THE JOKE goes that Lloyd Herman was named director of the Renwick Gallery because he was the only one around-except for Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley-tall enough to screw lightbulbs in the Grand Salon.
The Story is a tad exaggerated. Herman is only 6 feet 3 (though as a young man he claimed 6 feet 4-"You know our Western tall tales"). The ceiligns in the Renwick salon are 30 feet high.
However, Herman does have, according to his colleagues and constituents, the reach to achieve the high goals of the Renwick Gallery. From the gallery's opening in 1973, it has become a showcase-one of three in the country-for the best of American design, decorative arts and crafts, contemporary and historical. The Renwick's international shows, while not so pace-setting, also have been well-received.
The Renwick also has organized shows that have toured. Herman himself has juried craft shows and lectured on crafts all over the country. In the process, he become one of the best-known and most knowledgeable people in the country in the new field of contemporary crafts and modern design.
The great revival of interest in hand-made objects and the appreciation of good modern design are phenomena of this decade. There are maby scholars of historic periods of design but few of 20th-century design. Herman has benefitted from serving under the guidance of Joshua Taylor, one of the world's top art scholars and educators and director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, of which the Renwick is a department.
The Potomac Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers is giving Herman their first award for "outstanding contributions to the design field." The handsome acrylic trophy by Jeffery Bigelow (whose elegant plastic designs received a big push from Renwick shows) will be presented Saturday at an invitational dinner at the Washington Club.
With his full but neatly trimmed white beard and walrus moustached, Herman, 43, looks very at home in the velvet Victorian grandeur of the Renwick's salon. For a while at openings, he even wore velvet suits to match.On one occasion, his staff gave him a cummerbund made of the trimmings from the curtains of a Renwick salon.
His own home, shared with a friend, is the complete opposite of the Renwick's grand salon. The cottage shows how the objects you put into a place make its character. It's an interesting study of how an expert in design can take a modest cottage and make it into an interesting and comfortable home.
The house, in the section of Arlington called Ballston, cost $46,000 three years ago, though the insulation and storm windows and such cost another $10,000. It is the sort built int he 1920s by the score. "It's almost exactly like the immigrant's cottage they show in the 'Nation of Nations' exhibition at the Museum of History and Technology," said Herman, showing his quests around the other day. The principal area is a double room, originally a DINING ROOM AND A LIVING ROOM, WITH ONLY NARROW BITS OF WALL ON EITHER SIDE TO DEFINE THE SPACES. HERMAN USES THE SPACE AS ONE BIG ROOM, WITH A TABLE CASUALLY AGAINST ONE WALL OF DINING.
HERMAN LIKES THE HOUSE BECAUSE OF ITS LOCATION; FOUR BLOCKS FROM THE SUBWAY, WITHIN BIKING DISTANCE OF THE RENWICK (IF YOU HAVE LONG LEGS AND ARE STALWART) AND NEAR A YMCA for his morning swims. He also chose it because it's economical, sits on 3 1/2 lots, and has good light and deciduous trees.
"When we stripped the walls of the old paper, we found the plaster walls had been stenciled originally. We were lucky enough to find The Stenciled Pineapple of Falls Church to copy the pattern and fill in the holes."
Herman hasn't done anything drastic to the cottage. "I didn't want to tamper with its history." But the kitchen was brought up to date and an extra bath added.
The real difference in the house is made by the objects Herman has collected in his travels to Mexico, China, Italy and Switzerland, at Goodwill, from places that advertise in the want ads, and from an occasional foray in the alley.
Over the fireplace with its rather high, awkward mantel is a papier mache rhino by Mexican sculptor Sergio Bustante, who also made the brass bird that stands before the fire. A small Chinese signature seal sits on the mantel by a pottery cat. In front of the fire is a chair that's really a sculpture to sit in-a very upright chair with a back twisted like a rope-by Richard Herz of Seattle. "I think its very sensous with all those twists," said Herman.
In front of the sofa is a collection of decorated eggs-Mexican, Indian, Nepalese, Swedish, even one covered with feathers. A tiger bamboo end table was once a sewing stand. "I bought it before tiger bamboo was expensive," Herman said.
