in the 1790s. For good measure, there are always a few historic interpreters in 18th-century costume inviting tour groups to step lively over the cobblestones.

The March to Valley Forge, December 19, 1777, was painted by William B.T. Trego in 1883.

The March to Valley Forge, December 19, 1777, was painted by William B.T. Trego in 1883.

These days, the Revolutionary period is enthralling a new generation of history buffs. Alexander Hamilton is trending, thanks in part to the smash-hit Broadway musical that bears his name and a desire to take a second look at a vibrant, world-changing era that was anything but stuffy. Thus, the new Museum of the American Revolution has impeccable timing, having opened its doors on April 19, the anniversary of the first battles of the war: Lexington and Concord, naturally.

So much history has unfolded in the United States since the revolution that it can be easy to forget that American independence was not inevitable. The choice between breaking away from Great Britain or staying loyal to the crown divided families, communities and whole cities. The museum brings this tension and uncertainty to vivid life through its thoughtful installations of flags, documents, everyday objects and works of art.

Much of the museum’s collection comes from that of the old Valley Forge Historical Society, which was founded by Reverend W. Herbert Burk and includes some iconic works like the painter William B.T. Trego’s scene of the Continental Army’s snow-covered arrival at Valley Forge, painted in 1883.

Other treasures, like an English-made ceramic punch bowl that was unearthed before the museum was built, celebrate the close relationship between the colonies and Britain. The bowl is decorated with an illustration of a ship and the words “Success to the Triphena,” which was a merchant ship that regularly sailed between Liverpool and Philadelphia in the 1760s. During this period, Philadelphia was the second-largest city in the British Empire, after London.

English ceramic punch bowl decorated with the ship Triphena, 1760s.

English ceramic punch bowl decorated with the ship Triphena, 1760s.

Visitors will find lots of intriguing things they might not expect to see and will discover early patriotic sentiments recorded for history in unusual places. “One surprising object on display is a rare woman’s busk — a supportive addition to a gown — that an American prisoner of war carved out of wood while he was held captive on a prison ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia,” says assistant curator Matt Skic. The busk, which is on loan from a private collection, dates from 1782 and is adorned with the Chain of States, one of the first symbols that represented the United States of America.

If there’s a “star” in the museum, it’s certainly George Washington, and the collection includes artifacts ranging from his silver camp cups (made in Philadelphia) to his war tent, which has, remarkably, survived almost intact for 240 years. According to Jeff R. Bridgman, a prominent dealer in rare antique American flags, one of the museum’s must-see icons is General Washington’s personal headquarters flag, which was part of the original Valley Forge Historical Society collection. Its vibrant colors — and indeed, its very presence — are a thrill to see in person.

George Washington’s wartime tent.

George Washington’s wartime tent.

George Washington’s personal headquarters standard, 1770s.

George Washington’s personal headquarters standard, 1770s.

All of this precious historic material is housed, as it happens, in a brand new building. The world-renowned Robert A.M. Stern Architects was tasked with creating a contextual building for the new institution that deftly acknowledged its historic surroundings. “Many of the key events of the Revolutionary period happened within steps of the museum,” says Alexander P. Lamis, a partner at RAMSA. Within a block from the museum are the First Bank of the United States (chartered by Hamilton), the Second Bank and the Merchants’ Exchange, both designed by architect William Strickland.

The exterior of the Museum of the American Revolution features a carved excerpt of the Declaration of Independence.

The exterior of the Museum of the American Revolution features a carved excerpt of the Declaration of Independence.

“The building itself acts as a kind of canvas to help tell the story of the revolution,” Lamis says. “The historic preamble to the Declaration of Independence — ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’ — is etched in stone on the building’s facade.” Inside, the Museum of the American Revolution shares the objects, both great and small, that tell the stories of a nation’s turbulent beginnings.

Read the original article on The Study→

The Worst McMansion Sins, From Useless Pilasters to Hellish Transom Windows

As published in Hyperallergic on May 2, 2017

If the current leader of the free world is, as Fran Lebowitz described him in an interview with Vanity Fair last October, “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” then the houses Kate Wagner dissects in her blog McMansion Hell are a particular sort of middle-class person’s idea of great estates. There are turrets, balconies, grand foyers, wrought iron that isn’t actually wrought, crystal chandeliers that are probably made of glass, and spiral staircases galore. But inside and out, these houses look more like architectural Mad Libs than the products of a well-thought-through, cohesive design. 

