Rochester’s Shop One

Rochester’s Shop One was the Camelot of craft shops. It was unique and the first to survive for any length of time. It set the trend and, two decades after it closed, firmly remains the name evoked when making comparisons. This was reaffirmed to us as we researched this article, and talked to Shop One’s clients.

“Shop One’s main contribution to the craft world was the elevation of taste through exposure.”

“Shop One educated…all who went there.”

“Meeting the craftsmen/artists was a great bonus.”

“(It) made a name for itself by being a distinguished mark in craft education and execution.”

“Shop One paved the way…for other craft shops.”

“Shop One gave a visibility and accessibility to the crafts, and introduced the community to the value of handmade, contemporary work in each of the four disciplines.”

The post-World War 11 period lacked the éclat of the Roaring Twenties -but also their self-destructiveness. From the late forties through the fifties romantic optimism sparkled in the air. Americans believed the United States would lead the world into a time of affluence, comfort and peace. Young lovers, torn apart by war, were reunited, thinking marriage and children. Having lived with their parents, or shared tenements with their friends, the young suddenly could buy homes of their own. The G.I. Bill enabled men whose best hope had been evening trade school to become college graduates. The future looked blindingly bright.

Despite McCarthyism, the Cold War, extreme racism and sexism, things were infinitely better than during the Depression and the War. Great optimism prevailed. Even the most excluded were hopeful. And everyone focused on family and home, and getting on down the Yellow Brick Road to tomorrow.

The house, the sheltering nest to which one returned after a hard day’s work, where everyone and everything one loved was centered, assumed extraordinary importance. As quaint as it may seem now when even the closest of friends meet in public places to share their lives, people then entertained at home; visiting was a basic social activity. Handcrafted objects—the exquisite platter, the luxurious sofa—fitted and enhanced this lifestyle.

Enter the craftsmen, who, sharing both the optimism and the focus, were eager to provide the desired objects. In 1956 Karl Laurell commented in Handweaver and Craftsman, that despite the industrial age, and the availability of the mass-produced, the public would appreciate the craftsman’s personal touch and the charm of his beautifully made products. “The urge to possess such objects will form the base on which the craftsman in America can establish himself as an indispensable part of the culture.”

It was the right time. And reviewers felt it. The Rochester Times-Union was the first to visit Shop One. On November 12, l953, the reviewer noted the general interest in craft work and the boost given by “the presence in our midst of the School for American Craftsmen.” In December, the University of Rochester’s student newspaper told its impecunious readership that Shop One “provides the opportunity to purchase crafts … elegant yet simple … many pieces within the price range of the college student.”

At about the same time the Bulletin of Philadelphia’s Art Alliance pointed out that at Shop One “…(the) customer can select individually designed pieces of work and deal directly with the craftsmen themselves.”

Shop One’s owners decided to present their merchandise in a homelike setting to suggest what the items would look like in the buyer’s home. And, indeed, the atmosphere of Shop One remains part of its legacy. As the first sales clerks were the craftsmen’s wives, and Pearson lived and worked on the same floor, a homey atmosphere was not hard to create.

All the merchandise was functional: each piece unique. Unique at Shop One (and in the craft world of the time) meant strict, full attention and consummate skill had gone into the making of that object. A Wildenhain pot, a Prip bowl, a Frid chair, a Pearson ring was unique because its creator had focused his entirety on its making — and then moved on. The same creative ground would not be trod again.

Pricing was moderate. Managers discouraged lower prices suggested by part-time craftsmen as unfair to those who made their living by craft. A teapot sold for from $25 to $40. Bowls started at $5. (Minimum wage in 1952 was $1; in 1974, $1.60.) While these objects all were made to be cherished heirlooms, passed lovingly from generation to generation, they proved remarkably sound investments, treasures in more senses than one.

The shop was open Tuesday through Saturday, and on Thursday evening .. then the late night for all stores. When the furnace “died” — which it did faithfully on the bitterest winter days — the staff bundled up and drank hot soup! Almost as regularly as the furnace acted out, Frans, well-known for — and proud of — his outbursts would storm in to boom his disapproval of the current display, forgetting it had been set up under his direction.

The staff did all the work. In that pre-credit card era, customers had personal charge accounts which had to be mailed monthly, merchandise had to be unpacked and catalogued. If the craftsman brought it in personally, time was found for visiting. Orders had to be shipped, the shop cleaned. the staff of two or three (augmented at Christmas time) cheerfully overworked. Pay was modest; excitement great. The reward remains in wonderful memories — being in at the creation of the American Craft Movement.

Rochester, New York was a prosperous industrial city with a long history of cultural activity. Rochesterians understood craft and quality. This was the home of Bausch and Lomb, and Kodak, and, soon, Xerox. Rochester appreciated both hard, skilled work and the fruits of labor.

In 1950 the School for American Craftsmen (SAC) joined the Rochester Institute of Technology. Founded by Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb (who also founded the American Crafts Council, America House and Craft Horizons .. now American Crafts ..) the School had been at Dartmouth and Alfred before settling at R.I.T.

