I filled in the survey a while back, but this week I finally read an Art Documentation article that someone (I think Kathy Woodrell or it might have been Beth Goodrich) referred to me at least a year ago.  It is from the Summer 1993 issue: “The Decorative Arts: A Problem in Classification,” by Steven Blake Shubert.  I had put off looking at it as, although I am very interested in L.C. subject headings, I am less interested in L.C. classification as it seems so hopeless.  A long time ago I resigned myself to thinking that L.C. numbers are simply addresses—like street addresses—they carry about as much content.  Having a chunk of time yesterday, I turned to Shubert’s article and was surprised to find that three-fifths of the five-page essay is a very cogent history of the concept (in Western art) of “decorative arts,” beginning with the 17th century in Europe. 

                The term decorative art is derived from the Latin roots decorare, meaning to adorn or beautify, and ars, meaning skill, craft, or knowledge.  Its use is connected with the organization of knowledge as it evolved in the Western world. (p.77)

I’m not going to give you an overview of the article here as I think it is worth the hour or so it will take you to read it.  I will tell you that Shubert does not have a solution for the problem of the SIG name.  But he encapsulates very well the history of the problem and that—for me at least—helped to clarify that we are correct to look for a SIG name change at this time.

Here is Shubert’s final paragraph, which I think is helpful:

The usefulness of the category decorative arts is unquestioned.  The challenge is how to interpret the concept in a culturally unbiased manner and yet focus on a discrete set of objects.  If the decorative art concept continues to be interpr4eted in looser and broader ways, then decorative arts will become merely an art historian’s term for material culture, referring to every and any sort of artifact.  Yet if the traditional narrow interpretation of the decorative arts is accepted’ the judgment of artistic quality and suitability of material and technique is rooted in an elitist Eurocentric world view, which is no longer in keeping with the times.  Until this issue is resolved, the decorative arts as a category will continue to include any combination of media and techniques its users desire.  The term decorative arts will be valued for its flexibility and adaptability to different circumstances, but its content will remain ambiguous.

Shubert’s words from almost 30 years ago (!) hold up well I think.  I was fairly sure that “decorative arts” should be stricken from our name; but after reading Shubert’s article I now think the term should be included, though moved to a less prominent place, thus:

CRAFT, DESIGN, AND DECORATIVE ARTS SIG.  CDDA SIG—I think it trips lightly on the tongue.

                                                                                                                       –Joan M. Benedetti

Hot Off The Press: July 2021 Publications

Criss-crossing media and disciplines, the two new titles listed below display the breadth of decorative arts publications. A reprint of a 1978 classic rounds out this month’s collection. Images and descriptions are taken from the publisher or distributor websites, linked with each title.

A white book cover with an image of a disco ball below the title.

Materials, Practices, and Politics of Shine in Modern Art and Popular Culture

Shine allures and awakens desire. As a phenomenon of perception shiny things and materials fascinate and tantalize. They are a formative element of material culture, promising luxury, social distinction and the hope of limitless experience and excess. Since the early twentieth century the mass production, dissemination and popularization of synthetic materials that produce heretofore-unknown effects of shine have increased. At the same time, shine is subjectified as “glamor” and made into a token of performative self-empowerment.

The volume illuminates genealogical as well as systematic relationships between material phenomena of shine and cultural-philosophical concepts of appearance, illusion, distraction and glare in bringing together renowned scholars from various disciplines.

A book cover featuring an abstract image with multicolored shapes on a black background.

Jacoba van Heemskerck: Truly Modern

In less than two decades, Jacoba van Heemskerck (1876–1923) created a powerful oeuvre comprising paintings, woodcuts, glassworks, and mosaics. Her expressive subjects, including landscapes, townscapes, and harbor scenes, are characterized by luminosity and transparency, rhythmic compositions of the pictorial space, black contours, and an intensive use of color. After her artistic beginnings in the circle around Mondrian, Jacoba van Heemskerck joined the center of the avant-garde movement emanating from the “Sturm” of Herwarth Walden in Berlin—the gallerist and publisher who made artists like Marc, Kandinsky, and Jawlensky famous. Her creative work resonates with environmental movements today thanks to her understanding of nature and the cosmos as an interconnected whole.

