Aug 12, 2014
01:26 PMStyle & Design
Antique Wicker Brings Perpetually Modern Style to a Connecticut Shop
Dawn Hill Antiques
One view of Antique American Wicker's galleries above Dawn Hill Antiques in New Preston, Conn.
Wicker, it might be argued, is more resonant than any other style of furniture in history, while also embodying design elasticity; it graces genteel porches like nothing else, and provides the nuanced stylistic fillip of bringing a feeling of the outdoors into interiors such as dining and living rooms and, notably, libraries and studies.
Among the reasons for wicker's timeless quality—apart from its essential functionality, long and global heritage and obvious aesthetic appeal—one may not be immediately apparent:
Especially when viewed close-up, the patterns of wicker visually read as a familiar-but-exotic, and slightly hypnotic, language of abstractions—the qualities artists and the cultural avant garde have always found so freeing.
Combined with that, the nature of the construction involves often complex interweaving, which, like sailors’ knots and the double helix, suggest an arcing of ideas toward the universal and the infinite.
So it feels right—to give just a few of many available examples—that the barons of American industry relaxed in wicker after reshaping our world, that the Impressionists revolutionized how art was made by (often enough) posing models in wicker chairs, and that America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Eugene O'Neill, created still-unparalleled masterworks such as The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten in settings where wicker was thematically dominant.
In a way that’s difficult to quantitatively articulate, wicker is far more than the sum of its essential elements—it’s the portal to "the moon and its dreams."
(Above, a wicker chair features prominently in Renoir's "By the Seashore," in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and below right, Eugene O'Neill and Carlotta Monterey sitting on wicker chairs in a photo taken in the South of France, circa 1928, from the website of the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site in California.)
James Butterworth is patient in hearing this thesis presented to him in a phone conversation, and when the slipstream about wicker’s associative powers ends, he brings the conversation back into balance.
It’s a big part of the “fabric of America,” agrees Butterworth, who, with his partner Michael Donovan, owns Antique American Wicker, the country’s premiere source of antique wicker, based at the 18th-century Willard Marshall estate in Nashua, N.H. Their collection is displayed in a three-story, 19th-century post-and-beam barn on the property, which is open by appointment.
“Wicker furniture was on yachts … it was on airplanes. It was in every room in the house in America, in Europe. It was a big thing,” says Butterworth. “It just seemed to penetrate all aspects of society in all ways. … hot air balloons, wicker picnic baskets and beach chairs ... .”
(Below, Butterworth and Donovan in photo courtesy of Antiques and the Arts Weekly on their website.)
According to books on wicker furniture, the history of wicker—which derives from two Swedish words, wika, meaning to bend, and vikker, meaning willow—began in ancient Egypt, and wicker furniture was popular in Rome. It shows up in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and spread almost globally via sea trade. Important in Victorian England, wicker also became an American staple in the 19th century.
Stylistically sophisticated Connecticut residents don’t have to travel to New Hampshire or to an antiques show—like the New York Art, Antique & Jewelry Show Sept. 17 to 21—to view and purchase terrific pieces from the collection of Butterworth and Donovan.
Antique American Wicker has opened a modest showroom within Upstairs Antiques, which is above Dawn Hill Antiques (specializing in Swedish 18th- and 19th-century furniture) in the Washington, Conn., village of New Preston. ("Small Village, Big Shopping" is New Preston's branding; see our June story about the New Preston shop Privet House.)
This outpost of Antique American Wicker is branded as Antique Wicker and Garden.
(Right, a corner of the display, and below, a wider view of the same room; Connecticut Magazine photos.)
“James Butterworth and Michael Donovan have created a cozy world to walk into complete with suites of wicker including matching teacarts, console and coffee tables as well drinks stands and plant stands,” says Paulette Peden, the owner of Dawn Hill and a dear friend of Butterworth’s and Donovan’s. “They have added other elements from the early part of this century, including colorful hooked rugs and custom lamps and shades designed around antique elements. For someone looking for colorful pottery from the twenties and thirties there is the McCoy room filled with planters, vases and other garden elements."
