The (America) House that Mrs. Webb Built

Prior to the opening of America House, the selection of American handmade crafts available to the public was limited. A letter sent to po­tential consignors identified the shop's main goal as providing a "central location for the sale and distribu­tion of American handicrafts."5 America House would act as an agent and would help craftsmen decide on prices, wholesale and retail, that would be fair to both them and the shop. In the beginning objects were taken on consignment and the shop was run as a co­operative, with everyone involved owning a two dollar share of stock (it became a corporation in 1951). Crafts­men were asked to submit their work through their group, or league, to ensure that only the best was sent on to the shop; by 1943 this had changed and craftsmen began to submit their work directly. To help regulate prices and ensure that buyers in search of the best American crafts would always come to America House, makers were expected to make the shop the sole outlet for their work.

From the early days, Mrs. Webb was supported by a group of dedicated individuals who eventually became America House's board of trustees: Dorothy Liebes, Dorothy Schaffer, Dorothy Draper, May Wal­ter, Alfred Auerbach, Walter H. Kilham, Frank Stanton, and Edward J. Wormley. Frances Wright Caroé (1890-1959), the youngest daughter of Frank Lloyd Wright by his first marriage, was the main liaison be­tween the artists and the shop, traveling the country and selecting the very best to bring back with her. Her daughter, who often traveled with her, remembers Caroé making suggestions to the craftspeople she met about how to improve their produc­tion methods and better market their work.6 As the first director of the shop, she took her "counseling" a step further by publishing an advice column called "Prevailing Winds" in Craft Horizons (the first installment appeared in the August 1947 issue). Introducing the column, she wrote that in it she would pull "no punches...for here are met the realities as dollars and cents which are as sharp as a cutting tool, as tricky as a glaze, intricate as a loom dressing, as manipulative as silver, as smooth as molten crystal, and completely fickle as color, form, and func­tion."7 Caroé tried to get her father involved with America House and sent him samples of upholstery fabrics from the shop that she hoped he would show to his clients and use in their houses. Caroé left America House in 1952 under uncertain circum­stances, but in her unpublished memoir written many years later, Mrs. Webb acknowledged that Caroé's "vi­sion of the future of crafts was far ahead of mine."8

A central location was crucial to the shop since ac­cessibility was part of its mission. Over the course of its thirty-year history, America House had four differ­ent addresses: it opened in October 1940 at 7 EastFifty-Fourth Street, then in October 1943 moved to 485 Madison Avenue at Fifty-Second Street. To save money on rent, in September 1949 it moved to the back of the same building, giving up the Madison Avenue storefront for a 32 East Fifty-Second Street address; in September 1960 it settled in its most glam­orous venue at 44 West Fifty-Third Street.

Mrs. Webb carried the American-made theme of the shop into its interior color scheme. According to pho­tograph captions in the May 1943 issue of Craft Horizons, the walls of the first shop were dep blue and white, the curtains striped red and white, and a bald eagle-the symbol of America House-graced the front door. When the shop moved to 485Madison Avenue Dorothy Draper, the well-known interior decorator and a founding member, continued the red, white, and blue color scheme. It was not until the shop moved to Fifty-Third Street, a space renovated by David K. Campbell, that this patriotic color scheme was aban­doned.9 Campbell chose to outfit the new space, four floors and a mezzanine, in rough brick, pandanus cloth, and wood-textures that would complement the products sold. The shop also had a patio for outdoor art installations.10 All the decorative elements and furnishings were made by craftsmen associated with America House. For his work, Campbell was awarded a prize by the Fifth Avenue Association for the best design of a renovated New York building in 1961.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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