Craftsmanship and craftiness emerge in Bruce Johnson’s world
by Rob Neufeld
This coming weekend, the National Arts and Crafts Conference, which Johnson founded in 1988, presents a one-of-a-kind display of objects and an array of aficionados at the Grove Park Inn.
In time for the occasion, Johnson has published his 16th book, “Tales of the Grove Park Inn”; and, for the Grove Park Inn centennial, he has revised and reissued “Built for the Ages: A History of the Grove Park Inn.”
Johnson devotes a chapter of “Tales” to Elbert Hubbard, whose Roycroft Furniture Shop provided the inn with thousands of furnishings, helping to make it the number one Arts & Crafts location in the world.
Hubbard’s “skills as a marketing genius and talented copywriter,” Johnson writes, “had carried him to the top management level of the nationally known Larkin Soap Company. Then, at age 36 and nearing the peak of his corporate career, Hubbard had done what millions only dream of doing…He quit.”
Hubbard started following his passion—hand-printing beautiful books in the manner of William Morris, the pioneer English writer, designer, and printer. Soon, his business skills re-flowered, and Hubbard became a manufacturer as well as apostle of the Arts & Crafts style, which features simplicity of design, craftsmanship, and durability.
Johnson started his career as a high school literature and history teacher in Iowa. His graduation to writer and Arts & Crafts expert grew from his love of making history interesting; and from early experiences in New Windsor, Illinois, a prairie town near Davenport, Iowa.
His maternal grandmother, Violet Hickok, took her eldest grandson with her to yard sales to develop a respect for fine objects and sturdy craftsmanship. Johnson recalled, in a recent interview, a formative experience from when he’d been in high school.
“My grandmother called me up one day and said, ‘I want you to come out to the farm.’ I went out there, and she had dragged out of her basement this antique maple bed. It was dark and grimy, and she said, ‘We’re going to refinish this bed for you.
“I remember that day,” Johnson continued, “when we rolled up our sleeves and got out the steel wool and denatured alcohol…I will never forget that afternoon in her driveway. She and I stripped and refinished what we used to call a cannonball maple bed. Even though it was not Arts & Crafts, I never let that maple bed go. I always hung onto it, and today that bed is my son’s bed. I passed it along to him. It is a symbol of my grandmother’s love for antiques and family heirlooms.”
The human condition
Johnson also credits his grandmother as a storyteller. In the classroom, Johnson as teacher strove to turn the dust of the past into revived life—through stories.
“You quickly learn,” Johnson commented, “that you have to make history interesting. The two things that (do that) are unanswered mysteries and personalities.”
In his 2011 mystery novel, “An Unexpected Guest,” he turned the well-known ghost story about the Pink Lady at the Grove Park Inn into an exploration of the personality of the inn’s overseer, Fred Seely.
In “Tales,” he composes chapters that relate the saga of Fred Seely, Edwin Wiley Grove, and the Grove Park Inn; and others that reveal the dreams, flaws, and fates of famous individuals associated with the inn.
For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who stayed there for a couple of years, while both he and Zelda, ensconced at Highland Hospital, struggled with their personal crashes.
Johnson’s research is far-reaching and thorough. He doesn’t provide footnotes, but he includes references within his narration, and if you care to search out the original documents with keyword searches, you can.
I knew of Fitzgerald’s mention of Asheville in “The Great Gatsby.” I did not know, until reading “Tales,” of its mention in his short story, “The Ice Palace.”
Johnson pulls up the journal of Laura Guthrie, Fitzgerald’s secretary during those GPI years, and quotes her.
“He lives the most unnatural life of any man I know,” Guthrie observed. “He lives on beer, as high as 37 bottles in one day…He smokes all the time, too, Sano cigarettes, by preference, as he thinks they do not hurt him.” When she fed him soup, he only consumed the broth, and left the vegetables.
The tales do not immerse you and keep you under like novels, but they do provide material for several novels. Johnson, in his pursuit of mystery, does not shy from controversy.
Seely and Grove were complex, visionary, ambitious, and disciplined battlers. One of Johnson’s chapters is titled, “A Family Feud.”
In an early chapter, Johnson tells how Grove had traveled to Detroit to see if Parke, Davis & Company could help him turn his quinine medicine into pills. The head of the tablet department there was Fred Seely, age 26, who let Grove know that Parke, Davis did not own the patent on the tablet-making machine.
Soon enough, Seely was working for Grove, using their own tablet machines, which Seely had improved with a pill counter; and Seely was engaged to Grove’s daughter, Evelyn.
William Warren, Park, Davis President took out a warrant for Seely’s arrest. Grove had Seely return to Asheville to make a sworn statement under oath. “Meanwhile,” Johnson writes, “Grove took an overnight train to Detroit, where he confronted William Warren and, in the presence of two stenographers, grilled the supervisor until Warren admitted that his accusations had been based solely on reports from other employees.”
The beautiful book
Johnson has self-published his book of tales. He’s got the name recognition to make that work. For his recent coffee table book, “Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Furniture,” he collaborated with Popular Woodworking Books, designer Brian Roeth, photographer Al Parrish, and illustrator Kevin Pierce.
It’s a model of design and content.
There’s a lot of history about Arts & Craft. The photos are composed for maximum information and allure. The drawings present plans that woodworkers and cabinetmakers can follow.
“The wonderful thing about Arts & Crafts furniture,” Jonson noted, “is that it doesn’t require expensive machinery; or a lot of intricate carving. It’s very achievable by even the novice woodworker.”
The Arts & Crafts style lives, not only with those who buy and sell antiques, and those who make accurate reproductions; but also with those—such as Brian Brace in Black Mountain and Rob Kleber, creator of new panels for the GPI’s Great Room columns—who respect the style in new forms.
The Arts & Crafts Conference is the art form’s phenomenal showcase.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Arts & Crafts Conference
Times of the conference: 1 to 6 p.m., Fri.; noon to 6 p.m., Sat; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sun. at the Grove Park Inn
Number to call: 628-1915
Charge for parking outside: 0
Number of people who attend: 3,000
Number of exhibitors: 125—50 antique dealers, 50 contemporary craftspeople, and 25 booksellers
Percentage of items for sale: 100%
Lowest price item: decorative tile, a few dollars
Highest price item: last year, a $36,000 Frank Lloyd Wright desk
Time that Bruce Johnson wakes up to get to work each day: 5 a.m.
Tales of the Grove Park Inn by Bruce E. Johnson (Knock on Wood Publication trade paper, 2013, 374 pages)
Built for the Ages: A History of the Grove Park Inn by Bruce E. Johnson, revised edition (Grove Park Inn hardcover, many photos on photo-quality paper, 2013, 128 pages)
Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Furniture by Bruce E, Johnson (Popular Woodworking Books large format hardcover with glossy paper, 2009, 175 pages, $35).