Boone County Indiana Exterior (all images copyright Kate Wagner, mcmansionhell.com)

Boone County Indiana Exterior (all images copyright Kate Wagner, mcmansionhell.com)

McMansion Hell is like a snarky DSM-IV for all that ails contemporary over-building in suburban developments, with a particular focus on the visual language of the odd houses it profiles. Though a quick read can give the impression that the blog is about taste in a general sense, Wagner is at heart an architectural grammar scold: She hates ugly chandeliers, but what really fuels the ire of McMansion Hell is the misuse and decontextualization of elements that are supposed to carry architectural meaning. It’s the flagrant disregard for these visual and structural relationships — like, say, the cavalier application of scotch tape to the back of an overly-long necktie — that drives Wagner to share her personal hell with the internet. Her individually annotated photos, drawn mostly from real estate listings, and her amusingly Tumblr-esque article subheadings (to wit: “What Even Is Architectural Theory”) make it an addictive read.

Exterior McHenry County, Illinois 

Exterior McHenry County, Illinois 

Wagner is a graduate student in acoustics as part of a joint program between Johns Hopkins University and Peabody Conservatory, with prior experience working as a sound engineer. She started McMansion Hell in July 2016 in an effort to elucidate precisely what it is that makes McMansions distinct as a typology (something architects love) and to make readers understand where the critique comes from, both culturally and economically. In this, Wagner is a bit like a modern-day design reformer. Advocates of the Design Reform movement, which emerged from a rapidly industrializing Victorian Britain with Prince Albert as its royal mascot, argued that taste was something one could identify and describe almost scientifically, rather than something derived from the vagaries of personal preference. Things like wallpaper and carpeting that tried too hard to effect three-dimensionality, cheap or ersatz materials imitating good or genuine ones, wacky proportions, and the use of ornamentation to gaudy excess all offended the reformers, who preferred elegant, semi-abstract iterations of natural forms. Their rallying cry to craftsmen and consumers everywhere was “truth to materials.” In his 1868 book Hints on Household Taste, architect and designer Charles Eastlake wrote: “The quasi-fidelity with which the forms of a rose, or a bunch of ribbons, or a ruined castle, can be reproduced on carpets, crockery and wallpapers will always possess a certain kind of charm for the uneducated eye.”

Eastlake, like many in his cohort, was a snob. And Wagner takes pains to distinguish her project from the Design Reform movement in both spirit and tone. If there’s any snobbery to McMansion Hell, it’s not born of wealth inequality, but of the gulf that divides those who acknowledge and adhere to architectural norms and those who do not. Wagner has no interest in denigrating the struggling or the working poor: “It’s unproductive to be condescending to working-class people who can’t afford hand-milled furniture or don’t want to live in machines because they work in machines,” she tells Hyperallergic. “Class politics are at the center of MMH. The irony of today is that the wealthy can’t say, ‘poor dears, they don’t know any better,’ because the wealthy certainly don’t know any betteras proven by McMansions all over the world.” It’s not just any wealthy homeowners that attract the attention of MMH, but the population that Wagner characterizes as “the white-collar working class.” Bluebloods are apt to prefer historic houses filled with well-chosen folk art and heirlooms, or a solidly built fixer-upper with good bones if their money is thin. A McMansion would be anathema to them at any price.

Great Room in Polk County Iowa

Great Room in Polk County Iowa

“The great irony of McMansions is it’s all about using architectural symbolism and class symbolism but expressing it in the least expensive way possible,” Wagner says. “Take the tall entryway — the ‘lawyer foyer.’ This is a design trope borrowed from institutions of power, especially banks, but it’s expressed with foam columns and cheap veneer.” In addition to borrowing the visual language of powerful entities by using Palladian windows, columns, and broken pediments with nutty abandon, McMansions also fake it where craftsmanship is concerned. Wagner points to stone-carving as an example that stretches back millennia. The labor required to shape limestone — which, on its own, isn’t especially costly — doesn’t come cheap. Its use in Beaux-Arts buildings, for instance, signified wealth because of the implied skill on display rather than the preciousness of a particular material. Faking it by using marble veneer is peak philistinism.

Which leads to the essential unanswered question about McMansions: Are they folk architecture, like the house equivalents of naïve paintings? Wagner believes they are not. Their origins can be traced to the housing bubble and the proliferation of DIY programs like HGTV’s House Flippers, and McMansions differ from older versions of suburban tract housing such as Levittowns and Sears Catalog Homes because, in those cases, houses came in one of just a few styles, with relatively few options for customization. McMansions are like tract houses on steroids, inflated beyond reason in the pursuit of square footage, bedecked with cheaply made surface decorations and unschooled architectural flourishes designed to evoke refinement. In an interview with the design podcast 99% Invisible, Wagner noted that McMansions were “too ostentatious to be considered folk architecture,” which means that they aren’t vernacular, nor are they part of the architectural firmament in any real sense. Less critical observers might consign them to purgatory; Wagner and her readership have another idea about where McMansions can go.