An image of a book cover featuring a black and white image of a face in profile drinking from a cup.

Beyond East and West: Memoirs, Portraits, and Essays

A new edition of the retrospective of the celebrated potter’s most significant writings, including new images from the family archive.

Bernard Leach was as renowned in Japan and the East as in Europe and North America as an artist-craftsman and as a thinker. Known in the ceramic world as the father of British studio pottery, his interpretation of Asian traditions in ceramics and his unique philosophy of life were a lodestar for many potters in the West. Throughout his career, his techniques explored the interplay between Eastern and Western art.

Beyond East and West, first published in 1978, is a retrospective of more than ninety years of Bernard Leach’s long, illustrious life. Featuring some of Leach’s most significant writings and full of amusing, sharply-etched recollections, the essays have been placed in chronological order and annotated by the author for more coherence. The recurrent theme of the meeting of East and West is apparent at all levels—artistic, cultural, social, and political—of Leach’s life and writings. This new edition of a classic text, accompanied by new images from the Leach family archive, gives readers an intimate look at the life of one of the world’s most widely known and respected potters.

If you know of other decorative arts-related titles published in July 2021, please be in touch!

Hot Off The Press: June 2021 Publications

From grand gardens to quietly radical quilts, the four titles below cover a wide range of decorative arts related subjects. Images and descriptions are taken from the publisher or distributor websites, linked with each title.

An image of a book cover featuring a statue of a figure in a long dress holding a piece of fabric in an arc over their head.

1900 ~ The Year of Art Nouveau: Paris ~ Copenhagen · Copenhagen ~ Paris

A fully illustrated collection of the Designmuseum Danmark’s contribution to the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris.

At the height of the dynamic “new” style’s popularity, the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris offered a platform to the world’s recently established museums of decorative arts to celebrate the Art Nouveau on an unprecedented stage. 1900 ~ The Year of Art Nouveau describes how the fledgling Designmuseum Danmark (formerly the Danish Museum of Art & Design) acquired a substantial international collection prior to the festival, with special attention to the local Danish works exhibited in Paris.

A picture of a book cover with an image of an elaborate space defined by columns and arches.

Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy: Bibiena Drawings from the Jules Fisher Collection

This exhibition catalog explores the remarkable theatrical designs of Italy’s influential Bibiena family in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

For nearly a century, members of three generations of the Bibiena family were the most highly sought theater designers in Europe. Their elaborate stage designs were used for operas, festivals, and courtly performances across Europe, from their native Italy to cities as far afield as Vienna, Prague, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and Lisbon. Beyond these performances, the distinctive Bibiena style survives through their remarkable drawings.

Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy commemorates a group of Bibiena drawings from the collection of Jules Fisher, the Tony Award–winning lighting designer, gifted to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Accompanying the first US exhibition of these works in more than thirty years, these drawings demonstrate the range of the Bibienas’ output, from energetic sketches to detailed watercolors. Representations of imagined palace interiors and lavish illusionistic architecture illuminate the visual splendor of the Baroque period.

A book cover featuring an image of white, red, and yellow tulips on a light brown background.

England’s Magnificent Gardens: How a Billion-Dollar Industry Transformed a Nation, from Charles II to Today

An altogether different kind of book on English gardens—the first of its kind—a look at the history of England’s magnificent gardens as a history of Britain itself, from the seventeenth-century gardens of Charles II to those of Prince Charles today.

In this rich, revelatory history, Sir Roderick Floud, one of Britain’s preeminent economic historians, writes that gardens have been created in Britain since Roman times but that their true growth began in the seventeenth century; by the eighteenth century, nurseries in London took up 100 acres, with ten million plants (!) that were worth more than all of the nurseries in France combined.

