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The Origins of the Wall Accessory (1)

A. D. Coleman, selfie, 8-20-17[Thirty-five years ago, in November 1982, I published the following essay in Lens’ On Campus, a magazine directed at high-school and college-level teachers and students of photography, produced in an edition of 100,000 copies and distributed in bulk, free of charge, to such programs six times a year. At the time it was one of the few regular platforms available to me.

Part 1 appears below; click here for part 2. — A. D. C.]

The Origins of the Wall Accessory

I’m an inveterate scavenger. Show me a rural garbage dump or an urban junk pile and I’m scrounging around, happy as the proverbial pig. I’ll even interrupt a walk or an outdoor social occasion to pick over a promising trash heap, much to the discomfort of well-bred companions. A certain fundamental impulse toward recycling, plus a childhood training in making do, is at the root of this. And I suppose that in some ways it’s my frugal, thrifty version of that all-American entertainment, shopping.

Fortunately, I live in a spacious house, which allows me to store these impulsive acquisitions until I can discover whether they actually have any useful relation to my life or are simply still-functional objects irrelevant to my needs.

For example, in this fashion I’ve acquired books — such as two handsome limited-edition illustrated volumes of Dickens which recently gave me a surprising amount of reading pleasure (I hadn’t encountered him since high school, and hadn’t enjoyed him then). And furniture — stools and chairs and the light box I constructed from parts of an enormous abandoned World’s Fair lighting fixture I came across in a field on Staten Island. Assorted lamps. My leather office waste basket, formerly a ladies’ hat box. Many photographs, of course, few of them valuable but most of them fascinating. (Not to mention half a basement’s worth of detritus on which the verdict is not yet in.)

Turner Mfg. Co. wall accessory label

Turner Mfg. Co. wall accessory label

There’s a small apartment building on the corner of my block which has a steady turnover among its tenants. Passing there one day I spied a mound which bore the earmarks of the hasty cleaning-out of a just-vacated apartment — and, as is my wont, plunged right in. Soon a glint of metal caught my eye, and with a little effort I extracted a picture in a large aluminum frame, roughly two feet by three feet in size. A genuine find! Sectional metal frames are getting a bit pricey these days, and here was a perfectly good one just begging to be put to use, free for the taking.

The image it encased appeared to be a lithographic reproduction of a watercolor portrait. The subject was a girlish blonde with blue eyes in a straw hat, holding a spray of flowers and looking coyly at the viewer — one of that rare race of people of the female persuasion who inhabit the covers of romance novels for adolescent girls and the photographs of David Hamilton. She was so fetchingly bland that the overall effect was offensively wholesome; and, since there was no signature on the print, I turned it over, expecting to find some appropriately mindless title (I had my money on “Springtime Reveries”) and the name of the perpetrator.

Wisely, he or she had decided against identification by name. In fact, there was absolutely no information whatever offered in regard to the image: no title, no indication of medium or reproduction method, nothing — as if, Topsy-like, it “jes’ grew.” There was, however, an official designation for the entire object (image plus mat plus backing board plus frame) which I held in my hands, and the appropriate nomenclature was right there in big letters on a white label pasted to the back. “WALL ACCESSORY,” it said, just like that, and in a flash I knew that I had found not just a bargain but a metaphor.

Turner Mfg. Co. wall accessory label

Turner Mfg. Co. wall accessory label

[Note, November 22, 2017: Some recent online sleuthing suggests that this artifact may have come from the Chicago-based Turner Manufacturing Company, which apparently started up during or shortly after WWII and, according to a blogger devoted to “vintage modern” furniture and decor,

“was, at one time, the largest producer of affordably priced decorative art and mirrors in the United States. The company went out of business around 1975. Their wall art was sold in department stores and “five & dimes” and is still relatively easy to find. Much of what they produced was prints of ‘Old Masters,’ but they also manufactured some very cool modern pictures.”

Additionally, they cranked out a wide assortment of decorative mirrors, bric-a-brac shelves, and other wall-hung knick-knacks.

I don’t have ready access to the object I found, which lies tucked away in a storage unit. So I can’t tell if it’s a genuine Turner product. But the Turner labels I’ve found online (samples above) consistently use the term “wall accessory” — quite possibly originated by that company’s marketing division, but apparently not trademarked, so it became generic in that industry. Which makes me really late to the party in my discovery of it circa 1982. But better late than never.

Inevitably, I suppose, starting in the 1960s a market for photographic “wall accessories” emerged, nowadays supplied by Ikea and other vendors. (From what I can tell, Turner Mfg. Co. did not add photographs to its product line.) Indeed, even notable images by photographers in the pantheon, from Ansel Adams to Robert Doisneau to Robert Mapplethorpe, have become wall accessories, thanks to the market for framed, ready-to-hang prints and posters. — A. D. C. ]

Ansel Adams Wall Art, Kohl's online, 11-22-17 (screenshot)

Ansel Adams Wall Art, Kohl’s online, 11-22-17 (screenshot)

(Part 1 I 2)

A. D. Coleman, Critical Focus, 1995Special offer: If you want me to either continue pursuing a particular subject or give you a break and (for one post) write on a topic — my choice — other than the current main story, make a donation of $50 via the PayPal widget below, indicating your preference in a note accompanying your donation. I’ll credit you as that new post’s sponsor, and link to a website of your choosing. Include  a note with your snail-mail address (or email it to me separately) for a free signed copy of my 1995 book Critical Focus!

Liu Xia catalog, 2012, coverBut wait! There’s more! Donate now and I’ll include a copy of The Silent Strength of Liu Xia, the catalog of the 2012-13 touring exhibition of photos by the dissident Chinese photographer, artist, and poet, currently in her sixth year of extralegal house arrest in Beijing. The only publication of her photographic work, it includes all 26 images in the exhibition, plus another 14 from the same series, along with essays by Guy Sorman, Andrew Nathan, and Cui Weiping, professor at the Beijing Film Academy.

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