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At Home With Modernity

A Conversation with Beth Cathers by John Luke

IN HER PREFACE to the 1988 book Treasures of the American Arts and Crafts Movement 1890–1920, the noted Arts and Crafts collector, scholar and dealer Beth Cathers asked, “What does it mean to be at home in the 20th century?” The onset of industrialization in Europe and America around the turn of that fateful century had called into question long-held traditional values that had signified the sense of place, the rootedness, of being at home in the world.
One spiritual and philosophical response to this disruption had been to adopt the nihilistic belief that man was, in the end, spiritually homeless. There was, however, an alternative response, Cathers wrote, that instead “held open the possibility for man to be at home in the world in a truly modern way.” Out of this alternative, she argued, emerged the complex, contradictory but ultimately affirmative Arts and Crafts movement in England and America. In America, especially, the movement fostered the design, production and furnishing of homes that, through their beauty and authenticity, embodied rootedness, evoking a sense of being truly at home, even in a new time.

“I believe this is even more surely the case today, since the postwar revival of the Arts and Crafts idea in the 1970s, than it was a hundred years ago,” she says. “In the early 1900s life was speeding up, of course, from the pace of the 19th century. But today the pace of our lives is so accelerated that the temptation to become disengaged is even stronger. For me, that makes the appeal, the necessity, of the finest examples of Arts and Crafts furniture, ceramics, glass and metalwork even more compelling.”

Arc of a Career
Cathers, who casually refers to herself as “an old English teacher,” first found her way into art and architecture in the 1960s through her reading of English history and literature, which eventually led her to William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement, then back home across the Atlantic to the movement’s American stirrings and their expression in the Shingle Style and Prairie School. Meanwhile, her husband, David, had discovered and immersed himself in Gustav Stickley’s magazine The Craftsman, beginning what would become for him a profound and productive engagement with Stickley’s life and work.

“We were also beginning to buy early examples of Gus’s work wherever we could find them,” Beth says.

“Stickley, of course, unlike Morris in England, who hated machinery, embraced it as a boon in the production of art. He realized that machines enabled him to produce structural forms in wood precisely, efficiently and at reduced cost without compromising the integrity of a piece of furniture. That left him and his workers freer to concentrate on surfaces and finishes, which were not so amenable to machine production. (For David and me, finishes and markings became the distinguishing features in evaluating and cataloging Stickley pieces.) This combination of machine and hand work resulted in furniture that, while affordable only by the wealthy in the early years, appealed to Stickley’s democratic aspirations.

“We were just kids, and this all felt very much like being in the basement, discovering something at once old and new that we were falling in love with.”
“Then Bob [Robert Judson] Clark mounted his 1972 Princeton exhibition, ‘The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1876–1916,’ and everything changed. Interest in Arts and Crafts artifacts began to rise, and I started operating a little gallery out of our house. That led to a small shop, from which I later, as the revival gathered momentum in the late 1970s, joined the Jordon-Volpe Gallery, which had just opened on West Broadway in Manhattan.

“As anyone who lived through that era knows, a tremendous spike in the market for Arts and Crafts furnishings began to take shape in the late ’70s. Celebrity collectors soon arrived on the scene. Over the next few years, galleries opened and closed, dealers went in and out of business, relationships shifted. David and I divorced, amicably. Eventually the West Broadway gallery closed, and I went on with my life.”

In 1988, Beth and Nicholas Dembrosky married and opened another New York gallery, Cathers & Dembrosky on Madison Avenue, which went on to became one of the country’s leading Arts and Crafts dealerships. After Dembrosky died, in 2000, Robert Kaplan joined Beth as a partner. Eventually, as the retail market for high-end Arts and Crafts material continued to soften, the dealership closed shop and began to deal privately.

Today, as independent consultants, she and Kaplan deal with select collectors and decorators who are concerned with, in her words, “only the finest examples” of Arts and Crafts furniture, lighting and ceramics. Increasingly, these examples have included works by Charles Rohlfs, Frank Lloyd Wright and Greene & Greene, as well as Stickley.

Home, Hearth and Heart
Throughout her career as a collector, historian and dealer, Beth has consistently lived among those “finest examples” that have the most meaning for her. The photographs that accompany this article are of furnishings she began acquiring in the 1970s. At the time the photographs were taken, in 2003, they were in a postwar Neocolonial home in New Jersey. Both the home and the furnishings have since been sold, and in part for that reason, seeing the photographs recently for the first time was a powerful emotional experience.
“My furniture is my true home,” she says. “It’s not about the house. I don’t truly live with a house, and never have. I live, and have lived, with beautiful furniture. It’s my heart, my hearth, my home—what is closest to me and connects me with the world, even after I have passed it on.”

She relates a tale surrounding a 1901 Charles Rohlfs rocking chair that appears on page 45 of Treasures of the Arts and Crafts Movement, courtesy of the Collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh.

“I had learned in 1986 that the chair was for sale, and agreed to meet the seller on a sidewalk in Upper New York State to look at it. I had to borrow $7,000 to buy it. I love Rohlfs, and I loved living with that chair while I had it. I loved having it appear in the book. One day not long after the book came out, the man who had sold it to me called to touch base, to say how pleased he was to see where it had ended up.

“I loved that, too.”

 

 

We are grateful to David Rudd for assistance in developing this article.

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One Response to “At Home With Modernity”

  1. Joe H says:

    Great article, and I am delighted to see to see an article in American Bungalow that spotlights the furniture. You don’t publish them often enough. I felt so vindicated to read Beth’s statement ‘“My furniture is my true home,” she says. “It’s not about the house. ….”‘

    You have produced some fine articles on Mission furniture in the apartments of New York City. I wish you would do more of these (throughout the country).

    thanks,
    -joe

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