Floud’s book takes us through more than three centuries of English history as he writes of the kings, queens, and princes whose garden obsessions changed the landscape of England itself, from Stuart, Georgian, and Victorian England to today’s Windsors.

A book cover featuring a quilted image six Black figures wearing matching outfits on a teal and black polka dot background.

Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories

A mother stitches a few lines of prayer into a bedcover for her son serving in the Union army during the Civil War. A formerly enslaved African American woman creates a quilt populated by Biblical figures alongside celestial events. A quilted Lady Liberty, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln mark the resignation of Richard Nixon. These are just a few of the diverse and sometimes hidden stories of the American experience told by quilts and bedcovers from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Spanning more than 400 years, the 58 works of textile art in this book express the personal narratives of their makers and owners and connect to broader stories of global trade, immigration, industry, marginalization, and territorial and cultural expansion. Made by Americans of European, African, Native and Hispanic heritage, these quilts and bedcovers range from family heirlooms to acts of political protest, each with its own story to tell.

If you know of other decorative arts-related titles published in June 2021, please be in touch!

Toni Morrison Quilting Project Launches Today

Image of hand over quilt
Description: A participant works on a quilt at the 1968 Festival of American Folklife held on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. | Repository: Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections | Accession number: FAF1968_quilter_023

The Toni Morrison Quilting Project launches today. The project, which runs through May, aims to honor the legacy of Morrison as well as to craft new community around the medium. As project co-coordinator Camille Andrews notes in an article announcing the project, “Toni Morrison is one of the preeminent chroniclers of the African American experience and, much like quilt-making, she created beautiful, useful, and communal art out of the multiplicity and everyday experiences of her characters.” Carrying forward the metaphor, the project is itself a collaborative effort bringing together the Cornell University Library, Tompkins County Public Library, and the Community Quilting Resource Center.

The project invites Ithaca and Cornell community members to contribute quilt blocks and small quilts (of either fabric or paper) as well as to virtually join in on a series of workshops and book club meetings held over Zoom. All of the project’s details can be found on a clearly arranged LibGuide, in a perfect example of legacy library technologies working in tandem with new platforms to continue connecting community members even as social distancing measures remain necessary.

Decorative Arts SIG hosting a panel at ARLIS/NA 2019 conference in Salt Lake City

The Decorative Arts SIG will be hosting a panel on Thursday, March 28th, at the ARLIS/NA 2019 conference in Salt Lake City. This panel, titled “Material Culture in Utah and the West: Insights from Decorative and Fine Arts Objects,” will feature three Utah-area experts who will discuss traditional and non-traditional fine and decorative arts of Utah and the West.

Leslie Anderson of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts will explore art of the American West and objects created in other regions in her talk, “Challenging the Canon with the Permanent Collection: American and Regional Art at the UMFA.” Adrienne Decker will discuss the Utah Folk Arts Program, a state program that features a permanent collection of art pieces created by living tradition bearers in her talk, “This is Our Place: Utah’s Traditional Arts Landscape.” Josh Probert, from Brigham Young University’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, will examine objects made by the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in relationship to the transatlantic world from which they emigrated in his presentation, “Mormon Iconography in the Decorative Arts as a Strategy of Identity during the Nineteenth Century.”

These three dynamic presentations will shed light on how the environs of the West and the historic context of human interaction with this unique region have shaped the artistic output of fine and decorative artists.

We look forward to seeing everyone at the panel on Thursday and in Salt Lake City for the rest of the conference.

Kathy Woodrell and Katie Monroe


by Elizabeth Broman and Parsons Masters Program student Margaret Gaines

 Schmitz-Horning Co. wall decoration catalogue
“The Forest” scenic wallpaper panel illustration, Schmitz-Horning Co. wall decoration trade catalogue, 1913-1914. Published by Schmitz-Horning Co., Cleveland, Ohio. Cooper Hewitt Design Library

This Schmitz-Horning Co. wall decoration catalogue from 1913-1914 is one of the Cooper Hewitt Design Library’s many trade catalogues. Schmitz-Horning Co. opened in 1905 as a wallpaper and mural manufacturing firm in Cleveland, Ohio. The company focused on making large, wallpaper friezes (murals) and was one of the first companies to develop a washable, color wallpaper printed with oils that you cleaned with a damp cloth or sponge.

