Rinker on Collectibles: Developing an Interior Decorating Mindset – Part I

When conducting an appraisal clinic, I inform participants that I will use one of three basic values to determine the worth of an object. The first is collector value—what a collector who does not own but wants to buy an example will pay. I emphasize that while collector value was once the dominant secondary market antiques and collectibles value, collector value lost its king-of-the-hill status at the dawn of the 21st century.

Reuse value is the second. Most antiques and collectibles began life as functional objects—a chair to sit in, a plate from which to eat, or a toy for the purpose of play. This functional application is not lost over time. It remains inherent within the object.

Decorative value, the most complex of the three values, and the new king of the hill, is the third. A value in itself, decorator value has subcategories that include conversation, neat, nostalgia and wow or pizzazz value. In addition, value results from an object’s ability to support or enhance a designer or fashion “look,” especially if the “look” is “hot” at the time.

Antiques and collectibles appraisers, auctioneers, collectors, dealers and others in the trade are adept at understanding collecting value, their primary focus. Sophisticated members understand that antiques and collectibles have multi-faceted values, each value depending on the mindset of a prospective buyer. The same applies to decorating value.

A large majority—my guesstimate is more than 95 percent—of the antiques and collectibles trade members have a minimal understanding of the decorative value within objects. They do not track the decorative and fashion markets. If asked what looks, colors or pattern designs are in, out or quiet, members of the trade have a blank look on their face. Few in the trade can identify and talk intelligently about the design styles of Barbara Barry, Nate Berkus, Alessandra Branca, Jon Call, Kathryn Ireland, Bunny Williams and Vern Yip. A few will be familiar with the “television media” designers. Yip fits the latter category.

Author’s Aside #1: I did some Internet research to create the above list. I recognized some but not all of the names. This is an area that I need to visit more frequently.

Martha Stewart is a recognizable name, but she is not an interior designer in the true sense of the concept. Is there a “Martha Stewart” Look? The answer is no. In order to keep readers and viewers, Martha has to change her look constantly. As such, the Martha Stewart Look is a commercial look which is immediate rather than timeless.

When teaching “Business Practices: Secrets to Success,” the main merchandising course, for my Institute for the Study of Antiques and Collectibles, I recommended to participants that they visit their public library or a Barnes & Noble bookstore and skim through the magazines and newspapers in the interior decorating, life-style and Country, Victorian and other Look sections. The participants were not to read the magazines and newspapers, only look at the pictures. They were to ask three questions: (1) what am I seeing that I saw during my last visit; (2) what is not there that I saw previously; and (3) what is new? The goal was to understand hot, stable and declining Looks.

Once the participants gained experience answering the above three questions, I introduced two more considerations into their thought process: First, pick out those Looks featuring antiques and collectibles, paying particular attention to how the antiques and collectibles were incorporated into the Look; and second, identify what antiques and collectibles could support, complement and enhance the Looks.

The Institute participants were not to let others make decisions for them but to do so on their own. The participants would better be able to tout the objects offered for sale if they believed in the storyline used to hook the customer. Participants also were encouraged to give prominence in their merchandising displays to these objects.

The Look is the key. Through much of the 20th century, one “hot” Look tended to dominate interior design for periods ranging from 10 to 20 years. During the American Bicentennial, Country was tops, with Early American a close second. America experienced a Victorian craze in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Shabby Chic made a brief appearance, the shortness of its stay a blessing to those with good taste.

Some truths prevail. First, the Country Look is always in, especially in the Midwest and Plains states, although it is not always dominant. The Country Look pendulum swings between formal and primitive (the politically correct name for junk). Second, once a Look is established, it may lose favor but never really goes away permanently. Early American, Colonial Revival, Victorian and Contemporary, the name used to best describe the stuffed-fabric Look, are examples. Third, there are Looks, such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco, whose fall from grace extends for decades. It is questionable if they will recycle.

Author’s Aside #2: There are regional and cosmopolitan Looks. The Mexican/Desert Look is popular in America’s Southwest. Country in my home is represented by the Pennsylvania German Look. French styles are popular in large cosmopolitan cities. I chose “cosmopolitan” instead of “urban” because there are some large cities where French styles are blasé.

The mid-1990s was a watershed in terms of interior decorating. By the beginning of the 21st century, every Look was in. “Eclectic,” also known as mix and match, became the new American Look. The Look was whatever anyone wanted it to be. Look became personalized. Individuals picked a Look they liked and found one or more periodicals, interior decorators or cable television shows to support and/or justify it.

Cable television plays a major role in making the average American decorator conscious. The approach is that creating a Look is quick, easy and cheap. Forget permanence. Focus on the immediate. When the chosen Look is out, decorate with a new Look. The concept of living with something for a lifetime has disappeared. The throw-away generations added Look to their discard list.

In 2013, my advice to appraisers, auctioneers, collectors, dealers and others in the trade is go to the library, Barnes & Noble, and the Big Box stores, skim the interior design, life-style and Look-focused magazines and newspapers and make a list of as many Looks—even if associated with one specific designer—as you can. Identify five to 10 key elements of that Look. Once done, start identifying objects that support, promote and enhance the Looks.

In this digital age, is it possible to quickly identify Looks with the same ease and accuracy as visiting the library, bookstore or Big Box stores with large magazine sections? In late 2013, the answer is no. I have tried repeatedly to create effective search titles. General searches, difficult and somewhat unreliable at best, proved negative. Specific search titles produced marginal results.

In a trip to a Barnes & Noble, I made a list of magazine titles. All had websites. I checked out several. Navigation varied from site to site. The difficulty was accessing the pictures without having to call up each article. After several frustrating experiences, I gave up and made returning to the printed versions of my favorite magazines and newspapers my primary research method.

It was not my intent to write a two-part series on this subject. However, a second column is necessary so that I can discuss the importance of color and pattern, identifying the mindset of the buyers, recognizing flash in the pan Looks, and suggesting a dealer mindset necessary to merchandize Looks.

When I write a column series, the second or subsequent parts follow immediately. This will not be the case with the “Developing an Interior Decorating Mindset” series. As “Rinker on Collectibles” approaches the 1,400 column mark, I have two text columns I want to write first. There will be a Part II to “Developing an Interior Decorating Mindset.” Please be patient.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2013

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