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What is new? Victorian Furniture, Taxidermy, and the Lot
I read with great interest the article in Thursday’s home section of The New York Times titled “The New Antiquarians.” The focus is on a group of younger collectors of objects of curiosity, items made mostly before the mid 20thcentury, such as Victorian furniture, parts of old science labs, and taxidermy.
The Times suggest this is a new trend, which it is not. From my own circumstance, I know some of my relations lived liked the Addams family and they were not alone. We also had friends who furnished their houses this way, too.
My partner Rick Ellis and I set up household 24 years ago (on August 8th, no less). Some of the things we started out with were inherited, including a hulk of a Rococo Revival bed and a preserved squirrel under a glass dome. Much was added to that over the years, including a stuffed South American fox bat that has flown for the last decade from our ceiling, circling Rick’s childhood collection of prehistoric shark’s teeth. (There is a tour of this strange place on the New York Social Diary.)
Another example of 20th-century vintage living is my friends Jane and John Stubbs’ Union Square loft of the 1980’s. It featured a preserved armadillo, a mummy, and a piece of Marie Antoinette’s dress.
Then there are our London friends, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan (the landscape designer and historian) and Tim Knox (he is now director of the Soane Museum) who represent the apogee of this taste. Their progression of flats and now their splendid house in London have been featured in the leading journals of taste.
Coincidentally, my friend Josh Van Gelder’s blog, The Curious Eye, features a 1936 book by Mary Bendetta, “The Street Markets of London” that documents similar “collecting patterns.” In this book, Bendetta writes, “One wonders who on earth will buy the boxes of slides with medical and botanical specimens on them, or the rusty old surgical instruments. You can tell the kind of things people are discarding nowadays by looking in this market. There are plenty of stuffed birds and animals in model scenery in glass cases, horsehair sofas, and heavy old leather traveling-trunks.”
Van Elder adds, “sounds like the interior design schemes of every design-savvy hipster in Williamsburg and London’s East End.”
The Times article points out that some of these recently collected objects have been very quickly imitated for products by retailers such as J.Crew and Ralph Lauren. These types of imitations were also seen through much of the 20th century. A few examples of new product designs inspired from vintage materials are copies of oil burning glass parlor lamps, fake cameos (usually made in plastic), and Gunne Sax-brand dresses (Kathy Fast wore one as my date to our prom at the modernist temple The Beverly Hilton.) I was required to have a matching powder blue tux). Nowadays this type of product seems to happen faster and ends up being exact copies rather than “inspired” new designs.
In the article, Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology states, “collecting these old things, it’s like there is an aura attached to them. It’s not some prepackaged product being foisted on you by a big corporation. Too bad it’s going to be commodified. Everything in the fashion world gets hoovered up.”
What is interesting about piece is the conjecture about why people collect this material and why mass marketers want to imitate it. Some of the young collectors interviewed in the article argue it is a rebellion against steel and glass modernism.
I, however, feel that is too simplistic of a view. Valerie Steele offers a different explanation, “It’s way more than anti-modernism, this sort of deep spelunking into the past,” she said. “It’s not aspirational and it’s not nostalgic. It’s a fantasy world that is almost entirely a visual collage. It’s a stitched-together, bricolage world, an alternative world.”
So what’s new?
From top: images 1-3, Thomas Jayne’s and Rick Ellis’s loft in New York; images 4-5, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s and Tim Knox’s house in London, photos by Barry Lewis; images 6-7, from “The Street Markets of London” by Mary Benedetta.