Thursday, June 25, 2009

Collector’s Corner: Why collect? A meditation on an obsession

June 25. 2009
Posted by Noah

(I’ll cut to the chase with this one, because it’s long and it’s good. This is our second Collector’s Corner, and it’s a rambling, honest, beautiful dissertation to that most eternal of questions: Why do we collect, and what do we do with our collection once it’s in our hands and has taken over our life. Good stuff here. Thanks to our “anonymous” submitter for opening a window into their life and philosophy. – Noah Fleisher)

Some people collect for pleasure and to learn about history. Some collect for the investment potential. Others collect because it helps them to fill a gaping hole, calm fears or erase insecurity. Collecting provides order in their lives and protection from the chaos and terror of an uncertain world. It serves as a shield against the destruction of everything they've ever loved: Your things make you feel safe. Though the world outside is a dangerous and continually changing place, you can still sit safely in your home or apartment surrounded by your collections.

Collecting is more than likely a leftover from the prehistoric hunting and gathering instinct, a distinct, powerful lower brain function – not unlike sex. If we collectors cannot find something to buy or add to our collection on a regular basis, we tend to get withdrawal symptoms: hyperactivity, edginess, and yearning for stimulation to that part of the brain.

I cherish old and used things marked by the passage of time and events. I think of my own self this way, as something much handled, knocked about, worn and polished with use and abuse. Collectors like me feel that we’re rescuing the pieces in our collection from a discarded fate. We’re preserving them in our generation hopefully for generations to come.

Most of the kids that I knew as I was growing up had a collection of some kind. Some collected stamps or coins, many had a shoebox or two or three filled with baseball cards. A stamp or coin collection was an excellent way to gain an understanding of geography, history, art and economics. Baseball cards were great conversation pieces and a source of tremendous joy. We pored over these small pieces of cardboard with photos and stats of our favorites. We traded them, we “flipped” them, and we put them in the spokes of our bikes to make a flapping noise as we rode around the neighborhood.

Many children gave up their collections as they grew older and became interested in other things. Moms all over town threw out their kids’ collections not realizing how valuable they would become. Some of the smarter, more progressive kids stashed their collections away for the future.

More and more I find myself collecting items from the years of my early childhood and youth, that is, the late 1950s and the 1960s. The graphics on many of my collectibles from this period contain images of smiling happy faces. Could it be that I am trying to re-capture my lost youth, or to mentally re-design a period in my life that was wrought with difficulty? Think about the television shows from that era – Leave It To Beaver, Make Room For Daddy, I Love Lucy – there was no domestic violence, no alcoholism, no depression, just a lot of lessons learned and 20 happy endings.

"The Art of Collecting"

For me, collecting has become a lifestyle and an art form. Living with a huge collection in a moderately sized New York City apartment requires considerable effort, planning, patience and – if I say so myself – a touch of genius and a measure of insanity. The compulsive collector sacrifices traditional living and lounging space: the kitchen, the second bedroom and extra bathroom are instead potential display and storage areas. Closets, cabinets and drawers are warehouses for treasured memorabilia. Every blank wall, every empty shelf, the surface of any table, every expanse of open floor space becomes a veritable canvas of sorts onto which an array of art and collectibles can be displayed.

The compulsive collector’s friends have started referring to his/her apartment as “the museum.” The kitchen counters and dining room table, even the top of the stove, are used to show off 1950s kitchenware. The refrigerator is filled with old collectible soda cans and bottles. The medicine cabinet is stocked with vintage first aid and apothecary items. The walk-in closet has become a miniature gallery of old toys, games, books, pinbacks, and lunchboxes. There are even displays on dressers, night tables and the television stand; additional vintage shelving units and utility carts are purchased for the sole purpose of accommodating other groups of collectibles. Finally, the collection grows and swells beyond the limits of the apartment into a brother’s basement in suburbia, a girlfriend’s broom closet, and one or two of several local mini-storage facilities can helps manage the overflow.

