Jonathan Prown

America’s love of early Rhode Island furniture and, in particular, Newport furniture did not originate in one time or place. Even so, much of the enthusiasm was inspired by our earliest furniture historians, who were especially fascinated with that most distinctive of all local craft expressions—the blockfront. The pioneering furniture scholar Luke Vincent Lockwood proudly declared in his 1904 catalogue of the furniture in the Pendleton House that the blockfront forms made in Newport were superior both in cabinetwork and design to most other examples of colonial furniture. Similarly laudatory was English furniture historian Herbert Cescinsky, who wrote in his well-known English and American Furniture (1929): “Although these Philadelphia highboys and lowboys bring enormous prices at public auctions, if I were asked to select the finest examples of American furniture, my choice would fall on the block-fronted bureaux from Newport and Rhode Island.”

American furniture enthusiasts continue to admire the great artistic achievements of the region’s early craftspeople, and similar sentiments abound in the articles in this special volume of American Furniture. But the primary aim of the 1999 volume is to present “New Perspectives on Rhode Island Furniture Making,” the title of the October 1999 Symposium cosponsored by Christie’s and Chipstone, where these papers were presented. Over the last twenty years a growing range of cultural historians have expanded our understanding of this important early American colony. Decorative arts scholars, too, have begun to explore innovative modes of interpretation that reflect a broader intellectual fascination with the craft traditions of this colony, a fascination rooted as much in the people, place, and cultural patterns as it is in the objects themselves. The most creative of these newer modes of analysis are multidimensional in character—merging methods of traditional connoisseurship with modern material culture methodology, socioeconomic analysis, quantitative research, and other innovative approaches that jointly enhance our understanding of Rhode Island furnituremaking.

In its support of this type of scholarship, the Chipstone Foundation also is expressing its continued commitment to forwarding American decorative arts scholarship. At the same time, the organization itself is moving in several important new directions. To many people in the decorative arts world, Chipstone stands as a familiar name but its precise mission or purpose remains something of an enigma, which is understandable given its primary and longtime role as a private collection. Beginning in 1946, Stanley and Polly Stone began to amass an important collection of American furniture, English ceramics, and American prints, which they lived with in their home, Chipstone, a colonial revival brick house located on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. The Stones, more than just inspired collectors, also had the foresight to create a foundation dedicated to promoting American decorative arts scholarship through sharing their artifacts and supporting significant decorative arts projects and publications at other institutions. Stanley Stone died in 1987 and Polly in 1995. Since that time the challenge has been to redefine the nature of the foundation so as to contribute more fully to the field; several exciting new directions are now being pursued.

Because the Stones’ residence is located in the small, residential neighborhood of Fox Point, one of the questions faced after their death was how to provide public access to their collection. Loans to other institutions have been one viable way of sharing portions of the collection, and the foundation will continue to make loans in the years ahead. Still, a more permanent solution was desirable. This was accomplished in September 1999 with the public announcement that Chipstone and the Milwaukee Art Museum would work together on the reinstallation of the decorative arts wing at that fine public museum, scheduled to open in early 2001. Through this joint venture, the significant collections at Chipstone will be on view to the public at the museum, which—along with the associated Layton Art Collection—already has a wonderfully deep and diverse collection of American decorative arts from the seventeenth century to the present. The venture is all the more exciting because the Milwaukee Art Museum is in the final stages of a $63,000,000 expansion that centers around a spectacular waterfront addition designed by the famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Thus, through new cooperative efforts, in particular the support of interpretive programming and evolving exhibits at the museum, Chipstone is seeking new ways in which to fulfill its stated goal of advancing American decorative arts scholarship.

A second major venture for the foundation was inspired by the great success of American Furniture, which has been edited by Luke Beckerdite since its inception in 1993. Chipstone has a modestly sized but highly important collection of early ceramics, mostly of English origin but with a representative assortment of Continental and Chinese wares that together help tell the story of ceramics in early Anglo-America. Through the aforementioned institutional partnership this story will be told at the Milwaukee Art Museum. On a larger scale, it also is clear that the ceramics world needs a new type of journal, one with a strong cultural as well as artifactual focus. This sort of journal could help put into context the story of Ceramics in America, which will be the title of Chipstone’s new annual publication. We envision a well-rounded journal that brings together a wide range of perspectives, not just curatorial but also archaeological, anthropological, historical, and scientific. Toward this end, Robert R. Hunter, Jr., who has considerable experience both as a curator and an archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William & Mary, will serve as executive editor. Mr. Hunter already has planned several exciting issues. The first volume is due out in May 2001 and will assess past and present scholarly understanding of ceramics in America through an exciting series of essays by scholars from leading museums and universities in this country and abroad.

The final major new development at Chipstone involves a rapidly evolving association with the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 1998, Ann Smart Martin, formerly of the Winterthur Museum and Colonial Williamsburg, was named the Stanley and Polly Stone Professor of American Decorative Arts, a position funded by Chipstone. Professor Martin’s arrival has proved to be a wonderful catalyst at the university, where she and a talented group of colleagues in the art history department are working to design a program that broadly explores the story of material culture in America. The program reflects contemporary interest in multiple approaches to the study of American material culture and is bringing together scholars from other departments at the university, including history, art, African studies, design, and literature. This, in turn, promises to greatly enhance the way material culture topics are explored at the university and, by association, at Chipstone and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Chipstone also is funding a material culture graduate fellowship named in honor of James Watrous, a longtime and widely regarded professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin, and in the future plans to work in cooperation with the university to expand the number of scholarships and professorships in the program. In a further effort to bridge the eighty miles that separate Chipstone and the university and to give students a richer educational experience, a specialized research center and digital library are in the planning stages. The study center, located on site at Chipstone, will be a part of the University of Wisconsin library consortium and, through the use of the latest technologies, will support research and provide the resources for teaching material culture themes.

The response to these new initiatives has been extremely positive, both with the general public and professionals in the field. Renowned historical archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume and his wife, Carol, have decided to place their important collection of ceramics at Chipstone. This didactic collection, formed over the last fifty years, tells the story of British pottery from the Roman period on up to the introduction of industrial modes of production in the mid-nineteenth century. Featuring a wide range of wares, numerous archaeological shards, and rare experimental objects made during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Hume collection will become an important teaching tool that will be used at Chipstone, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and University of Wisconsin. Mr. Hume currently is completing a book that traces the formation of this collection and documents his many experiences in the fields of archaeology and decorative arts.

In sum, the Chipstone Foundation is moving forward and, in a sense, going public. The foundation will continue to support significant publications and conferences, but it also now will advance scholarship in the field through the ceramics journal and the new associations with the Milwaukee Art Museum and the University of Wisconsin.