Written by Kimberly Randall, Collections Manager of the Textile Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
In 2019, Cooper Hewitt received a generous gift from the estate of American Arts and Crafts dealer and collector Don Magner (American, 1932–2016). Cooper Hewitt learned about Magner from his close friend, Andrew Van Styn, after he attended a Catherine Hoover Voorsanger lecture program at the museum in early spring 2019. After the program, Van Styn caught up with Matilda McQuaid, head of Textiles (and currently acting director of curatorial), mentioning that his late friend Don had a large collection of textiles and other objects in need of a new home.
As one of the first serious collectors and dealers of American Arts and Crafts-style furniture, New York City-based Don Magner helped to establish a commercial collecting audience for such works. A film school graduate, screenwriter, and painter, Magner first approached collecting with the eye of an artist, selecting the pieces that appealed to him visually. He later took a job at an antique shop in Manhattan on Second Avenue, which introduced him to the inner workings of the antiques business. By the 1960s, his collecting practice converged on the Arts and Crafts of Gustav Stickley, Charles Rohlfs, and Roycrofters, whose designs were mostly ignored by collectors at the time. As his passion for Stickley furniture grew, Magner was compelled to seek out and purchase misidentified pieces. He not only amassed a large inventory but became a serious expert, helping to transform this neglected area of collecting into a popular and worthwhile pursuit for museums, scholars, and collectors.
It was after Princeton University’s groundbreaking 1972 exhibition and catalog by Robert Judson Clark, entitled The Arts and Crafts Movement in America: 1876–1916, that Magner made a bold move to Brooklyn. He opened his American Arts and Crafts Warehouse at 104 Atlantic Avenue, although at the time many Manhattanites could not be coaxed into crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to visit. Those dealers who did make the trip purchased quality pieces at modest prices, returning to Manhattan only to resell them for much more. The growing interest and awareness in American Arts and Crafts design served to push prices even higher, compelling Magner to open another location in Manhattan from 1982–1988. By the 1990s, Magner was in semi-retirement, but like many who find inspiration in well-designed objects, his urge to collect didn’t end with retirement, and he continued pursue his passion until his death in 2016.
In June 2019, staff from Cooper Hewitt’s conservation, curatorial, and registrar departments spent two days packing ceramics, flatware, textiles, wallcoverings, and works on paper at Magner’s apartment in Brooklyn Heights. In his personal collecting habits, Magner’s interests went beyond Arts and Crafts and included examples of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, the Wiener Werkstätte, and mid-20th century American design. Highlights from the gift included many Arts and Crafts domestic embroideries like a table runner from H.E. Verran Company; French Art Nouveau velvet hanging with a design of irises and water lilies; a 1921 Dagobert Peche embroidery design for the Weiner Werkstätte; an orange ceramic tureen by the German potter Martha Katzer ; and a washable wallcovering in uncharacteristically deep blue tones by Thomas Strahan Company. Other surprises included three textiles from designer Ruth Reeves, two pristine beaded purses from the Wiener Werkstätte and Russel Wright’s Highlight flatware from the early 1950s.
Ultimately, this chance meeting from spring 2019 was an important moment for the museum. While Cooper Hewitt was able to acquire some very notable objects for the collection, we also were given the opportunity to learn more about an important collector, who advocated for an American design style that had been long underappreciated.