The (America) House that Mrs. Webb Built

The roster of artists who sold through America House reads like a who's who in American crafts: Elsa Freund, Michael Coffey, Wharton Esherick, Paolo Soleri, Jere Osgood, Ronald Hayes Pearson, Earl Pardon, Tage Frid, Marguerite Wilden­hain, to name just a few. Wendell Castle met Mrs. Webb when he moved to New York in 1961. He sent pictures of his work to America House and met with Florence Eastmead, then the shop's director. She showed them to Mrs. Webb, who purchased "three of his best pieces for herself"11 and retailed the rest through America House. Of the "best pieces" one was the coffee table in Figure 17, which Mrs. Webb's son later donated to what is today the Museum of Arts and Design. One of Castle's earliest and most impor­tant works, the "Kafka-like" Scribe's Stool, was featured in the shop's 1962 Young Americans exhibition and illustrated in the July-August 1962 issue of Craft Horizons.12 Castle was also commissioned to build jewelry cases for the Fifty-Third Street location. Of the importance of America House, he says, "there has never been anything that has come close to replacing it. Everyone who was important at the time of the shop's existence sold their work there."13

Dorsey Reading, who was assistant to the metalsmith and designer Paul Evans for twenty-three years begin­ning in 1959, confirms that "Evans's involvement with America House helped launch his career. To have his pieces go straight from his New Hope studio to Madison Avenue was a supreme way to reach clients." As with some of her other artists, Mrs. Webb became Evans's patron. She helped him secure a scholarship to the Cranbrook Academy of Art and then a fellowship to Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. Though Evans became the designer at Directional Furniture Com­pany in 1963 he continued his affiliation with Amer­ica House through 1965, offering them pieces from his highly successful Sculpted Front series.14

Evans and Phillip Lloyd Powell, with whom he shared his studio, partook in a well-reviewed exhi­bition at America House in 1961 that included thirty tables, chairs, cabinets, and screens of their design. Reading remembers that one of Evans's room-high vertical wall dividers was shown in the shop window. Powell equated the 1961 ex­hibition with "winning the Acadmy Awards" and said "it put me on the map."15  Not long before his death in 2008 he told a journalist that Mrs. Webb "was my angel. We used to call her ‘Mrs. Arts and Crafts.'"16 Evans and Powell also worked closely with the America House's Interior Design Consultation Services to create one-of-a-kind pieces for clients.

Ceramists Michael and Harriet Cohen sold their pottery at the shop for a decade, from 1961 to 1971, and considered it their best customer. Since they were located in New Hampshire, America House allowed them to reach clients that they ordinarily would not have had access to. Cohen recalls that each trip to the shop "was incredibly exciting because it gave me the opportunity to see what other people...were doing." It was the place to "see the best craftwork in the country."17

[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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