Month: March 2013

Prairie School and the Decorative Arts

We’ve recently seen some beautiful examples  of Prairie School design cross our path. When thinking of the phrase “Prairie School,” we generally think of Frank Lloyd Wright and architecture. Although Wright is one of the most famous names in Prairie School design, the movement also encompasses an aesthetic that extends to the decorative arts.

Historic Park Inn by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Mason City, IA
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Park Inn

The term Prairie School is specific to a time period (the late 19th century and early 20th century) as well as a design aesthetic. The Prairie School movement was inspired in part by the newness of the West, where the vast expanses of untouched land encouraged a sense of freshness and innovation. Young designers and architects desired a uniquely American aesthetic, independent of the traditional European classical architecture. Rather than looking to the Greeks and Romans for inspiration, the artists looked to the land itself, echoing the horizontal lines of the native prairie landscape.

The Prairie School emerged in part from the ideals of the English Arts & Crafts movement and its emphasis on a dedication to craftsmanship, quality materials and a disciplined approach to ornament (often concentrating on abstracted naturalistic forms).  The lamp pictured below is a particularly eye-catching piece from the noted manufacturer Bradley & Hubbard.

Bradley & Hubbard Prairie School Lamp
Bradley & Hubbard Prairie School Lamp

The lamp is a lovely example of the Prairie School movement’s approach to decorative arts. The strong horizontal lines of the shade provide a framework for panels of green and ruby red slag glass panels. The hexagonal base is accented with an engraved design echoing the lines of the shade. The rhythmic abstracted geometric design and overall simplicity are evocative of Wright’s theory that lack of ostentatious ornamentation only serves to emphasize the beauty of the materials.

Kalo Sterling Silver Floral Bowl & Underplate
Kalo Sterling Silver Floral Bowl & Underplate

The sterling silver dish and underplate pictured above are from the Chicago silversmith Kalo, which was founded in 1900 by Clara P. Barck as one of the earliest silversmithing enterprises in the city. Barck was a vocal advocate of women’s involvement in the Arts & Crafts movement, and employed both men and women as professional artisans. The Kalo silversmiths were influenced by both the Arts & Crafts movement and the Prairie School movement. Pieces like the napkin ring below are a nice example of the marrying of the two styles; the bold and modern geometric shape is hand-hammered, decorated only with an applied monogram.

Hand Hammered Sterling Silver Napkin Ring, Kalo
Hand Hammered Sterling Silver Napkin Ring, Kalo

Capital Region People to Watch: Mark Lawson

As published in Capital Region Living Magazine (Albany, NY), March 2013

Capital Region People to Watch – March 2013

By Vikki Moran

The mere mention of Mark Lawson’s name in the local antique community can start a conversation about evaluations and professionalism in the marketplace and Lawson is an expert at both.

Soft-spoken and extremely knowledgeable, Lawson loves where life has taken him. He has embraced the changes in the antiquity industry and rolls with them to keep his business vibrant after many years.

Where Lawson is now is a far cry from where he started. Much to his parents’ dismay, he left RPI where he was working on his PHD in Materials Engineering for a short-term leave, but never returned. Unmarried and carefree like most at that age, he followed his weekend passion of collecting, which led to his first antique business – Mark Lawson Antiques.

The business was thriving and money was being made by Lawson and many others until a little four letter word became mainstream…eBay. Changing gears: Life after eBay “When eBay started, many antique stores went out,” he said. His lovely shop, that many of us still remember on Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs saw a 50 percent drop in sales; he needed to change gears, but thankfully not careers.

He loved and still loves downtown Saratoga, but the store front no longer made sense, so he closed it and started the evaluation business that he has today.

The climate for collectable and antique mania was catching on with the popularity of the PBS show, “Antiques Roadhouse” and subsuqent cable spin-offs like “American Pickers”, “Pawn Stars” and “Storage Wars”.

Lawson, a sponsor of the local WMHT airings, said he has gained much from the ground-breaking production and points out that the world has changed along with the marketplace for collectibles, art and precious metals. He explained that it is different and even a bit sad at times. It has, in his opinion, become a marketplace driven by economic necessity.

“There is a cultural shift away from history and family heritage,” he said. “People are selling family heirlooms often to settle debts and pay for funerals in some cases. Family estates are the marketplace for items now. The estate contents of loved ones are evaluated, then sold and this is what is driving the current marketplace.”

Funding the Chills and Thrills: Touching History

With a love of history and a desire to see each item go into the right set of hands, Lawson still gets a thrill from seeing historic items. The value may not always be there, but that doesn’t matter. The excitement he feels from the recognition of the item’s touch and point in history is icing on the professional cake for Lawson.

One such instance began many years ago when Admiral Perry was given an honor from a local volunteer fire department. Admiral Perry reciprocated with ivory tusks from a Walrus associated with his explorations to the volunteer fire department. Enter Mark Lawson for an evaluation years later. Holding that item in his hands and knowing its’ connection to Admiral Perry delights him. It is what he treasures most from his business.

Lawson loves “exceptional” pieces (which are in the eye of the beholder). Yes, he needs to sell with a profit, but the pieces that he is drawn to continue to be the pieces that evokes something in us.

“Art either excites you or not; it could be the form, the craftsmanship or the artist or maker. It will not tie you down to any period or genre. You can find many things, but it is the quality that lives on.”

I also got the distinct impression that Lawson loves the ever-changing scene that he walks into each day; the new and unique treasure hunts and evaluations are certainly a rush for him, as much as the investigations and arrangements of sales.

Grounded to Capital Region: Family

While Lawson is called far and wide for his expertise, make no mistake, this man whom we have grown to love seeing on television talking about evaluations, gold and silver, is a man firmly planted in the Capital Region. He is “grounded” by his family; dinners and weekends with his wife Annette and three children. They are his foundation.

I invited Lawson to my home to watch him work. Ironically, I am not a person with antiques, only family heirlooms that hold memories for me. He walked around with his assistant, Andrea Devit, and keenly spotted a crude vase sitting on my china cabinet He took it down and quickly devoured it. That vase with leftover marbles that held my (gasp) holly branches turned out to be Pre-Columbian and worth quite a bit.

Commitment to Mentoring

Lawson’s business has grown and now consists of four employees. He hires from a pool of people whose careers are on the museum track and generally have been Fine Arts majors. His employees get real life experience on value (generally missing from their studies) and then continue on to earn their Master’s and Doctorates.

Mark Lawson Antiques now has two locations: Saratoga and Colonie. He and his team split their time doing evaluations by appointment. They also do roadshow-type events throughout the area. He modestly admits to being very surprised by his notoriety, but I seriously doubt others are surprised after meeting him.