Thursday, May 19, 2011

Candace Wheeler: the Mother of American Interior Design

Candace Thurber Wheeler was born in 1827 in rural Delhi, New York.  She and her siblings grew up as "not only traditional, but actual Puritans, repeating in 1828 the lives of our pioneer New England forefathers a hundred years before" – Abner and Lucy Thurber were strictly religious, raising their children according to Biblical precepts and disallowing them from reading fiction.  Living on a farm in the early nineteenth century, the family was required to craft many of their necessities, such as cheese, butter, candles, preserves, cured meats, sausages, pickles, and clothing, but beyond this, Abner's abolitionist sympathies caused him to ban items created with slave labor from the house (and to help fugitive slaves north to Canada).  Instead of buying white sugar, the Thurbers tapped maple trees and boiled the sap to make maple sugar; rather than purchase cotton fabric, they grew and processed their own flax, and spun and wove it into linen cloth.
Wheeler had a love of beauty from an early age, from the time when she overheard herself described as beautiful.  Despite the strictures of her upbringing, there were many opportunities for her to find beauty – the family sang light and sacred music together in five-part harmony, and nature provided lovely flowers that she delighted in drawing.

At seventeen, she married Thomas Wheeler, the cousin of a local minister, and moved with him to New York City.  Although one cannot know her exact feelings at the time, in her autobiography she questions the social system which pressured young women into marriage at such early ages: to not marry was to be seen as defective and to be an old maid and an object of pity or contempt, as women were unable to support themselves.  (Despite the misgivings about marriage in general that she expressed in her autobiography, her own appears to have been happy, and Thomas was supportive of all her artistic and business efforts.)  She was already proficient in the domestic arts by the time she married, having learned housekeeping from her mother and "maternal duties" from her younger siblings, but marriage opened an entirely new world to her.  She began to read Shakespeare, Dante, and other classic literature, and to mix with artistic and literary figures at Artists' Receptions held in Manhattan galleries.  During the winter, Candace and Thomas would travel to Europe and continue to move in these circles.  The painters of the Hudson River School, several of the Pre-Raphaelites, Mark Twain, Washington Irving, and William Cullen Bryant numbered among their acquaintances.  Some of these friends traveled to the Wheelers' home, Nestledown, in Jamaica and taught her to paint.

The Wheelers attended the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where the Kensington School of Art showed an exhibition of women's needlework.  The School was connected to the Arts & Crafts movement, which intended to revive "the medieval arts" and was raising embroidery into a legitimate art form, and which offered employment for women without money to live on who were also too middle-class to take up domestic work.  Wheeler applauded the idea – embroidery, she thought, required less skill than other forms of art – but was not impressed by the actual work put out by the Kensington needleworkers.  Wheeler decided that an American version of the School should be started, and enlisted the help of Mrs. David Lane, the president of the Sanitary Commission of New York and a woman known for taking control of projects.  Wheeler made Mrs. Lane president to allow herself free time and a free hand in creating "associate societies" around the country, and in 1877 the New York Society of Decorative Arts was begun.

The Society was intended to encourage women to develop artistic talents and to help them sell artwork to dealers.  Wheeler also assembled a board of professional artists of her acquaintance to judge which contributions were of high enough quality to be sold, and it was the question of what constituted saleable art that caused her to leave the Society.  Many submissions which were "good in their way" were considered too commonplace to be art, such as a decorated coal scuttle, and there was a certain amount of argument over "art versus utility", a problem which the Kensington School had escaped by taking a narrower definition of art.  A solution was quickly found: Wheeler and Mrs. William Choate split off to create the Woman's Exchange, which accepted anything that a woman made and attempted to sell it.  The Society had helped many women to increase their artistic education, including Wheeler's daughter, Dora, and a lifelong friend and colleague, Rosina Emmett, but the Exchange satisfied her philosophy of egalitarian feminism, although she did not do much with it after she helped it get started.

In 1879, Wheeler resigned from the Society of Decorative Arts, along with Louis Comfort Tiffany, who was more interested in doing his own work.  The two formed Tiffany & Wheeler, a decorating firm in which he oversaw furniture and fixtures and she took charge of textiles and embroidery.  One of their first commissions was to create a curtain for the Madison Square Theater, which unfortunately burned down soon after the curtain was installed.  Another was to do several rooms in the Namouna, a yacht owned by the publisher of the New York Herald; pictures of the main saloon show a textile on the wall in the Metropolitan Museum of Art which combines Wheeler's floral motifs with Tiffany's geometric design sense.  The Veterans' Room at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue was another commission, and is still extant.  Tiffany & Wheeler combined with L. C. Tiffany & Co. Furniture and brought in more designers in 1881 to form Louis C. Tiffany & Co., Associated Artists; they were commissioned to decorate Mark Twain's house in Hartford, Connecticut.  Before the group dissolved in 1883 (the Associated Artists became their own firm, under Wheeler's direction), Wheeler entered a wallpaper competition held by Warren & Fuller intended to promote good design.  She won the $1,000 prize with her "bees and clover" pattern, and the other three prizes were won by three other women in the group: Dora Wheeler, Ida Clarke, and a Miss Townshend.

Although Wheeler liked her life in New York, she and her brother, who also worked in the city, missed the "hill country" of their childhood.   While visiting Onteora in the Catskill Mountains, they determined to buy a plot of land there and build two houses, Pennyroyal and Lotus Land.  Their families intended to enjoy Onteora as a quiet retreat, but invited so many of their friends that they soon decided the property might as well be turned into an artistic retreat.  By 1888, they had formed the Catskill Mountain Camp and Cottage Co. and built a "hostelry" to house more people.

Wheeler was chosen to be the director of the Woman's Building in the Columbian Exposition of 1892.  There had been a Woman's Building at the fair in 1876, but it had been seen as less important than the rest of the exposition, while that of 1892 was considered a major exhibit.  There was some argument that the best of the women's artwork should be displayed alongside the men's to show that they were comparably skilled, but it was the opinion of Wheeler and many others that it was better to show all of the women's artwork together to fully display their abilities.

After the Columbian Exposition, Wheeler retreated from commercial work.  She began to edit other people's publications and to write her own books: educational works on crafts, fairy tales for her grandchildren, and autobiographical works, such as Yesterdays in a Busy Life.  In 1923, a few years after publishing her last work, a history of American embroidery, she died.

While part of Wheeler's fall into obscurity was no doubt due to the fact that she was female and in a field that has been traditionally disregarded in the study of decorative arts, another part is that her design sensibilities were fundamentally representative and historically-based, two qualities which were not highly valued after the turn of the century, with the rise of styles like Art Deco, Modernism, Cubism, and Futurism.  It is to be hoped that her name will rise out of the mists of time to be recognized as an important figure in textile and women's histories.

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