Monday, April 14, 2014

The Dismal State of Thrifting in the DC City Limits

Guys, I tried. I really tried. I even took a friend with me so mine wouldn't be the only opinion.

But the state of thrifting within the DC city limits is pretty darn dismal. Oh, there are a couple of bright(er) spots, but they're about as far into the outskirts of the city as you can get without actually being in the suburbs.

The usual caveats apply. I'm not looking for clothing or brand new stuff. I'm mostly searching out vintage items for my own collection and my Etsy shop. Your mileage may vary, especially if you've got a store on your walk home from work or something that you can hit every day. And I mean EVERY DAY. Or you're probably not going to find a thing. That said, here's what I found on my thrifting trip into DC.

St. Alban's Opportunity Shop
3001 Wisconsin Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20016
This small shop in the basement of St. Alban's Episcopal Church is run by volunteers from the congregation as far as I can tell. It's not huge, but it's pretty much what you'd expect from a small shop in an upscale area. They sift through merchandise carefully so there isn't any junk on display. I bought a vintage lampshade for $2 and a carving set in a nice walnut box that will likely end up in my Etsy shop. Parking here was a bit of a puzzle until I realized that you can literally park for free right in front of the National Cathedral on Wisconsin Avenue. The only private parking belongs to the school and is reserved for faculty, staff and students. Do not park there. Even though it was snowing the day we visited, they were actively towing.

Georgia Avenue Thrift
6101 Georgia Avenue
Washington, DC 20011

I bought an addition to my collection of Zanesville Stoneage Modern pottery. I swear, there is so much of this stuff! It's a cheap an easy thing to collect and they make rather a nice statement when grouped together. This one was $3. My friend bought an Art Deco liquor dispenser here. There's an  okay selection of housewares here and a small amount of furniture in the back. I think if I were to ever develop a Maryland thrifting route, this store could be on it since it's practically in Takoma Park. Plus parking is easy and free.

2200 South Dakota Ave. N.E.
Washington, DC 20018

Goodwill never disappoints. The store on South Dakota is a good example. The staff is friendly; the store is clean and pretty well organized. It's not a huge Goodwill so the selection isn't as good as, say, the store in Fairfax, but there's a decent amount of furniture and housewares to make it worth the trip. We were pretty tired by the time we finally made it there, but I did find a cool mid century lamp that just needs a little clean-up and a new shade for $4. I'll keep my eye out for shades the next time I hit The Closet in Herndon. It needs a taller one than the one I bought at the St. Alban's shop. Parking here is easy and free in their parking lot.

We visited a couple of other stores too. Martha's Closet on 14th Street seemed to have some nice name-brand clothing, but they had almost no housewares and no furniture at all that I could see. American Rescue Workers Thrift on H Street was a bit better in that they did have furniture (including a bright green sofa that both my friend and I were rather desirous of) and a very friendly staff, but the store itself is pretty dingy. We didn't make it to the Salvation Army store in Southeast so I'll have to check that out on another day. You know how much I love the Annandale store so I'm sure I'll get there at some point.

In summary, We drove all over DC. It took about 5 hours. I bought less than $20 worth of stuff and spent probably another $5 on parking. On a typical day of thrifting my suburban routes, I'll spend about $40 and nothing at all on parking in an hour and a half. If you live in the suburbs, I'd say there's not enough bang for your buck (or really, time) here. If you live in the city, I think a different strategy than the one I use is probably in order. I could never see making a regular route out of the DC stores considering how scattered over the city they are. All in all, I'm newly appreciative of how many awesome thrift stores we have in Fairfax County.

So did I miss any of the thrift stores in the DC city limits? Or can you tell me that I just visited on an off day? Please tell me I did else I'll just have to feel quite badly for all of you city-dwellers.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Smithsonian Craft Show 2014

I think when most people hear the words "craft show" they think about rag dolls, bird houses and homemade fudge as a marching band fundraiser at the local high school. But there is an entirely different side to craft. Even if you're familiar with the world of indie craft via Etsy or shows like Crafty Bastards, you'll be astonished by the quality of work at a fine craft show like the Smithsonian Craft Show held annually at the National Building Museum. Warning: this is a long, photo-heavy post.