Peden notes that their ever-changing collection includes the best examples of handmade Victorian, Bar Harbor, Art Deco and Stick Wicker, much of it made by the Heyward Wakefield Company of Gardiner, Mass., from 1870 to 1930.
“Part of what we love about our business is the historical aspect,” Butterworth and Donovan say. “We have collected all the original wicker furniture catalogues and use them as reference in our work. This enables us to reassemble suites of wicker as they were offered in the early parts of this century.”
“It’s kind of like stepping back in time a little bit when you see one of our rooms,” Butterwoth says on the phone, adding of the artwork, rugs, lamps and accessories, “Everything in those rooms is ours. … [and] we change it; it’s not going to stay the same.”
(Right, a harlequin lamp; Connecticut Magazine photo.)
In addition to Antique Wicker and Garden, Upstairs Antiques offers antiques from Patina, famous for its polished copper and brass, Barry Strom, with an eclectic mix of American and European antiques, Peden’s Vintage for everything musical, and the Nemati Collection of antique oriental rugs.
Both Butterworth and Donovan grew up in New England, and for both an interest in wicker started at an early age.
Butterworth recounts on the phone that when he was 8 he bought a wicker chair for $3 and fixed it up for residency on his mother’s porch. By age 10, he outfitted the whole porch with Rustoleum-white wicker furniture. Impressed, a neighbor asked if he would do the same for her porch—and, essentially, the rest is history.
“I met my partner in college and he also had wicker furniture,” Butterworth says. “It’s a fun thing to have two people who have the same direction in life.” After meeting in college, their website explains, “Their common interest developed into a business restoring and selling antique wicker at area antiques fairs. After earning Master’s degrees in Education with a specialty in Creative Arts, they changed life paths and decided to become full-time antiques dealers, emphasizing their love of wicker. They are now leading authorities on antique American wicker and exhibit at many of the country's top antiques fairs.”
“We’re the only ones in the country, probably in the world, who procure things that can live with another family for another 90 years of service,” says Butterworth. “We always joke that people are taking a few of our children away from us.”
Butterworth says it’s not difficult to find antique wicker, but can be difficult to find it in great condition: “It’s been many a year out on the porch at someone’s house, and religiously was re-painted over and over again. Maybe a kid took a chair off to college for a dorm room … before long a beautiful suite of furniture is all in pieces and limping along.”
“We do look for pieces that are in great condition to start off with,” he says, adding, “We are capable of doing serious restoration work as well.”
Butterworth and Donovan buy pieces and store them and have amassed an impressive inventory. “We could outfit a hotel easily,” Butterworth says.
What they do mostly is help clients add the style, charm and grace of wicker to their homes. “Once they see us and realize that what we have is actually antique … once they make their initial purchase with us we can go forward with them,” Butterworth explains. “We meet people from the shows who are from all over the world.”
That has led to wicker being shipped to Istanbul, Sweden … “we’ve sent it everywhere.”
(Right, close-up of a pattern on the fabric from a wicker set; Connecticut Magazine photo)
This summer, Butterworth and Donovan have been working with clients in Newport, Rhode Island, and they’re also doing a “nice house in the Hamptons on the water … The people keep buying from us and they love it. … We do some really, really beautiful homes around the country.”
As for how Antique American Wicker ended up with a showroom above Dawn Hill Antiques, Butterworth explains that he has known Peden for at least a dozen years and met her as both participated in the nation’s finest antiques shows, such as the one at the Seventh Regiment Armony in Manhattan, where you might bump into movie stars, marquises and other European royalty. “She came to the show and was by herself. … We were making a soup run for lunch and we walked by and I said, ‘Hey would you like some soup?’”
“When the room opened up upstairs, she really wanted us to come in and put on a display,” Butterworth says. Peden cautioned that visitors to Upstairs Antiques may be refined but they don't pass through in great volume; so it might take a while to cover the cost of a year’s rental for the space. “We’ve far exceeded that the first month we were there,” Butterworth says.
For information about Antique Wicker and Garden, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Dawn Hill Antiques, contact Paulette Peden at Dha@dawnhillantiques.com or call 917 767-6384.
Antique Wicker Brings Perpetually Modern Style to a Connecticut Shop