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No Couch Potatoes

There are very few slackers among the artful objects at Artspace

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Many shops and galleries are full of wonderful handmade objects at this time of year--the time when most craftspeople, artists and their representatives make the bulk of their annual income. But sometimes all those galleries seem too full of product, too commercial, too glossy and trendy, when you crave something timeless rather than fashionable, something with a contemporary sensibility that still connects you with handmade's happy heart. If you are looking to buy something made by hand for a gift or for yourself, or just want some idea of the range of contemporary handcrafted objects for the home, check out C.O.U.C.H. at Artspace. Although most of the items on display are for sale, this exhibition of Contemporary Objects and Utilitarian Crafts for the Home is pleasantly uncrowded and uncommercial, and there are some very special things in it.

Organized by Corkey Goldsmith of Artspace as a competitive exhibition (which she hopes to hold every year), C.O.U.C.H. was juried from slides by Jean McLaughlin, director of the Penland School of Crafts. Fifty-three people entered 130 pieces. There were entries from around the country, but most were from this general area. There's quite a bit of furniture, but, oddly, very little pottery. The 27 accepted pieces run the gamut of styles, from industrial chic and post-industrial cool, to Jetsons-like retro-futuristic, to high-craft contempo, to classic Arts and Crafts movement combinations of beauty and usefulness.

It is not the best crafted or most beautiful, but the piece of furniture that most interested me was Jean-Marie Mauclet's "Vanity," made of steel, plywood and mirror glass. This is the first really smart contemporary take on the vanity table I've ever seen. Above a structure of gunship gray steel, there's a curved tabletop of orangey-stained wood, and the mirror, instead of being a blocky or curved shape rising above that surface, is a tall rectangle set to the side--but not quite at right angles. Beneath the mirror is a small drawer with a red knob. The reverse side of the mirror is a valet stand, with a little shelf above a red hanging rod. Below is a place to sit, and a red steel loop where you could prop your foot while tying your shoe. What a good idea.

The show also includes some stunning silver work. Susan Amador's fantastic "Jaguar's Dream Tea Set" comprises three pieces, each mirror-smooth below and hammered above, with both raised and impressed designs vaguely Mayan in nature, including many jaguars. The handles are made from dark antelope horn, an exotic contrast with the worked silver. At the opposite end of the spectrum of elaboration lies Jane D. Benjamin's work, which is simplicity itself. Her sake cups are formed from small lotus-leaf shapes rolled into little cones punctuated with tiny dewdrops of gold. Each cup arises on slim, curvy legs from a black beach-stone base. Most sake cups are humble pottery and the more elegant are porcelain. These silver ones must be for the sake of the gods.

The most impressive of the Arts and Crafts style works are James Cooper's pair of "Red Bud Lanterns." If I had $7,000, I'd forget about buying the car I need and buy these instead. They would doubtless make me happier--and for much longer. These lanterns and their accompanying brackets are formed and forged from heavy copper and stainless steel, and curved mica inserts in the lanterns' cutaway openings shade the light bulbs. A copper branch arches diagonally over the mica, leafed out in the distinctive heart shapes of the redbud tree. The lantern form is a truncated cone with its narrower end down, capped by a gently domed lid with a hanging ring. That ring depends from a forged stainless steel curl unfurled from a pair of copper leaves, which in turn emerge from a slightly domed circular copper wall mount, edged in stainless.

Every detail of the design and the making of these lanterns is so well done that you feel enormous pleasure and satisfaction in looking at them. They are probably meant to go outside, where the copper would gradually develop a rich patina, but they would be just as beautiful inside. That is where Ben Galata's forged black steel standing lamp belongs. It is simpler in design and materials, but no less well crafted or lovely in its way than Cooper's lanterns. If every object around us were of this caliber, we would all be happier people.

One hundred and fifty years ago the Arts and Crafts movement arose as an antidote to the soul-poisoning conditions of the industrial age, with its shoddily designed, mass-produced things. The rush of happiness one feels in the presence of these handcrafted objects proves that we still need that antidote. We're post-industrial, postmodern and nearly post-PC--but we will never be past the need to have things around us made by hand, with heart, out of the old materials. EndBlock

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