Sankro-Mura sanitary wallcovering from the Schmitz-Horning Co.
Sankro-Mura sanitary wallcovering from the Schmitz-Horning Co.

San-kro-mura, one of the original “sanitary” wall coverings, were easy to clean without their colors fading.

Various panoramic friezes from the Schmitz-Horning Co.
Various panoramic friezes from the Schmitz-Horning Co.

The muted colors and illustrative style of the Arts & Crafts movement period are featured in this color trade catalog from 1912-13. The company produced panoramic views of mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, and scenic narratives of folklore and history. The catalog states they make possible “Art in the Home.”

Kindergarten Cut-Outs wallcovering frieze
Kindergarten Cut-Outs wallcovering frieze

Wallcoverings for children’s rooms featured the Wizard of Oz, nursery rhymes, and motifs with dolls. The Cooper Hewitt Museum owns 111 pieces from the Schmitz-Horning Co., two of which are from the time period shown in this catalog. The frieze Kindergarten Cut-outs, was in the 2007 exhibition “Wall Stories: Children’s Wallpapers and Books”.

Reprinted from the Cooper Hewitt’s Object of the Day blog, December 17, 2017.

Cosmic Caldwell

Rockefeller Center Pendant Light
Photograph, Ceiling fixture, Rockefeller Center, 1932; Designed by Edward F. Caldwell & Company (United States); H x W: 15 × 15 cm (5 7/8 × 5 7/8 in.); Collection of Smithsonian Institution Libraries; SILmq771683


by Jennifer Cohlman Bracchi, Reference Librarian at the Cooper Hewitt Museum Library, New York City.

This photograph of a Rockefeller Center pendant light is one of almost 50,000 photographs and drawings in the Smithsonian Design Library’s Edward F. Caldwell Collection. Caldwell and Company was a premier designer and manufacturer of custom lighting fixtures and fine metalwork from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. This immense visual resource is one of the largest such archives of a single American lighting company.

The firm was founded in 1895 in New York City by Edward F. Caldwell and Victor F. von Lossberg, who met while working at the lighting firm Archer and Pancoast. Caldwell had achieved great success at Archer and Pancoast working on commissions for the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, that included the New York State Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. He developed a lasting relationship with Stanford White resulting in Caldwell and Company securing numerous commissions, most notably the White House renovation in 1902. Many of their magnificent chandeliers, wall sconces, and torchieres continue to be prominent features throughout the White House including the East Room ballroom and State Dining Room. Their work still graces many of New York City’s best known public and private buildings, as well as others throughout the country and beyond. Working with many of the most renowned architects of their day including Warren and Wetmore, Carrere and Hastings, and Cass Gilbert, they designed fixtures for most of the grand Beaux-Arts mansions, such as the homes of Henry Clay Frick, John Jacob Astor, J. Pierpont Morgan, Frederick W. Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie. Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, and the magnificent art deco chandeliers and wall sconces for Radio City Music Hall are among their public building commissions. Visitors to Cooper Hewitt will see a series of bronze and alabaster ceiling fixtures in the Great Hall that leads to a massive chandelier illuminating the grand staircase—these are all original 1901 Caldwell designs for Andrew Carnegie’s mansion.