Herman is a great one for flea markets and for reading the want ads. Back when Goodwill Industries had a used-furniture shop within walking distance of his office, he would check it regularly. Herman made a small table with a three-legged base he found in the trash and a cutting block top. Another table came from a straw stool from Pier One topped with a found piece of glass.
In the back living room is a Thonet rocket and a prototype plywood chair by Peter Danko of Alexandria. Herman also has chairs by classic Scandinavian designers Eric Magnussen and Bruno Matheson, plus a classic American modern molded Charles Eames chair.
All these disparate elements-the traditional stenciling, the international crafts, the modern furniture and ar-all com together to make a living and dining room that is a very personal expression of a wide and catholic interest in decorative objects. Yet the room has no look of a museum or the studied appearance of an obsessive collector. The room isn't the sort of slick place where every tiny element is arranged to a carefuuly pre-or-dained design. It's a nest where people like to be at ease and enjoy pretty things.
"I particularly like to collect 20th-century classics," said Herman."When I owned a house in Hollins Hills, I had all contemporary furnishings, but I thought it was rather dull to have them in contemporary house. I think my things show off better in this house.
"I've been through several phases: the Country Look, Early American. Now I like to call it 'Good Taste' by which I really mean I choose what I like. At least, I tell myself, there's a consistency. And I rely on color and texture to rbing things together."
Herman has used some of his furniture finds at one of his two beach houses-including a 400-pound ceramic wall sculpture.
He has a small but good collection of paintings, including two by Lowell Nesbitt-one a flower study, the other a nude portrait of Herman.
Herman's father was a real-estate dealer in Oregon. Herman has inherited the hunger for houses and land. He owns two apartment buildings and some other property. "Except for going to the theater, I live frugally," he said. "I don't buy a lot of clothes or take expensive vacations-when I travel it's usually work. I don't have a wife or children. So I bury real estate."
Herman didn't start out to be a museum director. He acted in radio plays as a child, studied speech and drama at Oregon State University, worked in summer stock in South Dakota's Black Hills Playhouse, and served two years in the Navy.
"I came to Washington to study theater at Catholic University, but the department wasn't then at its best, so I went to work for a trade association and then later as assistant box office manager of Arena Stage."
That experience convinced Herman that the theater wasn't his home, so he went to work as publicity director of the National Association of Home Builders. "I started an exhibit program to bring in the public. Many of them were traveling exhibition shows from the Smithsonian." From there he moved to the Smithsonian to help Frank Taylor, who was then administering the National Museum Act. Herman renovated parts of the old Arts and Industries Building and started an exhibits program there, including the memorable chair show, "Please Be Seated." Accident and Happenstance
Joshua Taylor not only oversees Herman's operation, but also thinks up the snappy titles for his shows. The renwick is the most active department in the National Collectron of Fine Arts, with the largest number of shows and events.
Director Taylor said that he discovered Herman almost by accident. "When I first came to the National Collection, everything about the Renwick was up in the air-we didn't even have a name for the gallery. We were fishing for an identity for it. There was also a not very fruitful search going on for a head of the gallery. When Robert Davis (then the NCFA assistant director) was ill, I had to take over his work.
"In his papers I found a proposal for the gallery, written by Lloyd two years earlier. It was the first thing about the gallery I had read that made sense. Lloyd had suggested that it have less of a historical focus and include industrial design. I thought that was great. I have never regretted my choice.
"The program has evolved since then. I think over the years we have made a good balance between past and present. Lloyd's contacts with crafts experts throughout this country and abroad are very important to the Renwick. Lloyd has become very knowedgeable.
Taylor said he "rarely initiates shows for the Renwick, though I reserve the right to put a hand in when the crafts are Mexican." (Taylor is very well known as an expert and fancier of Mexican arts).