Boone Country Indiana Bedroom

Boone Country Indiana Bedroom

A Western Cultural History of Pink, from Madame de Pompadour to Pussy Hats

A Western Cultural History of Pink, from Madame de Pompadour to Pussy Hats

Visitors to the official website of the Pussyhat Project are welcomed with an exclamation of color and joy from founders Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman: “We did it! We created a sea of pink!” And indeed they did. The Women’s March on Washington, D.C., and the 600 allied marches across the United States and the world, drew between 3.3 and 4.6 million protesters, making it one of the largest single-day demonstrations in the nation’s history. Suh and Zweiman launched the Pussyhat Project in advance of the march with the goal of having one million hats on hand, and their website includes PDF patterns for knit, sewn, and crocheted versions, which have collectively been downloaded more than 100,000 times. The resulting sea of cat hats caused a run on pink yarn across the country and quickly became a powerful visual shorthand for this particular swath of anti-Trump protest movements.

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In the Studio: Stacey Lee Webber

As Published in Metalsmith, January, 2017

The massive Globe Dye Works complex in Northeastern Philadelphia smells of freshly ground coffee. Visitors are greeted by a gigantic antique scale and countless spools of thread in every imaginable hue, arranged just so. The building hums with activity as a network of small-batch entrepreneurs plan special event menus, frame artwork, and—evidently—roast coffee beans to perfection.

Two of these creative souls, the artist Stacey Lee Webber and her husband, sculptor Joe Leroux, along with a charming cat and surprisingly outgoing turtle, live here in a sunny apartment adjacent to their massive workspace, where Leroux’s large, playful sculptures and Webber’s delicate metalwork offer a delightful contrast in scale and spirit. Up front, a plastic deer peers from the array of materials and supplies from which Leroux’s works in progress for a major art fair are taking shape, and some past projects involving geodesic domes hang from the ceiling. At the other end of the space, Webber and her assistant are at work crafting jewelry and small sculptures from U.S. coins, small screws, and other pieces of vernacular metal. The finished products are anything but ordinary: a floral wreath comprised of different colored screws adorns one wall, and tiny silhouettes of Abraham Lincoln shine from a bracelet in progress on the bench.

Stacey Lee Webber at work in her studio at Philadelphia's Globe Dye Works

Stacey Lee Webber at work in her studio at Philadelphia's Globe Dye Works

Webber draws inspiration from the history and culture of manufacturing in America, and the Globe Dye Works, with its seemingly endless array of gorgeous antique machines, is an ideal place for her and Leroux to work and live. Established in 1865 in the now-gritty neighborhood of Frankford, Globe was a major manufacturer of bleaches and dyes during Philadelphia's industrial heyday, producing skeins of wool and spools of thread for use in clothing and upholstery until 2005. The rebirth of the Globe Dye Works building as a space for artists and creative small business owners is a quintessential urban tale of adaptive reuse, but it’s also particularly emblematic of the ways in which Philadelphia’s economy has had to pivot in an effort to emerge from its post-industrial malaise. Though not a Philadelphia native (she’s from Indiana), Webber’s artist’s statement notes: “Through technique and design my work manipulates materials and employs forms that evoke pride in the American working class. My pieces are celebrations of American families and the blue-collar work ethic that binds the heart of the United States.”

Since graduate school, Webber has been fascinated by both the tools of her trade, jewelry and metalsmithing, and the tools of “the trades” in general, and has used her work to explore shifting ideas about the value of labor. Working towards her MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with professors Lisa Gralnick and Kim Kridler, Webber experimented with metal filigree techniques of the kind found in the developing world, where metal is expensive but labor is cheap. Filigree pieces tend to appear gaudy to a discerning eye, but their fabrication can be exquisite and inspired. In a sense, the workmanship itself is the precious item, not the metal. This project got Webber thinking about one of the most common “valuables” in the world: coins. In 2008, she created a lifesized claw hammer using pennies. From there, she embarked on a series called “Craftsmen,” in which she created tools as complex as circular saws, shovels, and tape measures using pre-1982 pennies, which are nearly 100 percent copper, and pre-1964 quarters and dimes, which are 90 percent silver. These haunting pieces offer multiple perspectives on value of craftsmanship simultaneously. Is the hard work of hammering, sawing, and sanding worth mere pennies today? What of Webber’s own formidable craftsmanship, evident in the carefully soldered and pierced coins? And what of that of the coins themselves, each one a tiny sculpture?

