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Picking Up Around the House

Familiar Furnishings Drew New Power From This Year's Design Standouts

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page N06

In the world of design, 2004 was a year of polar opposites. But the richness of the human spirit proved astounding.

There were elements of excess worthy of the tabloids. Corporate chieftain Dennis Kozlowski defended his right to live large, an aspiration neatly symbolized by revelations about his $6,000 shower curtain. Martha Stewart defended hers, too, though it was hard to ignore the irony that her fortunes prospered thanks to shoppers on limited budgets who sought out her low-price, high-design products at Kmart.

Gee's Bend, Ala., quilters Mary Lee Bendolph, left, and Arlonzia Pettway at the Corcoran. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

Little wonder that the guardians of design culture drew up the drawbridges. Instead of fancy products, they celebrated people and projects that demonstrated conscience.

All summer, the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York featured a prototype for emergency shelter as the centerpiece of its garden.

Last month, the Aga Khan gave one of his prestigious architecture awards to a prototype kit for refugee housing made of little more than rubble, sandbags and barbed wire. The designer, Nader Khalili, has proposed rebuilding earthquake-demolished Bam in his native Iran with his cheap, hand-built earth domes.

National Design Awards went to the guru of "green" architecture, William McDonough, and to Aveda Corp., which packages lipsticks in high-design containers made of recycled materials.

The bad news: Two design darlings from yesterday, the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen's New Beetle, turned up as "used cars to avoid" in Consumer Reports' latest Used-Car Yearbook, published in November. Undeniably cute styling hasn't translated into "reliable" transportation for Consumers Union experts and subscribers, who rated Minis for 2002 and 2003 and New Beetles from 1998 to 2003.

The decorative arts sparkled -- literally -- on the auction block. Toward year-end, the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna paid $36 million for the Badminton Cabinet, an exceptional early-18th-century work in pietra dura, or hard and semi-precious stones, from the Medici workshop in Florence.

But that extravagance paled beside the estimated $90 million to $130 million that Sotheby's hoped to bring in for the Faberge collection amassed by the late Malcolm Forbes and consigned by his sons. Among the 180 objects from the famed jewelers' workshop in czarist Russia were nine golden, stone-encrusted imperial Easter eggs.

Their market value, however, remains unknown. On the eve of the New York auction, one of Russia's new tycoons, Viktor Vekselberg, purchased the entire collection; he declined to disclose for how much. Vekselberg has built a diverse business empire involving SUAL aluminum, BP-TNK oil and gas, pharmaceuticals and food. He followed through on a promise to repatriate the Faberge eggs for a tour of Russia, but not everyone was happy to see them home again. According to news reports, when the booty was displayed at the Patriarch's Palace in the Kremlin, a group of National Bolshevik Party activists marched into the exhibition hall, handcuffed themselves to an easel holding a portrait of Nicholas II and to massive columns and chanted, "Czarism won't succeed!" and "Down with Putin's autocracy!" Arrests were made quickly, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, after which the Bolshevik Party Web site explained that the "blockade" had been organized to protest "the revival of despotism and monarchy in Russia."

No one questioned the beauty and craftsmanship of the eggs.

Washingtonians had access to a half-dozen shows devoted to textile arts, crafts and objects, as well as to design by women. But none carried the emotional power of "The Quilts of Gee's Bend." The patched coverlets of faded denim and mattress ticking were celebrated as abstract art in a moving exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. But quilts are quilts.

The quilts, made between 1930 and 1990, represent the artistic legacy of women descended from freed slaves in Gee's Bend, Ala. The works are unorthodox in technique. Stitches are random, the piecing quirky and the patterns derived from old tin rooftops, or the inspired imaginations of a community almost totally lacking in creature comforts.

Today, the women of Gee's Bend continue the quilting tradition in the remote hamlet. They live modestly, despite their newfound fame. Arlonzia Pettway, who attended the opening in Washington, recalled selling her quilts for $5 each before Gee's Bend became an art-world event. Earlier this year, she sold a new one, sewn from bits of old trousers, for $8,900.

If there is a downside to the story, it is that licensees have also found the bluejean aesthetic likable. The saga of survival is being translated into custom carpets for high-end homes, which were sold at the Corcoran shop, and dorm-room bedspreads copied by factory workers in China. Wall art for Wal-Mart -- from quilt to art to mass-market reproduction -- is promised next.

The women of Gee's Bend stand to benefit with each ring of the cash register, so it's hard to complain. Pettway was confident that the artists' place remains secure. Licensees can't compete, she said on her visit here. "We have the name," she said. "They can't take our name."

But even as art makes its way into history, the popularity of quilts comes and goes with fickle lifestyle trends. Hundreds of authentic quilts remain stacked in a store in Gee's Bend, and according to a report a few weeks ago on National Public Radio, none had sold recently.

Beauty for the 21st century is harder to define. In Milan and New York, parallel visions from two Dutch designers are rippling through the world of contemporary design.

Tord Boontje, who works in London, creates lacy fantasies of flowers out of Swarovski crystals, laser-cut brass and silver, black and white silk and layers of red, hot pink and purple fabric or paper. His concoctions can be hung from ceilings, wrapped around light bulbs, draped over furniture like crisply contemporary afghans. Boontje is ornamental, decorative and colorful all at once, which puts him at the vanguard of the post-minimalist movement.

His polar opposite is Maarten Baas, a young intellectual who creates beautiful works of contemporary art by burning furniture until it is blackened like charcoal. Baas was formally introduced to New York's cognoscenti in May with a one-man show of blackened classics. The chairs, originally by Eames, Macintosh and others, were infused with resin to last at least another lifetime as homages signed by Baas.

Voltaire could not have created starker scenery than Boontje's very cultivated garden and Baas's charred-to-ruins beauties. But it's not the end of the world, and cultivating one's own garden is not a bad New Year's resolution.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company