Millennials embrace bicentennial style
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Millennials embrace bicentennial style
In an image provided by Dustin Chambers, Robell Awake, a furniture maker in Atlanta who interprets 19th-century ladderback chairs. For a growing number of designers, dealers and collectors in their thirties, American antiques are hot. (Dustin Chambers via The New York Times)

by Sarah Archer

NEW YORK, NY.- Scroll through Erick J. Espinoza’s Instagram feed, and you might think you’ve traveled back in time to the 1930s — not the art deco version, but the version filled with hooked rugs, weather vanes and candlesticks betokening the era’s American Colonial Revival, perhaps with the color saturation cranked way up.

“There’s something so lighthearted about Americana. Even really serious and intense works of American folk art are still whimsical, graphic and humorous,” said Espinoza, who is the 32-year-old creative director at the Hamptons design studio founded by Anthony Baratta. Espinoza especially loves the geometric patterns of game boards and quilts.

Espinoza’s own house in Danbury, Connecticut, is a kaleidoscopic ode to a style he calls “pop art country.” His equestrian-themed red, white and black bedroom is a particular tour de force.

For a growing number of designers, dealers and budding collectors in their 30s, Americana is back — with a twist. Consider them the Bicentennial millennials.

In the mid-1970s, on the heels of Watergate and the war in Vietnam, American housewares manufacturers such as Ethan Allen used the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations to unleash a wave of nouveau Colonial Revival designs. Overlapping as they did with that decade’s craft mania, old-fashioned objects such as spinning wheels, flags and eagle-themed wallpaper enjoyed an uncanny moment of cultural relevance.

Michael Diaz-Griffith, executive director of the Design Leadership Network, a platform for interior designers and architects, said he has been anticipating a renewed interest in Bicentennial style for more than a decade.

A native of Alabama, Diaz-Griffith spent eight years working in various capacities at the Winter Show, an antiques, art and design fair held each January in New York City’s Manhattan borough, cheering on people his age (he is now 36) who were falling in love with very old, very quirky objects even as postwar modernism seemed to be getting all the attention. In June, he published “The New Antiquarians: At Home with Young Collectors” (The Monacelli Press).

“Millennials aren’t minimalists,” he said.

In his book, Diaz-Griffith profiles lovers of Americana who have made their living spaces canvases for quirky dialogues with the past rather than pristinely accurate period rooms. He writes that the Brooklyn apartment belonging to Camille Okhio, a writer at Elle Decor magazine, is “a Pennsylvania barn … airlifted to Lagos.” Her collections are “as likely to draw upon refined Ngil masks, spare 17th-century ironwork, or elegant Shaker basketry as the International Style.”

Audrey Gelman has also taken stock of the moment. The co-founder of The Wing, a now-defunct women’s coworking space famous for its millennial pink walls and velvet-upholstered furniture, she currently runs a vintage and contemporary home goods boutique called the Six Bells in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

Gelman, 36, recalled that her grandfather often visited estate sales, bringing quantities of “primitive cows and wrought-iron pig figurines” into her family’s orbit when she was young. She said that for her clientele, including shoppers in their 20s with a taste for the simple life and teens intent on giving their college dorm rooms a pastoral spin, she wanted to create “a Venn diagram of Americana, English maximalism and Alpine Tyrolean style.”

Gelman — who left The Wing as CEO after some employees, including Black and brown members, complained of inequitable treatment, an episode she declined to discuss — thinks one reason for the renewed attraction to rustic Americana is technological. “For a generation younger than me, who grew up with omnipresent internet, this aesthetic represents greener pastures,” she said. Each member of that generation believes, “I was born in the wrong era and I want to go home.”

She added, “We’ve reached a saturation point with retail simulacra: Everything is a copy of a copy, and even things that started in Copenhagen are now at Wayfair.” Americana, by contrast, is rooted in a time, place and culture.

Every design tells some kind of story, but American antiques — from the mythmaking around Betsy Ross’ flag at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 to Bicentennial bric-a-brac — are particularly freighted with meaning, and that meaning is continually being remade, said Thomas Denenberg, the director of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.

“The high point of the Colonial Revival is really about creating community and common values for a vastly heterogeneous nation, and that almost creates the operating system for suburban America,” Denenberg said.

Community building is a facet of Americana that Espinoza takes very seriously. “I’m first-generation American; my parents are both from Central America,” he said. “They moved here in the late 1980s and they had my sister and me in Miami. I think that lends itself to being proud to be here and celebrating that in a way, even today; I love everything that’s American-made.”

Politically liberal, he shrugs off the reticence that many other progressives feel about displaying Americana; he doesn’t want to let someone else identify what American stands for. “I was born here. I have the utmost privilege to be an American,” he said.

According to Diaz-Griffith, antiques have long been conservative symbols, “but they aren’t necessarily that intrinsically.”

Many younger people, he said, have shifted their attention to the people and methods behind old goods. “We’re learning that a huge number of top furniture makers and upholsterers in America were Black men,” he said. “This rewrites the history of this furniture, through the labor they were proud of, their workmanship, and how we conceive of the dignity and artistry of craftspeople generally.”

In 2019, Tiffany Momon, an assistant professor of history at the University of the South, created an especially rich resource with the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive.

“The decorative arts world can be very old and white,” Momon, 37, said, recalling that one year she was the only Black scholar at Colonial Williamsburg’s annual Antiques Forum.

She also found that a pervasive emphasis on connoisseurship tended to eclipse the information she found most absorbing: “I was interested in the builders, the makers, the stories of people behind these nice-looking objects,” she said. The Black Craftspeople Digital Archive was the resource she needed for her own research but couldn’t find.

As for Americana, flags and eagles interest her less than the more nuanced symbolism of Poynor chairs, she said. Born into slavery, Richard Poynor was a 19th century Black furniture maker in Williamson County, Tennessee, who purchased his freedom in the 1850s.

“He built the first horse-powered chair factory in Tennessee,” Momon said. “It became a family business and a way of acquiring money, living well, making a name for his family.” Today, she thinks about what owning a Poynor chair “means for agency and Black liberation, and the lives of freed Black people before the Civil War.

And Poynor continues to inspire contemporary furniture makers. Robell Awake, a 38-year-old in Atlanta, creates modern takes on a ladder-back chair with which Poynor was associated.

Last year, after receiving a grant from the Center for Craft in Asheville, North Carolina, he deepened his study of the craftsperson’s life and work and discovered a resonance between Poynor’s chairs and carved Jimma chairs made in the region of Ethiopia where Awake’s parents were born.

Diaz-Griffith says he believes that millennials and Gen Zers are increasingly drawn to American antiques because new scholarship about material culture has short-circuited the stuffiness so often associated with the field. Add to that a postmodern approach to mixing and matching historical periods and a strong sense of I-like-what-I-like, and you have a recipe for thinking Americana is fascinating, fun and ripe for personal meaning.

“Younger people have adopted a kind of historicist mindset, talking about Tom Ford’s Gucci like it’s the 18th century — it’s a form of critical inquiry and identification,” he said. “Maybe you’re seeing photos of Colonial Williamsburg, and it’s exciting. You’re here, you’re American, wanting to belong to something and to be woven into the story.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Millennials embrace bicentennial style

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