The show is organized and run by the Smithsonian Women's Committee and benefits Smithsonian grant programs that fund research, special exhibitions and other programs that would not be possible without independent funding. Wednesday night I attended the opening night preview party, though to be honest I was much too distracted by my conversations with the artists to do much partying. I think I managed one glass of wine all night and that was about it.

I've attended this show for several years and I'm always impressed by the level of skill exhibited, but this year's crop of artists really blew me away. It seems every artist I spoke to had a truly unique or exceptional skill to bring to their craft.

Take this chair by Mark Whitley. Be forewarned: I have a major thing for chairs, which I think are absolutely the hardest thing for a woodworker to design and build. Think about it. It has to be lovely to look at it; it has to be comfortable; it has to be sturdy and not fall apart; chairs are moved around a lot, bumped against walls and generally mishandled in a way that casegoods usually aren't. And I loved this chair so much that I could do a whole post on it. Really. All the hearts for this chair.

One of the things that is great about craft shows is that you can ask the makers why they made the choices they did with regard to style or construction. Whether you're a collector of contemporary studio furniture, vintage furniture or just a lover of well-made things, seeing joinery like this is a real education. Knowing something about how wood furniture is made gives me a huge advantage when it comes to spotting treasures in thrift stores: for example, what a hand-cut dovetail looks like versus one that is machine cut. I know where to check joints to be sure they're sound or fixable before snapping up that vintage steal. And looking at books is absolutely no substitute for talking with a woodworker who really knows his stuff because on a really good piece of furniture, what's going on inside is just as interesting as what's going on outside.

The first thing I noticed about this chair is that it looked like the front legs might be turned, which is a totally different process than the shaping done on the back legs, requiring the mastery of an entirely distinct set of skills: using a lathe that spins instead of various types of stationary tools to shape a part. Chatting with Mark confirmed that the front legs are indeed turned by him. A lot of the time craftsmen will just buy those kinds of parts because the skills and tools are so different.

Upon further discussion, it seems that not only is the tenon on that front leg wedged, he bakes that piece to lower the moisture from the typical 8% that he usually works with. It shrinks the part so that when he pounds it into place and it expands over the next few days, just reabsorbing moisture from the air, it tightens up the joint even more. The only way that leg is going anywhere is if you take a saw to it.

The next thing I noticed is that the top rail looked very precarious up there. That's a pretty tiny spot for just a bit of glue to be holding that. However, inside this joint is a half-inch thick, three inch long dowel. That's a lot of structure. It took me from worrying about the long-term viability of this joint to utterly secure in its longevity. Okay, rather than go on and on (I know, too late), just go see this chair for yourself and talk to Mark about it. Though I did upload a few more full-size photos to an album for those or you who are seriously into joinery.

One of the aspects of this year's show that stuck out was the humor and lightheartedness of a lot of the work. The ceramic mugs above are by Beer Chunhaswasdikul. He has been in the show before, which I know because we own several of his pieces--both the grenade mugs pictured above and a different design that incorporates a ceramic whistle. Even though the glaze is somewhat metallic, these mugs can go in the microwave. You just have to pull the pin first. How utterly morbidly humorous!

Next is this ceramic teapot by Gerard Justin Ferrari. Yes, I said ceramic teapot. Not metal. And okay, so it's shaped like a toy airplane and both the wheels and the propeller actually turn. In fact, that hole up there at the top turns to reveal the spot where you'd put water in for tea.

I'm apparently really digging the trompe-l'oeil teapots because here's another ceramic teapot from Eric Serritella. I took this photo from several feet away, but even from just a few inches, you would not believe that this teapot isn't wood. Eric had a demonstration piece available for handling and aside from it being just a bit too heavy to be birch wood, even the texture was convincing.