The craftsmanship of Caldwell and Company also transferred to modernism, as seen in this cosmic ceiling fixture the firm designed in 1932 for the art deco icon, Rockefeller Center. Built from 1930 to 1939 by a team of top architects led by Raymond Hood, Rockefeller Center consisted of fourteen buildings within three city blocks, making a mini city within a city of skyscrapers a reality for the first time. This commission was one of the largest and most prestigious a lighting manufacturer could achieve, and Caldwell was the obvious choice for the job. Each piece was custom designed and manufactured in their foundry at 36–40 West 15th Street, where they employed over a thousand people during the height of their operations. At a time when American manufacturing was at its peak, Caldwell and Company were masters at pairing design and craftsmanship with new electrical technologies, establishing a golden age of art lighting. The Edward F. Caldwell Collection, part of the Smithsonian Design Library archive and available online, is a valuable resource for historic preservationists, architectural scholars, lighting designers, and collectors. Because these fixtures are often found unmarked, disassembled, incomplete, or separated from their original locations, this archive is often the only source for identifying a Caldwell fixture in its original state. Browsing the archive also reveals the wide variety of tastes and styles that were rapidly developing and changing during an incredible time of growth in America.

Back in the USSR

Left: Vase with portrait of Joseph Stalin. Right: Vases with portraits of various prominent Communist leaders. Katalog farforu fa︠i︡ansu i maĭoliky. = Katalog farfora fa︠i︡ansa i maĭoliki . Kyïv : Ukraïns'ke Der︠z︡havne vydavny︠t︡stvo mis︠t︡sevoï promyslovosti, 1940. Smithsonian Libraries. q NK4141.U47 K19 1940.
Left: Vase with portrait of Joseph Stalin. Right: Vases with portraits of various prominent Communist leaders. Katalog farforu fa︠i︡ansu i maĭoliky. = Katalog farfora fa︠i︡ansa i maĭoliki . Kyïv : Ukraïns’ke Der︠z︡havne vydavny︠t︡stvo mis︠t︡sevoï promyslovosti, 1940. Smithsonian Libraries. q NK4141.U47 K19 1940.

by Elizabeth Broman

Reference Librarian, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library



This extremely rare 1940 trade catalog from the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library, Katalog farforu fa︠i︡ansu i maĭoliky, represents the production of not any one company, but is the output of 10 state owned ceramics factories all over the Ukraine in small towns and villages after industry was nationalized in 1918.

This is a primary source document for the decorative arts and studying the material culture and political history of the Ukraine and the former Soviet Union.

We tend to be more familiar with the graphic arts of Communist Russia as vehicles for propaganda – especially posters. The decorative arts, especially of utilitarian objects like the tableware featured in this catalog, were important vehicles for disseminating political concepts of the new social order and Soviet nationalism to the masses in everyday life.

The Stalinist era of the 1930’s combined “peasant” or folk art motifs and patterns with propagandist symbols, emphasizing social and communal values while depicting positive images of workers and peasants.

Various nationalistic symbols integrated with nature, figural, or floral folk art scenes/motifs. Katalog Farforu. Left: Pl. XI; right: Pl. XIII.
Various nationalistic symbols integrated with nature, figural, or floral folk art scenes/motifs. Katalog Farforu. Left: Pl. XI; right: Pl. XIII.

In Plate XI, there are many examples of propaganda and folk art used together. Cup 79 commemorates May 1st as International Workers’ Day, an annual celebration of the revolution of 1918. Cup 80 features a hammer and sickle, symbols of the industrial proletariat and the peasantry; together with the floral folk art motifs the design they symbolize the unity between industrial and agricultural workers. Cup 84 depicts a silhouette of Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861), a poet and painter who became a Ukrainian hero for his writings, which indicted his country’s oppression by Tsarist Russia.  Cups 82 and 83 are decorated with fighter planes and parachutes, portraying the military might and wartime spirit of the Soviet Union.

Several of the designs come directly from traditional Ukrainian geometric folk patterns used in embroidery and textiles.


by Rebecca Hopman, Outreach Librarian, Rakow Research library

When glass artist Mel George teaches a class, she takes her surroundings into account. She tries “to give the students special experiences that the individual places can offer.” So, soon after George and her students arrived at The Studio of The Corning Museum of Glass, they set off to explore the Rakow Research Library.

During a tour of the special collections, the class had a chance to see the Library’s oldest item, the nearly 900-year-old Mappae clavicula (loosely translated, a little key to the world of medieval techniques). George was delighted with the manuscript, and assigned her students the task of creating contemporary interpretations of books, or “visual poems.” They visited again to examine books in the collection with glass covers and insets, then set to work. Their final pieces, inspired by the Library’s collection and their own identities as artists, demonstrate how libraries can inspire people in unexpected ways.

