Décorum: What the Arts & Crafts Conference offers to locals and their homes

HOME GOODS: Owners of Asheville's many small but sweet historic bungalows can find antique and reproduction furnishings at the annual National Arts & Crafts Conference, now in its 28th year. Photo by Ray Stubblebine

The DIY aesthetic is not just a product of indie craft shows. Asheville residents, always in close proximity to mountain handicrafts, were primed for the Arts and Crafts movement more than a century ago. That trend toward quality and craftsmanship came about in response to the industrialization that gripped the end of the Victorian era. “Anxieties about industrial life fueled a positive revaluation of handcraftsmanship and precapitalist forms of culture and society,” says an essay on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

The Arts and Crafts style of handmade furniture, pottery, metalware and more aligned with the American Craftsman bungalow homes built in West Asheville, Kenilworth and Montford neighborhoods. These single-story, modest homes — unlike the Victorian mansions previously in fashion — didn’t require servants for maintenance and upkeep.

Bungalows have held a special place in the hearts of homeowners ever since, and Asheville’s Craftsman-style homes are favored today more than ever. “The popularity of the bungalow home, nationally and locally, means a huge resurgence in [the Arts and Crafts movement],” says Bruce Johnson, founder and director of the National Arts & Crafts Conference and Antiques Show at the Omni Grove Park Inn. The annual event runs from Friday-Sunday, Feb. 20-22.

“People in those strong bungalow neighborhoods are looking for décor to match their homes,” says Johnson. The Arts & Crafts Conference’s companion shows (comprising the Antiques Show, “the country’s largest and most important … of the year,” according to the event’s website; and the Contemporary Craftsfirms Show with “interpretations and accurate replicas of Arts & Crafts antiques”) offer homeowners the opportunity to shop for period accessories. “This isn’t simply furniture. You can outfit your entire home with what is represented at the show,” says Johnson.

A historian and author, Johnson founded the conference in 1987 while working on a story about the Grove Park Inn for Country Living. “I thought, ‘We have to do an Arts and Crafts conference here.’ [Asheville] was an Arts and Crafts gem that no one knew about.”

The inn itself, built in 1913, still has many of the original Arts and Crafts dressers, desks and rocking chairs in its rooms. The Roycroft stamp, marking the coveted works by an influential reformist craft community, can be found throughout the inn (most notably on the grandfather clock in the Great Hall).

Arts and Crafts movement goods were often made in small, family-owned factories. George and Edith Vanderbilt financed one such workshop, the Biltmore Estate Industries, in 1905. It produced bookends, picture frames, furniture and hand-carved bowls in Biltmore Village before being sold to Grove Park Inn architect and manager Fred Seeley in 1917 and moved to the inn’s property. Today, that building houses the Grovewood Gallery.

Despite those local ties, Johnson says that early conferences hosted more visitors from California than from North Carolina. Attendance has grown from 300 the first year to more than 2,000 expected at this year’s show (including about 25 attendees who have never missed a conference).

“It really took off here in the last 20 years. It began as more of a national attraction, but Asheville is now the Arts and Crafts capital of the South,” Johnson says. “We draw upon local organizations and local artisans, so we’re supporting locals.” Area artists on this year’s roster include jeweler Amy Brandenburg, furniture maker Rob Kleber and textile artist Sherree Sorrells, among others. The Asheville Art Museum holds a fundraising reception on Saturday night, and the Asheville-Buncombe County Preservation Society hosts architectural bus tours departing from the Grove Park Inn. The conference also boasts seminars, group discussions, workshops, booksellers, magazine publishers and nonprofit organizations.

At the shows, “Prices range from $100 to $100,000,” says Johnson. One past showcase included a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed chair, and there are outstanding examples of Stickley furniture, another popular Arts and Crafts brand. But, “even if you’re not in the market for one of these rarities, you can still go see them.”

WHAT: The National Arts & Crafts Conference, Arts-CraftsConference.com

WHERE: Omni Grove Park Inn

WHEN: Friday-Sunday, Feb. 20-22. $10 for adults/$5 for students. Tickets are good for all three days. Free outdoor parking, indoor parking is free for the first three hours

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About Pat Barcas
Pat is a photojournalist and writer who moved to Asheville in 2014. He previously worked for a labor and social rights advocacy newspaper in Chicago. Email him at pbarcas@gmail.com. Follow me @pbarcas

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