Archive for December, 2011

PostHeaderIcon A World Under Glass

L. T. Selman Gallery

L. T. Selman, Ltd. Gallery

Editor’s Note: The blogs posted this month feature lesser-known personal discoveries that can provide enjoyable holiday outings.

One evening in late October, I entered Studio 207 in the Fine Arts Building and discovered a whole new world. For several long moments, I stood transfixed by the sight of approximately 700 paperweights on display in long glass cases.

In my mind, paperweights are associated with Chicago real estate developer and fanatical collector, Arthur Rubloff, who donated his collection of 1472 rare and beautiful objects to the Art Institute in 1978.

Paperweights, however, suffer a reputation as being an art world lightweight. The latest slap came in today’s Chicago Tribune (Dec. 21) where the writer says Rubloff’s collection has little place in the museum. The Art Institute seems to share a similar view of this decorative art since it displays them in the lower level near the famous Thorne Rooms in a scenario reminiscent of “Upstairs/Downstairs”.

resizethumb 3I imagined that paperweight production had ceased in recent years. Not so. In speaking with Alexis Magaro, the gallery manager, I learned that a large number of highly-skilled artisans are producing new, imaginative designs with many on display at the studio.

The studio is the new home of L.H. Selman Ltd. It is named for Lawrence Selman, one of the world’s leading paperweight collectors (he assembled Rubloff’s collection). In 2009, two brothers, Ben and Mitch Clark, who come from a family of paperweight collectors, bought Selman’s collection and shipped it from California to Chicago.

In fact, Chicago houses the largest collection of antique and modern paperweights in America. (The Bergstrom-Mahler Museum in Neenah, Wisconsin houses the largest museum collection in the world dedicated to paperweights). About 700 objects are on display, but Magaro says about 4,000 are on the premises.

Paper weight_watermark.phpWhile paper dates from the Egyptian era over 4,000 years ago and glassmaking artistry is 3,500 years old, paperweights date only from 1845 with Venetian glassmakers in Murano, Italy. The most spectacular examples of this art, though, came from France during paperweights’ brief heyday from the 1850s to the 1890s.

The Victorian era was a sentimental time when letter-writing became a fad. Paperweights were sold in stationery stores as an attractive accessory to desk sets. The finest such objects came from the French factories of Saint Louis, then Clichy and Baccarat. But, by 1860, their production fell off sharply.

American paperweight manufacturing was centered around Boston and New England. Since most glassmakers were European immigrants, American designs were imitative of European models. Art Elder, an authority on paperweights, says that what American designs lacked in originality, they made up for in ingenuity which collectors find more charming and desirable.

resizethumb.phpOnce French production ceased, collecting, primarily by aristocracy and royalty, began. Queen Victoria and Queen Mary were collectors as was Napoleon III. You should ask Alexis about the connection between pansy paperweights and the Bonapartist movement.

Magaro led me on a historical tour of the main paperweight designs. The earliest examples contained a profile in bas-relief of a person to be commemorated. Then came the millefiori (meaning thousand flowers in Italian). Lampwork designs include sculpted flowers, animals or insects.

What I found fascinating is that the flowers, animals or insects are made of glass, so minutely crafted and at miniature scale that you’d swear they were the real thing trapped within the glass casingl.

Paperweights can range widely in price. Magaro said that, while the vast majority range from $500 to $5,000, prices can hit the $10,000 to $25,000 range for rare examples. However, one can find holiday designs on Selman’s website for $175 and some petite millefiori designs are a steal at only $26.

Value is determined by a number of factors: the maker (French are generally the most valuable), symmetry and centering of the design, no internal flaws such as bubbles or cracks, size (the larger the better) and visual impact or the “wow” factor.

L.H. Selman is a full-service gallery. It buys and sells paperweights, handles sales on consignments for collectors and conducts sales auctions twice a year. It enjoys an international reputation.

resizethumb.2 phpMere words can’t do justice to the visual delight and pleasure of holding one of these creations in your hand. You still have more than a week to sample this holiday treat. And maybe even get that last-minute holiday gift. You owe it to yourself to discover what Elder calls “one of the world’s best-kept secrets”.

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L.H. Selman Ltd. is in Room 207 at 410 South Michigan Avenue. Phone is 312.583.1177. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and by appointment on weekends. Its website, www.selman.com features a lot of interesting information and photos, of course.

PostHeaderIcon Not Just Any Old House

Editor’s Note: The blogs posted this month will feature lesser-known personal discoveries that can provide enjoyable holiday outings.

Driehaus Museum

Driehaus Museum

If you passed the imposing three-story brownstone at 40 East Erie in recent years, you would have found the building dark and open only by appointment. One would never know that, beyond the front door, lies one of nation’s grandest mansions of the Gilded Age. However, with the arrival of Lise Dube-Scherr last April as director, the Richard H. Driehaus Museum has come alive.

The museum is now open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Sundays 12-5 p.m and closed Monday). Banners identifying the museum hang above the front door and the public is warmly welcomed inside for personal tours of this architectural and decorative arts showpiece. Ms. Dube-Scherr has worked hard in the last nine months to establish a membership program, themed visits and evening soirees as might have been held in the home by its original owners.