Let me differentiate between art and clutter. There is a distinct line between artful disorder and “my home is a mess.” Hardcore collecting is disorder by design. To make something appear intentional is the gift of the true visual artist. Like the art of flower arranging or window decoration, there is an art to the creation of a tasteful display of vintage collectibles on a shelf or the arrangement of old pictures, signs and clocks on a blank wall. The most visually appealing displays incorporate an array of shapes, sizes and angles of placement. As well, interest is enhanced when a variety of materials – some metal, some glass, some ceramic, some plastic and some paper – are grouped together. It is also fun to combine different graphic designs such as stripes, solids, polka dots, and stars. The interplay of these different patterns can be wonderful in concert.

Despite this variety, and germane to what I believe is one of the keys to a stunning display, is a common color scheme. For example, in my entrance foyer is a grouping of red mid-century chairs and a small red formica table with chrome legs upon which a collection of vintage silver metal thermoses with red plastic caps are displayed. Several red and chrome 1950s ice crushers and red plaid lunchboxes are organized on the floor beneath the table. Nearby are a red and chrome rocket-shaped vacuum cleaner and a collection of vintage red and white and plaid bowling ball bags. Along one wall of the adjoining living room are vintage black and white display shelves which are home to a large assortment of black, white and red collectibles. These shelves are bookended by a pair of prototype clear lucite chairs, circa 1957. On the adjacent floor is a kaleidoscope of about three dozen red, white and pink plastic tube radios from the fifties and sixties.

The center of the living room, away from the pinks and reds, is dedicated to hues of seafoam green, a very popular color in the mid-1950s. The round white Saarinen tulip base dining table is surrounded by four seafoam green molded fiberglass shell chairs, also with metal tulip bases. Atop the table are vintage jadite green glass coffee cups and saucers, two light green McCoy bird vases, a pair of old ivory ceramic candleholders with kelly green glass candlesticks, and assorted vintage green and white bric-a-brac.

In the bedroom, the wall opposite the bed features a huge horizontal format original movie poster for A Streetcar Named Desire, circa 1951. The background color is predominantly turquoise, another very popular choice in the early 1950s. The items that I have chosen to accompany this poster and accent the wall are all in the turquoise family – a plastic aqua and white Nelson clock, a blue and white metal Oasis cigarette advertising thermometer, a turquoise and white Hires root beer sign. Of course, my collection of 1950s turquoise and cream plastic tube radios is close by; a vintage turquoise and chrome ice crusher, an aqua and white bowling bag, and a white and chrome mid-century ball lamp are included in this display for good measure. The poster is framed in a silver painted wood frame which works nicely with the stripped-down-to-the-bare-metal 1940s office cabinets and desks which I use as bedroom furniture.

Most people, when planning their interiors, don’t trust themselves, hence the need for decorators, a profession that is often pooh-poohed by collectors. For the collector, the home becomes a means of self-expression where he or she can come out as themselves. The collection is an orchestration of personal themes and feelings and longings.

Your collection, like the essence of your being, is constantly evolving and changing. Items are acquired, admired, placed in a display, taken down, put into storage, retrieved to be rearranged in another display or possibly sold or traded. You don’t acquire a new collectible or piece of art merely because there is a blank space in your home or for a wall that needs to be filled. You acquire it because you must have it; the piece speaks to you, “has your name on it.” It’s always interesting and fun to bring home a new collectible and then try to find a place for it. More often than not, the new item quickly and easily finds its way into an existing display as if it was always meant to be there.

Due to the variety of colors that I enjoy displaying around my home, I always choose to start my projects with a fresh coat of white paint on all of the walls. Many contemporary homes feature coral and lavender walls, but these walls are usually highlighted by only one or two carefully chosen pieces which may or may not clash with the paint. I have found, however, that even die-hard minimalists are submitting to fashionable new levels of clutter. More is better and you will see that white walls work best with large colorful displays. It’s not unlike starting off a new painting with a fresh white canvas.

Your collection is a living breathing entity that you have chosen to create. There is something emotional and organic about living with a massive collection, handling and organizing dozens or maybe hundreds or possibly thousands of individual vintage artifacts, each one with a unique history and vibration. Collecting is a labor of love and – as well – a compulsion as strong or stronger than any you have ever experienced. Sometimes your collecting and your collection will delight you; other times it will annoy and disturb you, but you must collect!!

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