Contemporary wood furniture might seem an odd thing to talk about in terms of humor, but that's just what struck me about the work of Michael Gloor. He started out many years ago as a ceramic artist before moving to working in wood, which gives his pieces a sculptural quality.

But what I want to highlight here is his use of colored epoxy. The center strip of this dining table is maple and the edges are cherry with mineral deposits (those black dots). Often, the mineral deposits can create little divots as you slice the wood to use for furniture. It's generally not considered to be desirable and most furniture designers would not select a board that had that "defect". But Gloor instead chooses to highlight it by filling the holes with epoxy that matches the maple strip in the center. Maybe you have to be a furniture nerd to see the humor in that, but once I figured out what was going on there, I was most amused.

No matter the medium, what really stands out at this show is the phenomenal, almost miraculous technique of these artists. Carrie Gustafson makes these stunning blown glass vases and bowls. She first creates the layers of glass and then applies hand cut stencils to the surface before carefully sandblasting away the top layer to create the luminous final piece. Just a few seconds too long and the process punches right through the glass.

Another artist with astonishing technique is Lucrezia Bieler. She creates hand cut paper art that to the untrained eye probably looks like a print of some sort. It isn't.

She uses tiny scissors to create both negative and positive space, revealing an image. See above how the thorns are "dark" and the flowers are "light"? I was floored by both the design and execution of these works. They are just so incredibly detailed. One of the larger works on display this weekend took her six months to complete.

Speaking of ultra-detailed work that takes immense amounts of patience and time, Martha Fieber creates photo-realistic landscapes in thread. When I first passed her booth, they really looked like photographs. Each piece has many layers of thread that create the picture with a sense of dimension and perspective. They're also incredibly pretty.

While I will always have a fondness for fine art, which formed the basis for my art history education, my love of decorative arts is really what drives both my collecting and my shop. Handling everyday things that are lovely to look at, a pleasure to touch and functional to use pretty much forms the basis of my fascination for art and design. There are always stunning examples of this at the Smithsonian show and this year is no different.

Borealis Studios is comprised of Devin Burgess Glass and Jerilyn Virden Ceramics. Even in the terrible light of the National Building Museum toward the end of the evening, Burgess's glass is radiant. It reminded me most of the Aseda vase I had in the shop just a while ago in terms of the depth of color. And Virden's ceramics are the perfect complement, grounding the ethereal glass with practical earthenware in black and white. It's difficult in ceramics to create such simple work that doesn't remind me of anything else. I was particularly covetous of the serving pieces and when I'm in "blog mode" it's extremely tough to get me to look at objects in terms of actual purchasing.

The work of Eshelman Pottery does refer back to the best mid century ceramics before taking off in a more contemporary direction. These are simple, utilitarian pieces that can go in the microwave, dishwasher and oven. I see both a little bit of Dansk and a little bit of Heath Ceramics in this casserole, for example.

But then you get these little ergonomic bowls, which are utterly their own thing. There's a photo on the Eshelman website of hands wrapped around that bowl with a thumb tucked into the hole at the top. After the winter we had, I can clearly see the appeal. I predictably love anything with both glazed and unglazed surfaces so it's not surprising that I could see outfitting my entire kitchen with these pieces.

Even though I've shared some of my favorite pieces here, this stuff really is best viewed in person. Like this wood clock made by James Borden of Timeshapes. It was a little noisy while I was filming, but in person I barely noticed it because I was mesmerized. There is something extremely elegant and soothing about watching this clock in action. These are the sorts of works that will be in the Renwick Gallery in years to come and getting a chance to meet and talk with the artists is a real privilege.

The Smithsonian Craft Show runs today through Sunday at the National Building Museum. Admission is $15 and I wouldn't devote less than 3 hours.
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