If the commentary on skilled labor is not immediately evident to everyone who encounters Webber’s sculptures, people tend to understand the jewelry almost immediately. Her work can be found in the gift shops of institutions including the Museum of Arts and Design, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, and the Fuller Craft Museum. Jewelry is the realm of the precious, and her elegant and witty use of coins elicits fascination and a lot of questions. Many people want to know whether altering U.S. currency is in fact legal, and indeed it is; it is illegal to deface currency for the purpose of counterfeiting, but no one would get very far attempting to buy a cup of coffee with one of Webber’s Abe M.I.A. Necklace—part of the “Abe Collection”—in which a cascade of shiny pierced pennies are linked to one another through the negative space where Abraham Lincoln’s silhouette used to be. Webber’s inventiveness with the humble penny also extends to the coin’s historic association with luck. For her “Hex Signs” series, of which several examples are on display in the studio, she fashioned small wall pieces inspired by the hexagonal designs of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art. Lincoln profiles perch delicately on pieces of copper wire, forming radial designs reminiscent of honeycombs and snowflakes.

In her atmospheric studio and in the substance of her work, Webber is steeped in history, yet the results of her creative endeavors are original and refreshing. In this busy workspace where quarters and pennies gleam from every work surface, the preciousness is in the ideas.

View the original article in Metalsmith

“Hands to Work, Hearts to God”: A Post-Election Craft Manifesto

“Hands to Work, Hearts to God”: A Post-Election Craft Manifesto

Reading the post-election commentary from my vintage-furnished stop in the Acela bubble this week, I have felt a kind of nausea and dread that I had not experienced since I nearly lost my stepfather, who worked in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001. He survived, but none of us has ever been the same. I knew then that I would devote my life and abilities to the community I love: people who make things, people who enrich others’ lives by teaching and mentoring, people who shine light on injustice through their artwork, who help us find connection with each other. I didn’t know then what shape this would take (or even which graduate school I would apply to), but I knew that the shortness of our time here made it imperative that I lead with my heart and gut, even when my brain tried to exert executive orders.

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Maker to Market: Ruth Asawa Reappraised

 Maker to Market: Ruth Asawa Reappraised

When Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) (Figures 1 and 2) died in August, 2013, the obituaries that appeared in newspapers and magazines across the US characterized her life’s work with a diverse array of descriptors. In the pages of the New York Times, she was an “artist who wove wire.”1 In the Los Angeles Times, a “California sculptor.”2 In an article appearing in the SFGate, she was “overlooked.”3 And according to Art+Auction, she had enjoyed a “late, meteoric rise from obscurity.”4 Reading the story of Asawa’s career from these headlines alone, one might suppose that she was an under-recognized artist using a traditionally feminine technique to create objects from humble material, and that by some fluke, she had been bestowed with a late-life spike in recognition, even celebrity. However, evidence of a flourishing career in the 1950s, which included commissions, solo exhibitions in New York, and an acquisition by the Whitney Museum of American Art, appears to contradict the notion that Asawa toiled for decades in anonymity.

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The New Ten's Two-Body Problem

The New Ten's Two-Body Problem

Five years from now, on the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S., an American woman of distinction will appear on the ten-dollar bill, with Alexander Hamilton retained somewhere on the note. This decision, announced last week by Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, has been met with considerable puzzlement from those who wonder why we would demote Hamilton, the founder of our financial system, instead of Andrew Jackson, who was the architect of the Trail of Tears, an opponent of central banking, and the target of the grassroots campaign to get a woman on the twenty-dollar bill, led by the group Women on 20s. As Vauhini Vara recently wrote, some asked, too, why the first woman to appear on paper currency in the United States should have to do so alongside a male chaperone, and they wondered whether the Treasury would, after holding public consultations this summer, honor Harriet Tubman, the choice of those who voted in an online poll conducted by Women on 20s. The current debate over American currency resonates with the complicated history of how and why women have been represented on money, a history that provides insight into the ways women have wielded and represented authority through the ages.

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‘Back to the Future’ 30 Years Later, or Riding in Cars with Millennials

‘Back to the Future’ 30 Years Later, or Riding in Cars with Millennials

One of the greatest pleasures of teaching design history to college students — apart from watching their reactions as I play excerpts from grouchy interviewswith the legendary Braun designer Dieter Rams in class — is time travel. Not the actual temporal kind, but the generational kind, where you realize that you’re the only person in the room who remembers the 1980s, and everyone else in the room is really curious about that.