The Rochester Times-Union (May 24, l956) quoted Mrs. Webb: “The School establishes a high sense of quality, establishes a validity of craftsmanship in an industrial sense … In any society there are deep currents that spring from the people themselves… One of the great things craftsmanship can do is give the people who are interested in it an opportunity to use their independence, ingenuity and creativeness.”

SAC was to be a mini-United Nations of craft. Each department — textiles, clay, metal, wood — was to be taught jointly by one teacher trained abroad and one trained in the United States. Director Harold J. Brennan — the paradigmatic gentleman and scholar — recruited three Europeans: Frans Wildenhain, Tage Frid, and Jack Prip.

These three, joined by Ronald Pearson, a young American — the son of a professional artist and teacher — and a full-time metalworker (who would win the l996 American Craft Council Gold Medal) formed a co-operative shop — incorporated some years later — to sell their own work. The first space was a tiny one, downtown on Ford Street, very close to SAC. Shortly, Shop One moved to the upper floor of a carriage house on Troup Street, still close the School. Click here to see a model of the Troup St. Shop 1.

Troup Street was in the Ruffled Shirt District, a.k.a. the Third Ward. It was an area of once-gorgeous homes reduced to a shabbiness that failed to dim the beauty of the buildings. Their superb craftsmanship and the many lovely trees gave the street remarkable, memorable grace.

Frid, Prip, and Wildenhain taught at SAC, and imprinted a large, expanding number of students with their ideals. Frid, a Dane born and bred, had learned his craft through apprenticeship. Prip, born in the US to Danish parents, had been taken to Denmark as a child, and also learned his craft by apprenticeship. (Denmark has an exceptional history of crafts, including the well-known “folkschools,” loosely translated in the US by North Carolina’s Joseph Campbell School.)

Wildenhain had been born in Germany. “My father and grandfather were carpenters. My mother said: ‘Frans, do not be a carpenter.’ Therefore I am a potter.” Frans studied at the famed, ill-fated Bauhaus. He fled Hitler to the Netherlands where he set up his own pottery. Because of his German birth, the Occupation authorities forced him into the German Army. After the war he was able to join his wife, Marguerite, who had come to the US as a refugee before the war. Brennan found him at Pond Farm in California. Frans accepted the offer to teach at SAC where he remained for the rest of his career.

These men had faith in the special virtues of working with hand and mind together and of the quasi-magical power of the hand-made objet d’art. They imbued their students with their ideals — and at Shop One everyone could see these “in the flesh.”

In 1955 the directors of Shop One extended associate membership to other local craftsmen: Hans Christensen, Laurence Copeland, Max Nixon (all silver- smiths); Karl Laurell (weaver) and Hobart Cowles (potter). This move added variety to the merchandise available to the customer and helped increase sales.

In the late 50’s both Tage Frid and Jack Prip left to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, leaving Pearson and Wildenhain as sole owners of Shop One. When Pearson moved to Maine, early in the 70’s, he and Wildenhain decided to take in additional owners. Furniture maker and sculptor, Wendell Castle, and Tom Markusen, a metal worker, both became part-owners in l972.

Shop One launched Albert Paley, a jeweler who progressed to monumental metal pieces. Many others also were introduced by and sold through Shop One. A partial “Who’s Who” of craftsmen similarly presented : Jon Brooks, William Keyser, Jr., Dan Valenza, woodworkers; Nancy Jurs, John Glick, Michael Boylen, Henry Gernhardt in clay. Also, Don Bujnowski, Lenore Tawney, Dorian Zachai, textiles. Glassblowers Jim Nadal, Mark Peiser, Joel Philip Meyers; and Russell Secrest, Arline Fisch, Barry Merritt, jewelers and metalsmiths.

Shop One expanded its space (using the former workshop of Ronald Pearson) and started bringing in folk-crafts from the rest of the world, selected by the owners. It was at Shop One Rochesterians first saw goat-skin rugs from Greece and San Blas Indian molas.

There were monthly shows from September through May. “Everyone” came to the openings. The customers to see and buy; reviewers to critique; School for American Craftsmen students to be inspired, and enjoy a free supper. If the opening ran late, Frans prowled around, ringing a bell!

When we began this project we literally and figuratively rang bells all over. Everyone we contacted was wildly enthusiastic. Some were so eager to reminisce that brief “shoots” became lengthy, always delightful, visits, and our venture an adventure much like a school reunion.

“I’m a keeper anyway,” said a woman about her Shop One jewelry. “But these pieces look as good now as they did in 1969. They were not a fad, they were not a fashion; they were stated elegance then as now.”

“We still have everything we purchased (at Shop One.) It helped train our eyes to what was really fine, and, in turn has given our children an appreciation of art.”

“Items sold at Shop One were right with the times and presented the best of times as well as taking us into the future. We miss it! Wish it would start up again.”

A thought so feelingly shared by so many, we realized that Shop One also created heirlooms of the soul.