The Rakow Library collects information on glass and glassmaking. A cornerstone of the Museum’s campus, the Library is open to everyone, and offers guests a chance to learn more about all aspects of glass, including history, art, and science. The shelves are full of the expected as well as the surprising, often leading visitors like Mel George and her students in new directions.

Curious and Curiouser: Surprising Finds from the Rakow Library offers visitors a taste of what they can find if they venture up the Library’s glass staircase to the reading room. From a patent for preserving the dead in glass to a trilogy of romance novels chronicling the generations of a fictional glassmaking family, the exhibition unites many disparate materials from the Library and glass collections through themes of curiosity and inspiration.


Une verriere / Eine Glassmacherin, Martin Engelbrecht, Augsburg, Germany, 1730, CMGL 129856

Glass has been used for many purposes throughout history, some more surprising than others. In the early encyclopedia De proprietatibus rerum (On the properties of things), author Bartholomaeus Anglicus recommends crushing glass to a fine powder to clean teeth. Those with kidney stones could also mix the powder with their wine for relief. However, if the powder was not crushed finely enough, it would “sunder the guts” and kill them instead.

Glass was also the primary material used to make artificial eyes for hundreds of years. Skilled glassworkers could make a living making and selling eyes for taxidermy and as prosthetics. Catalogs and advertisements offered a wide variety of human, animal, and doll eyes for sale. Human eyes came in every color imaginable with optional red veins. Customers could even select “daytime” and “nighttime” eyes, with different dilations, for a more realistic look. Animal eyes were also for sale, and customers could buy anything from eyes for fish and insects to eyes for tigers or sheep.

During the 1600s and 1700s, artists like Martin Engelbrecht and Nicolas de Larmessin printed engravings of tradespeople wearing the tools and products of their trade. The Rakow Library’s prints collection includes a number of these images, which illustrate male and female glassmakers and peddlers clothed in bottles, leaded glass windows, molds, bellows, and more. These fanciful designs showed people the items associated with glassmaking.


Notebooks from the Arthur J. Nash and Leslie H. Nash collection on Tiffany Studios

Like all libraries, the Rakow Library is an incubator where all types of creativity can flourish. Mel George and her students found their inspiration in the rare books collection; glass artist Josh Simpson found his in the archives. Simpson was looking for information on iridescent glass, and came across a series of notebooks written by Arthur and Leslie Nash in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A father and son team who worked for Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Nashes chronicled their projects, the glass recipes they created, and the glassmaking equipment they invented or improved. Beyond the bare details, they wrote of their triumphs and struggles, documenting what it was like to work at Tiffany Studios in Corona, New York.

Simpson soaked in the stories, finding similarities with his own frustrations and victories as an artist. He felt an emotional connection with the Nashes, realizing that he was part of a long chain of creators navigating their way through the artistic process. He hasn’t attempted to recreate their recipe for iridescent glass or make an object inspired by their work. But he does carry their stories with him, forming a bond with a duo whose legacy lives on in Tiffany glass. Simpson chronicles his recipes and experiments in his own series of notebooks. Perhaps someday their pages will speak to another artist in the same way the Nashes’ spoke to him.

Celadon Vase, Frederick Carder, Corning, N.Y., 1920-1929. Gift of Steuben Glass. 75.4.440.

Greg Merkel, a scientist and glass collector, was inspired by a similar set of notebooks in a different way. He collects pieces designed by artist Frederick Carder for Steuben Glass in Corning, New York. Carder was a prolific designer who left behind many notebooks filled with recipes for colors and types of glass. However, it can be difficult to pair a written recipe with a finished piece of glass.