Noted investment adviser, Richard Driehaus, is passionate about architectural preservation and decorative arts. He purchased the mansion in 2003 and then spent several million dollars over five years restoring it to its former glory. He has also lent the house period furnishings, works from his art collection, pieces from his extensive collection of Tiffany-designed lamps and antique chandeliers; all to give the galleries a true feeling of late 19th Century splendor.

Samuel Nickerson, the founder of the First National Bank of Chicago, was the original owner. He and his family lived there from 1887 to 1900. It cost a staggering $450,000 to build the 25,000 square foot mansion, the largest private residence in Chicago when it was completed (the cost in 2011 dollars would exceed $100 million). That part of town, at the time, was known as McCormickville since several members of the McCormick family lived in the area.

Nickerson sold the house to Lucius Fisher, a paper-bag manufacturer and big-game hunting enthusiast, who resided there until his death in 1916. Fearing that it might be demolished, one hundred prominent Chicagoans, including William Wrigley, Cyrus McCormick and Julius Rosenwald, bought the home and donated it to the American College of Surgeons, for use as its headquarters.

Driehaus Main Hall

Driehaus Main Hall

Inside the front door on Erie (though early visitors arrived by horse-drawn coach at a porte cochere on the side), you enter a two-story Main Hall and your jaw drops.

Straight ahead you see a grand staircase that leads to the family’s living quarters on the second floor and ballroom. Off the main hall on both sides are the Front Parlor, Reception Room, Drawing Room, Dining Room, Smoking Room, Library and the stunning Sculpture Gallery.

At your feet, the floor is covered in 17 kinds of inlaid marble. The house quickly became known as The Marble Palace. Equally impressive are the wood moldings used for the rooms’ rich wainscotting and the dropped ceilings’ paneling. The majestic Sculpture Gallery holds three masterpieces, making it hard to choose a favorite: the 19th-Century  sculpture of “Cupid and Psyche”, a 7-foot-high fireplace with a gorgeous fireplace surround of mosaic tile and an oversize Tiffany-inspired dome overhead.

"Cupic and Psyche"

"Cupid and Psyche"

Other special touches in rooms throughout the house include inlaid marquetry wood in the Library, rare blue-green wall tiles, fabrics by Scalamandre and some original sconses and small flickering gas lights. Such detail and craftsmanship is unavailable today, even in the infamous McMansions erected by modern-day financial wizards.

I cannot readily recall being as overwhelmed by the beauty of a private residence as I was touring Driehaus’ recreation of the Nickerson mansion. Dube-Scherr points out that “we’re not trying to perfectly recreate how the house appeared in Nickerson’s time but to give people a sense of what life was like in the Gilded Age.”

To that end, she scheduled strolling carolers, an evening cabaret performance and a magic show for family visitors during the holiday season. Twilight tours, on the first and third Tuesday of each month, let visitors glimpse how the Nickersons socialized in the evening.

Looking for a different holiday treat? A visit to the museum strikes me as a perfect outing. Its “Deck the Marble Halls” observance is on daily (except Mondays) through January 8th. You can take a self-guided audio tour or a guided tour daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (1:30 and 3 p.m. on Sunday).

Admission is $20, $12.50 for seniors and $10 for students, children under 18.

The Museum is also available for rental for intimate dinners, private receptions, board meetings. Dube-Scherr says she is awaiting its first wedding booking. For full details, visit the museum at

www.DriehausMuseum.org. Phone is 312/932-8665.

PostHeaderIcon Lyric Pushes Passion

While riding the Brown line last month, I had a most delightful surprise. “Delightful surprise” are two words that are rarely associated with the CTA. As the train left Chicago Avenue heading south, my eyes caught a giant image of opera star, Renee Fleming, on the side of a River North building asking, “When Was the Last Time You Cried at a Cubist Exhibition?.”  I did a double-take and then had a good laugh at the tongue-in-cheek dig at the Art Institute and MCA.

lyricreneeRenee had a point. It is one that Lyric Opera began pressing home this September in a series of images plastered extensively throughout Chicago on billboards, buildings and bus shelters. The images mainly feature Fleming and music director Andrew Davis making equally provocative statements. The tag line on all the messages is “Long Live Passion”.

As much as “Tales of Hoffman,” “The Magic Flute” and “Aida,” Lyric this season is promoting passion. And why not?  While opera-goers feel passionate about Lyric and the art form, that is not the way opera plays on the street and among most young Chicagoans.

07_passionAsk them what their impression of opera is and their replies will probably be some version of “stuffy,” “boring,” “for rich people,” and “not for me.” Well, the “Long Live Passion” campaign is out to change that and give Lyric a more contemporary, inviting image.

What are the tales of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Boris Godunov,” “Madame Butterfly,” “La Boheme” and “Faust” to limit the list to five choices but timeless stories of man’s insatiable lust for power and passion?  Lyric, in recent seasons, has also opened itself to staging newer repertoire, like “Candide,” “Porgy and Bess,” and this season’s “Showboat” that pay tribute to crowd-pleasing compositions that can arguably be ranked as 20th Century American operettas.

lyricRockWith this ad campaign, Lyric is moving forcefully to attract a larger audience—youth and adult—to the magic of live opera. To feel moved, to cry, cheer, even be changed by what they see and hear. Here’s to its success! Visit: www.LyricOpera.org

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