They Left Their Heart in San Diego
When three like-minded San Diego natives who collect, sell, show, publish, and preach Southern California craft design and visual art from the 1940's to the '70's decided to go into business together in 2005, they chose a name that's something of a misnomer.
Larry Weinberg -- Interior Design, 2/1/2011 12:46:00 PM
When three like-minded San Diego natives who collect, sell, show, publish, and preach Southern California craft design and visual art from the 1940's to the '70's decided to go into business together in 2005, they chose a name that's something of a misnomer. Objects:USA, the title of a seminal 1969 craft exhibition and accompanying book, happened to look better than Objects:San Diego, but it's the tight focus on San Diego, Southern California, and neighboring areas that gives the endeavor its quirky charm.
In 1950, parochial San Diego was basically a boom town with a naval base. Still, like Big Sur to the north, San Diego was a state of mind as much as a place, and the good weather, wide beaches, verdant hills, and cultural mix drew creative types from the hinterland. Most of San Diego's artist-artisans were educated, trained, and activist, and several even attained national recognition and distribution. Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley are a good example. Featured regularly in Craft Horizons magazine, the Woolleys produced over 5,000 vibrantly abstract enameled plates, all different, and sold them through retailers as major as Gump's.
Because there was little infrastructure or demand locally to support modern art and design, grassroots organizations and markets sprang up, notably the Allied Craftsmen of San Diego, which still exists, and the San Diego Art Guild. By the 1960's, the Allied Craftsmen were holding popular exhibitions in commercial galleries and in public venues that eventually became the San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. The Allied Craftsmen furthermore forged connections with the architects Lloyd Ruocco and Sim Bruce Richards, providing one-off light fixtures, doors, fireplace surrounds, and fountain walls for modernist houses.
These activities left archival footprints in San Diego Magazine, which ran an arts and architecture column, and California Arts and Architecture, that monthly gold mine of information. Dave Hampton had been tracking them for years before getting the idea to found Objects:USA, and he was the one who got his fellow converts Steve Aldana and Ron Kerner excited about rediscovering less-known local talents and marketing their work online. Mutual favorites now include colorful abstract painter Richard Allen Morris, mixed-media sculptor Joe Nyiri, sculptor and jeweler Jack Boyd, potter Jean Balmer, enamelist Kay Whitcomb, and Barney Reid, who did everything from ceramics and enamels to screen-printed fabric. In the San Diego colony, lines were blurred between fine art and craft as well as among the mediums of paint, ink, clay, wood, metal, and fiber.
Objects:USA's Kerner and Aldana are classic pickers. Rising early for flea markets, making the rounds of galleries, and logging hours on the Internet have resulted in innumerable finds, such as a coppery-brown June Schwarcz enamel bowl once pictured in California Design Eleven only to resurface, decades later, at an estate sale for $75. Meanwhile, Hampton's modus operandi is to track down living artists, their families, and/or shopkeepers, forge a relationship with them, and often write about them for Objects:USA's Web site or self-published booklets. The subject of one booklet, Dick Seeger of Scottsdale, Arizona, represents the perfect trifecta for Hampton: "He made fantastic art, he sold great stuff through his gallery, and he collected."
A great advantage of handling unsung names is that you can buy cheaply and sell affordably, and this accounts for much of Objects:USA's success. Since beginning online, the business has added a twice-yearly pop-up shop at a friend's gallery, Ronis & Associates-three-day events that are much-anticipated and well attended. Openings draw a mix of architects, designers, dealers, museum directors, collectors, and hipsters sharing libations with some of the artists and artisans. It's a social event as much as a sale. Also new are a periodic flea market and a booth at the annual Palm Springs Modernism fair.
At any financial level, the collecting mentality is obsessive-it can be hard to let go. Hampton is holding on tight to an impressive mixed-media panel by Seeger and Boyd and some small bronze and iron sculptures by Paolo Soleri, the visionary behind Arizona's Arcosanti community. Aldana is partial to Case Study-era furniture and lighting, and the rare pieces in his apartment are virtually all from California if not specifically San Diego. And Kerner's apartment, which he decribes as "thrift-store chic," features abstract metal and wood sculptures by local artists.
For all three partners, the modernism business is clearly a passion, too, and they seem to be having a lot of fun. Hampton says his greatest satisfaction comes in reconnecting buyers of San Diego's mid-century houses with a locally crafted item that might originally have been in them. A sense of history and context is part of what you get from Objects:USA.
Customers tend to be either residents of San Diego or dealers and collectors in Los Angeles and New York. (My own New York gallery, Weinberg Modern, is currently showing a ceramic vase and a wooden sculpture from Objects:USA, and I check its Web site regularly for updates.) Nationwide, vintage California design remains underpublicized and underappreciated.
"Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980," an upcoming six-month initiative organized by the Getty Research Institute and the Getty Foundation and taking place at 60-odd Southern California institutions, may help to increase awareness. Hampton, naturally, is involved. He's guest-curating "San Diego's Craft Revolution," which opens at the city's Mingei International Museum in October.