Merkel, who is interested in both the beauty and chemical composition of Carder’s glass, decided to research the creation and development of each color, and definitively match pieces of glass to their corresponding recipes. As part of this work, he created a database of the recipes from the notebooks in the Rakow Library. He then used XRF (X-ray fluorescence) technology to scan pieces of glass for their composition. By doing so, he is able to connect the glass to a particular recipe. His work has led to the correct identification of many pieces of Carder’s glass, and benefits those who study and collect them.

Page from a black notebook of loose-leaf data sheets with glass recipes, Frederick Carder, 1926 – 1931, Frederick Carder notebook collection, CMGL 112169
XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) Results of Celadon Glass, Gregory Merkel, United States, New York, Corning, 2016, Courtesy of Gregory Merkel

These are just a few of the stories in Curious and Curiouser: Surprising Finds from the Rakow Library. Come see the rest, and find your own inspiration on the Library’s shelves.

Published on May 17, 2017 at

Documenting the White House Library Tiles: an interview with Sally Sims Stokes

Rendering of the Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse by William D. Hartgroves, 1930. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 121-BD-1241
Rendering of the Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse by William D. Hartgroves, 1930. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 121-BD-1241


Prominent art librarian and scholar Sally Sims Stokes spent the better part of a decade on the research adventure of a lifetime. The serendipitous discovery of a microfilm frame in 2004 during what should have been a brief project for the City of Las Vegas led Stokes into the fascinating history of decorative tiles in the White House. Following hours spent interviewing primary sources, tracking down hidden collections, and calling on the support of fellow ARLISians, Stokes recently celebrated the culmination of her research with an article entitled “Documenting the History of the White House Library Fireplace Tiles 1944-1962” in the Spring 2017 issue of Art Documentation (vol. 36, no. 1).

A unique addition to Stokes Art Documentation article is a supplement with rich color photographs and text detailing not only the tiles, but also ephemera important to the research. For example, the supplement examines the crate in which the tiles were at one point shipped to Eleanor Roosevelt.

We caught up with Stokes to ask her a few questions about the discoveries made and lessons learned as she traced the mystery behind the White House library tiles and their importance to presidential history.

How did you first become interested in the White House tiles?

Thank you for asking! You will find a partial answer to this question in the article, but I’ll offer some additional details.

As I explain in the article, I was in the process of conducting research for the City of Las Vegas, Nevada, for a historic structure report on the ca. 1932 federal courthouse and post office (LVPO). This was in 2004. The building would eventually undergo adaptive reuse, and would open in 2012 as the Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement.

At the National Archives in College Park, Maryland (NARA II), I had discovered a microfilm frame taken from a glass plate negative of a conjectural rendering of the LVPO. I was able to make out a signature, “Hartgroves ’30,” which I soon learned stood for “William J. Hartgroves, 1930.”

The City hoped that I might be able to find the name of at least one individual involved in designing the LVPO for the federal government. No records I examined at NARA II led me to a specific architect’s name, and nor did they persuade me that this renderer, William J. Hartgroves, who was a trained architect, had any design role in the LVPO project. I did decide to try to track down any children he might have had, and did find his son, William D. “Bill” Hartgroves, through a Google search. The City asked me to follow up with Bill Hartgroves. From Silver Spring, Maryland, where I live, I went out to Charlestown, West Virginia to interview him.

Bill Hartgroves, who is now deceased, had a great deal of memorabilia, and other examples of his late father’s work, in his home in Charlestown, and he was happy to show me his collection and share his knowledge. He didn’t have any information on the LVPO or his father’s part in that project. It was from Bill, however, that I learned that his father had designed tiles for the White House Library.

At the time, I was immersed in White House history, because I was also working on a grant-funded project to document the experiences of White House workers – cooks, butlers, maids, florists, calligraphers, groundskeepers. I had been in the White House library, but had never come across a reference to the tiles, which of course were no longer there by the time of my first tour of the building in the early 2000s.

So it was a combination of factors that made the topic of the tiles especially appealing to me: The mystery; the human connection with the Hartgroves family; my interest in historic buildings and their preservation, documentation, and adaptive reuse; and especially the fact that I was attuned to White House history at that particular stage of my career.