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The Prehistory of the Peeps Diorama

The Prehistory of the Peeps Diorama

In 2014, Matthew McFeeley and his friends Mary Clare Peate and Alex Baker created an intricate historical diorama depicting the 1963 March on Washington. Evoking the color palette of the photographs that document the real event, the diorama was painted in black, white, and shades of gray. Marchers are shown holding tiny, hand-painted signs that read “we demand voting rights now!” and “we march for jobs for all now!” At the center of the action, the figure of Martin Luther King, Jr., stands at a podium, poised to give his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. At the bottom of the steps leading up to the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd of spectators is dotted with what appears to be an ocean of regularly shaped bunny ears. Though painted gray, each character in this scene is a marshmallow Peep. This diorama, “I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. Addresses the Peeple” won the 2014 Washington Post Peeps Diorama Contest, chosen by the Post staff from a field of over seven hundred competitors.

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The International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery, 1890 – 1961

The International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery, 1890 – 1961

In February 1961, Carol Hogben, assistant keeper in the circulation department at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), was hard at work preparing for the opening of a major jewelry exhibition. Hogben had thought of a novel way to present innovative jewelry to the museum-going public, inviting contemporary artists working in an array of disciplines to create works in wax for the show, which would then be fabricated by British goldsmiths. These would be presented alongside more traditional, virtuoso pieces by the likes of Georg Jensen and Fabergé.

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4 in 3-D

4 in 3-D

Just a few years ago, terms such as “digital fabrication,” “3-D printing,” and “CAD” began appearing in the news, piquing readers’ interest with visions of Jetsons-style consumer gadgets. Auto enthusiasts began fabricating obscure discontinued car parts with the help of the MakerBot, while Americans concerned about gun control sounded the alarm about the advent of something the writers of the second amendment could never have predicted: 3-D-printed firearms. If computer-aided design (CAD) and 3-D printing haven’t quite transformed the average household into a hotbed of automated convenience, they certainly have altered the studio landscape for artists and designers all over the world. We are witnessing the emergence of a new set of aesthetics and new ways of working for makers engaged with nearly every material. Because these technologies allow designers to scan and manipulate objects, to “copy, paste, and edit” in three dimensions, two major categories have emerged as the source material of choice: historical decorative arts and the human body.

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Cracking Open the Seductive History of Porcelain

Cracking Open the Seductive History of Porcelain

Of his extensive collection of ceramics, Oscar Wilde once remarked: “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” What Wilde felt he was increasingly failing to “live up to” was probably the sort of bourgeois respectability that is often symbolized by a set of good porcelain — something, he was surely aware, to which even a spectacularly talented gay man in Victorian Britain could never hope to aspire. It is a sign that Wilde was onto something that most people only deploy “the good china” a few times a year, on major holidays; the rest of the time, we keep it neatly tucked away so that it won’t get broken. When we move, each piece must be individually protected in bubble wrap. It’s exhausting.

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Heart Like a Wheel

Heart Like a Wheel

Being associated with that special combination of luscious imagery, romance, and personal turmoil makes artists and designers juicy subjects for movies. Such recent examples as Pollock and Frida aim for seriousness and verisimilitude, but without having known these artists, we can only guess how much these portrayals ring true. My personal favorite movie-subject artist will always be a fictional one: Catherine O’Hara’s postmodern harridan, Delia Dietz, in Tim Burton’s 1988 masterpiece Beetlejuice. This may seem a surprising confession coming from a decorative-arts nerd, but instead of seeking artful portrayals of historical ceramists, à la the Delftware painter (Griet’s father) in Girl With a Pearl Earring, I’m much more interested in how craft practice is staged in mainstream popular culture.

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Kitchen Table Politics

Kitchen Table Politics

On October 15, 2008, 27 prominent American ceramic artists unveiled a diverse group of cups, plates and other pots called "Obamaware" as a fund-raiser for Barack Obama's presidential campaign [figure 1]. It was a great idea-a convergence of the handmade aesthetic beloved by progressive Americans, a "green" object you can use over and over, and a way to support the arts during difficult economic times. What better way to support the candidate for change? It even turns out that the Obamaware makers are in good company: many fascinating episodes in ceramic history attest to the subtle but enduring power of pots to convey both food and ideas. Ancient Greek potters used scenes from well-known myths to comment on Athenian politics. A 16th-century German potter decorated a jar with imagery that promoted controversial new Protestant beliefs-and went to jail for it. Pots have long played an important supporting role in conversations about politics in the domestic realm, or as politicians like to say, "around the kitchen table." The Obamaware project represents an information-age twist on the old-fashioned pottery sale. Like many potters before them, these artists used ceramic surfaces to express their ideas and comment on current events. They also did what potters as recently as the early 1990s could not have done: they sold pots online and blogged about it.

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