Remember that quirky cup you drank cocoa from in your childhood? You just might find one like it in a museum. Those doorstops, chairs, vases, teapots, lamps, and bowls sitting casually in your parents’ or grandparents’ homes, those mundane everyday objects, just might be valuable. 

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Bauhaus Tea Service, 1930, from the Kirkland collection.

Do-it-yourself “Antiques Roadshow”

One way to discover whether you have family treasures is to a visit a local decorative arts museum or antique mall.

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Orange couch by Herman Miller plus other treasure

In Denver, a special place to check out the art of the everyday is Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.  The museum is home to more than 3,500 pieces of decorative art. Room upon room is crammed with household items – rare chairs designed by famous architects whose major claim to fame was buildings; vases, lamps, stoneware, glassware, tea pots, canes, tables. There are thousands of unique, carefully collected and curated items made between 1870 and 1980. And given that 1980 was not that long ago, your family did not have to come over on the Mayflower to possess museum-quality household items.

What qualifies as decorative art?

The category “decorative art” means objects that can be useful, designed both with function and aesthetics in mind. (As opposed to the fine arts like painting and sculpture which do not have practical function. Crafts are something else – the word really refers to making something in a skillful way with wood, paper, clay, beads, etc.)

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Spun Aluminum Sandwich Humidor, 1930s by Russel Wright

So we’re talking about functional items that your parents or grandparents may have used – or that could be used – but were designed in a unique and aesthetically pleasing way. Of course, as with all art, the beauty of it may be in the eye of the beholder – or in some cases, the style of the time. That said, on a recent visit, I spied high on a shelf in the studio of Vance Kirkland, the artist whose collection was the impetus for the creation of the museum, a brushed stainless bowl.  It looked very familiar. It was just like the one that used to sit on the kitchen counter when I was growing up. Little did I know it was museum material! A friend saw an odd little cat object and found out it was a doorstop. “My mother has one just like it in a glass cabinet at home. I wondered what it was!” she said. My friend had thought the thing a bit odd and had not been fond of it.  Her opinion changed.

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Ruba Rombic Glass, 1928, by Reuben Haley. Several of these pieces were actually in an Antiques Roadshow segment.

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From the outside

Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art houses, in addition to decorative art, the paintings of Vance Kirkland, (1904-1981), a professor of art at the University of Denver, and paintings by 170 Colorado artists (hence the “fine” in its name). Many of the decorative items were Kirkland’s, but most have been collected specifically for the museum and are now housed in the building that was his studio.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Renwick Gallery in DC, and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia also house decorative arts. (Please let us know about others.)

Museums like these provide an opportunity to rethink everyday household items – their design, their color and artistry, and their value. Even if you don’t recognize some object that you lived with as having new value, it’s still a good reminder that having something artistic in our homes, even something as mundane as a pitcher, can elevate even the act of pouring water into a beautiful experience.

Update – the Kirkland Museum is moving to the Golden Triangle neighborhood near the Denver Art Museum and the Clyfford Still Museum. Kirkland’s studio was put on a flatbed and moved through the streets of Denver on Nov. 6, 2016. The Kirkland will reopen in a new, larger space in fall, 2017.

Photos courtesy of Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art

Story copyright by Bojinka Bishop, Feb. 18, 2014 and updated Jan. 2017.

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Comment(s) on Family treasures – Solve a mystery in a museum

  1. I really enjoyed your take on the Kirkland – as a way to both appreciate the amazing collection there and to make use of it in a practical way – functional art appreciation – love it! You have just reinforced a rule for living that my mother taught me so long ago – the importance of art in our everyday lives. Thank you.

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