You encountered many twists and turns and even solved a few mysteries in the course of your decade-long research. What was the most memorable part of this process?  

There were so many! The most memorable parts of my research projects revolve around two key points: the personal relationships I develop with colleagues and informants, even when those occur through written and phone correspondence, rather than through in-person meetings; and the eye-popping Eureka! moments that occur throughout, and that keep the excitement going.

But I will name a few memorable parts:

  1. The discovery of the Hartgroves rendering.
  2. The meeting with Bill Hartgroves that spurred my interest in the tiles, and that ultimately helped me forge a bond with the Hartgroves family.
  3. The period in which I immersed myself in library materials concerning the history of screen printing on ceramic tile, and the gratifying input from ARLISians who suggested sources and facilitated ILLs of material not ordinarily available for loan.
  4. Working with Michelle Frauenberger at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum to understand (1) the tiles as elements of decorative arts history and presidential history and (2) curatorial and registrarial considerations around the acquisition, storage, and documentation (in the sense of descriptive metadata) of the tiles.
  5. The expansion of the project to explore the role of Edwin Bateman Morris, and the resulting friendship formed with his grandchildren.
  6. The realization that the results of this research could be useful to people in the decorative arts, presidential history, and art information fields, among others.

What implications do you think your experience tracing the history of the White House tiles could have for research in the decorative arts field?

A key implication is that the interdisciplinary nature of this research can potentially be applied in other investigations into the decorative arts. For example, as suggested in my response to your previous question, I also had to consider political history, architectural history, and the history of tile manufacture in order to develop the full picture of what these decorative objects, the tiles, mean as cultural products.

Another implication is the crossover between the fine and decorative arts, given that the medium William Hartgroves employed to create the tiles was drawing, and that silk screen was used as a means to apply the images to the tiles.

The significance of turning up and exploring “hidden collections” also has implications for research in the decorative arts field. Those of us who have worked with linked data and controlled vocabularies know that the long-range goal of someday achieving reliably consistent linked metadata across collections is an exciting prospect to consider, but that research such as this still relies on detective skills. The researcher has to ask the right questions of real human beings while at the same time constantly honing his or her electronic search skills. Information professionals have to keep pushing forward with digitization projects that enhance discoverability.

The inclusion of a supplement like the one found in your article is not particularly common for Art Documentation. What made you want to share this information as a supplement?

It was Art Documentation editor Judy Dyki’s idea, and I was really happy that she suggested making this additional information available to the ARLIS/NA membership. Judy placed no particular restriction on format or content, and I appreciated her trusting me to come up with an appropriate contribution. It was great fun to pull this material together.

Creating the supplement allowed me to share images of all the tiles; to compare descriptive metadata of a tile in the Ohio History Connection and the corresponding tile in the FDR Library and Museum; and, as you indicate, to include ephemera such as the photo of the shipping crate in the process of being pried open. My intention was to enrich the reader’s experience, and I hope I succeeded.

What do you hope readers take away from this work?

I hope they will take away, first, that ARLIS, its members, its publications, its SIGs, and its listserv are invaluable tools for information professionals and researchers in the decorative arts.

Second, to revisit Question 3, I hope readers will bear in mind that searching for hidden collections remains a challenge – but one that many of us really thrive on meeting. It is hard to imagine a day when, even though the effort to achieve this state has produced a remarkable ability to locate material never before available, we will have a system of linked open data that will lead us to the storage closet in the basement of an informant’s apartment building in the exurbs of Washington, D.C. to solve a mystery concerning decorative objects installed in the White House in the 1940s. We’ll probably be relying on persistence, and joy in the task, for a long time to come!

Third, I hope readers will never underestimate where one piece of evidence can lead. Remain alert and open to the possibility that such evidence could lead you in unexpected directions. The microfilm frame capturing the Hartgroves rendering of the LVPO was the surprising key to a long and rewarding research journey into a study of decorative tiles in the White House.

For information on accessing Stokes’ article and supplemental materials, please visit the Art Documentation homepage on the ARLIS/NA website.