Since the Renwick's opening, Herman has been responsible for 57 shows. About a third of the Renwick shows are organized by him or ny Michael Monroe, the Renwick curator. A third more come from other museums and the final third are guest-curated. "We couldn't possibly have a staff that would cover all the specialities of our guest curators," Monroe said. Showing at the Renwick
Some of the exhibits have been contemporary, such as the amusing "Figure and Fantasy," the trend-setting "Crafts Multiples" or the notable "Harmonious Craft: American Musical Instruments." Others have been historical: "The Decorative designs of Frank Lloyd Wright," "Paint on Wood: Decorated American Furniture Since the 17th Century" and "Brazilian Baroque." One of the best was the Raymond Lowy exhibit, a retrospective not only of Lowy's work but of an innovative period in American industrial design. The most interesting well may by the master craftsmen series-Dale Chihuly, Otto and Gertrude Natzler, Albert Paley, for instance.
"Lloyd is really an idea man," said Monroe. "He's very good at thinking up events-all related to our programs. I think he's made the museum a very lively place. The Master Craftsman Series was his idea. We chose the speakers by asking ourselves who did we most want to hear lecture."
Harry Lowe, NCFA assistant director, put it this way: "Lloyd is frugal. He spends every nickel twice. When he puts on a exhibit, he arranges lectures, demonstrations, what have you, to get the most out of it."
Both Herman and Taylor come from the Northwest. Perhaps because of their interests (or because the Smithsonian has large Indian collections) several of the shows have presented the work of the American Indian. The Renwick has not done as well by the American black, though one excellent show was about the Oshogbo artist of Nigeria, assembled by the Wolford family, who collected in Africa while on a State Department tour.
Herman worked with the White House to display table settings by American artists commissioned by Rosalynn Carter for a congressional luncheon. And Joan Mondale has made it a point to invite to tea the master craftsmen appearing at the Renwick. Elena Canavier, Mondale's arts assistant, said she and Herman "were both on a selection committee for American crafts for the Vatican Musemm. Lloyd made the presentation in Rome. He has wonderful tast and a fine feeling for design.
Not all people in crafts, though, think Herman wears a halo. A number of Washington-area craftsworkers have been disappointed that the Renwick has not shown more of their owrk. Local artist had hoped that the Renwick would in part be a showcase for them. They were especially disappointed because Herman, when he was with the Home Builders Association, had vien space to several locally organized events.
But in his defense, Caroline Hecker, the local representative of the American Crafts Council and director of the Greenwood Gallery master craftsmen workshops (held in conjunction with the Renwick lectures), said, "You can't blame Lloyd for not having local shows. The Renwick is a national museum and has an obligation to be national in scope.
"On the other hand, he has been very very generous in giving advice to local craftsmen on grants, exhibits and publications. He's always willing to see people."
Peter Danko designed and manufactured a remarkable plywood chair made from a single sheet of plywood. He credits Herman with advising him to turn away from making expensie wooden sculptured furniture which few people could afford. Danko's inexpensive plywood chair has been chosen for the Museum of Modern Art's Good Design collection.
Monroe makes the point that while the Renwick is a national museum, it does not make an effort to include the work of local artists/craftsmen where they are of a national caliber. "For instance, when the stained-glass show came to us from the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, we added the work of some local glass workers whom we thought were as good as the out-of-towners. In 'Crafts Multiples," we had local artists, as well as in 'Surface Decoration." Oftern local artist are shown and sold in our museum shops." Not All Were Were Winners
Of course, not all the shows have been complete successes. The Herman Miller/Knoll International Show had some severe problems of organization. And obviously, not everybody has liked every show. Two I did not favor were the funky "Object as Poet," juxtapositions of objects and words, and the super-mundane "Signs of Life: Symbols of the American Ciy" by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown of Philadelphia, showing tacky interiors.
Herman rightly answers. "We don't have to like everything we whow in the Renwick. Some things need to be exhibited because they're important as trends. Like it or not, they deserve to be presented to the public.
In the coming decade, Herman believes that decorative objects will have "a greater refinement of form. We'll see less funky and rustic objects. In jewelry there's still a great deal of mechanistic forms. But in furniture you can already see the return to fine detailing and careful inlay work. I think we are decidedly moving into a period of objects with decorated surfaces."