My new book “Aged To Perfection” is finally in bookstores throughout the country. It’s a Country Living book about adding rustic charm to your modern home inside and out. One of my favorite chapters is on retro collections under which I have a section called “Kitsch.” Of German origin, the word kitsch came into use in the nineteenth century and has been used to categorize art that is considered to be a tasteless copy of an existing style. It was originally associated with art that is sentimental. Today, garden gnomes and other lawn ornaments are often considered kitschy, as is a collection of Cupie dolls. Such items, while looked down upon by serious art collectors, are highly desirable among retro collectors. I think of these items as particularly appealing to Key West homeowners as it seems to go with that style of decorating. It isn’t that the houses are tasteless, it’s that I think of Key West, more than any other place, as expressing a sense of humor and appreciation for high camp.
Most items from the fifties seem to have a fine-tuned kitschy quality. Pottery pieces in turquoise, bright yellow, orange, coral and aqua, colorful vintage tablecloths and chenille bedspreads are considered kitschy, along with Pyrex bowls and aqua painted canisters. Not enough time has gone by as to make them true antiques, but they have a retro value that is appealing for their nostalgic design.
When you put a collection of these things together it makes a statement. It can be interesting and useful at the same time. For example, a painted china cupboard filled with green glass pottery like a juice squeezer, glasses, vases, bowls and canisters imbue a room with personality. By keeping everything of one color, material and era the collection, which in and of itself doesn’t cost much (these items are easy to find at junk shops and yard sales) makes a downright quaint display that’s sort of warm and fuzzy. An open shelf might hold a plethora of turquoise pottery that includes McCoy pieces or Fiestaware. When you go antiquing, fine-tune your vision so that anything from the fifties pops out at you. It’s far enough back there to be of interest but not so old as to be expensive.
This summer Rafael Osona auctioned off a metal dinette set, typical of this era. If you think about it, this fifties artifact is almost industrial-looking which, in a modern home or even an early antique home could be almost as interesting as a piece of sculpture. Things from the past have great appeal when they are placed in an unlikely environment.
Everyday items from the past make great accessories. For example, as a collection, old boxes which have been used as storage since Early American times, not only lend character to shelves or a desktop, but they are handy. They even look great piled on the floor.
Before glass jars, tin cans, and commercially packaged foods, wooden boxes made by local carpenters served almost every household need. Candle boxes, matchboxes, and boxes for sugar, cheese, cornmeal, grains, and butter were a dime a dozen (or rather two to fifteen shillings).
Other everyday items make great collectibles as well. Vintage kitchenware, including pots, pans, and smaller cooking tools and utensils, creates atmosphere simply hanging from a space-saving rack. My friend Jean Doyen de Montaillou gave a plant stand new life as a plate holder with a fresh coat of white paint.
Cast-iron cookware was highly valued in the eighteenth century. It is basically iron that is poured into a mold to create useful implements, such as pots, pans and muffin tins. And here’s a bit of trivia: George Washington’s mother thought so much of her cookware that she made a special bequeath of her cast iron in her will. Lewis and Clark indicated that their cast iron Dutch oven was one of their most important pieces of equipment during their expedition in the Louisiana territory in 1804.
Early graphic signs made of wood, tin, or paper hung as art provide visual interest and are often consider “kitschy”. America’s golden age of sign making occurred from the last quarter of the eighteenth century or the mid-nineteenth century. Signs were usually hung on storefronts and advertised the businesses within. They were often comprised of a large image and a few words. Antique shops dealing in folk art are the best source for wooden trade signs. Early tavern signs are the most plentiful and are among the favorites. They often depict an American eagle, a bull, or a horse. Beware! The date on a tavern sign represents when the innkeeper received his license, not necessarily the date the sign was made.
So, if you are in the “sprucing up your kitchen” mood try a little bit of kitsch, mixing early cookware and kitchen implements with old signs. Hunting for these items might be a fun winter activity.