Every year the downstairs rooms of the Fred Johnston house are decorated for the holidays, but this year they’ve also gotten a spring cleaning of sorts: the clutter has been cleared and contemporary art pieces brought in and put on display. The “revisioning,” as the Friends of Historic Kingston (FHK), which owns and manages the Federal-style house on Wall Street, is calling the redo, takes the drab out of the centuries-old brown furniture. Rather than looking like your grandparents’ digs, the Johnston House’s antiquarian library, dining room and parlor have been transformed into an airy showcase of rare, beautiful objects in a comfortable setting.
Incorporating abstract art works, on loan from the Elana Zang Gallery, by big names such as Judy Pfaff and the late Nancy Graves, both of whom had or have connections to Kingston — Pfaff lives in the city and Graves did so during her marriage to a Kingstonian — the revisioning shows that Kingston and the Mid-Hudson Valley have lost none of their cultural cache.
“Given the number of nationally recognized designers and artists in the area, this is the right step for Kingston commercially, to increase the talent already here and get out the word,” said Haynes Llewellyn, president of FHK.
The job of marrying the old with the new fell to Brian McCarthy, a well-known New York City-based interior designer (recent projects included redoing the ambassador’s residence in London) who owns a weekend house in the area. The first evidence of McCarthy’s expert eye is in the house’s back entryway, where two spaces to the left and the right of the hall, the location of Johnston’s former shop, have been transformed into elegant arrangements of chairs, tables, and art.
On the right, a 17th-century HudsonValley gate-leg table is topped by a lustrous wood-turned vessel by local artisan Joshua Vogel and a round-based brass candlestick, a grouping that resembles one of the lyrical still-life tableaux photographed by the late Lilo Raymond, five of whose black-and-white works hang on the two surrounding walls.
The dialogue between new and old, the artist’s eye and the antiquarian artifact continues directly opposite. Christopher Kurtz’s two hand-carved mobiles, whose radial, star-like forms have the sleek simplicity of Scandinavian design, are painted in a cream milk paint that exactly matches the 1630 charger — the term for a wide, shallow bowl — on the table below, noted Llewellyn.
McCarthy’s editing of the clutter has given the remaining antiques air to breathe, with the space accentuating their pleasing forms — in this case, a series of 17th-century William and Mary chairs, a kos (the large Dutch cabinet that epitomizes Hudson Valley Dutch furniture), a burled chest and stand, a portrait of the wife of the first pastor of Kingston’s Dutch Reformed Church and a recently restored English needlepoint of a red-coated, bewigged William of Orange. (Llewellyn said the restoration of the formerly blackened needlepoint was funded by a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts).
In the library, McCarthy transformed a Queen Anne tea table into an elegant base for a bronze Nancy Graves sculpture, a pairing that emphasizes the leggy look of both, turning the tea table into a furniture version of Twiggy and investing the bronze sculpture with the animating force of a Rockette. A large black-and-red woodblock print by Pfaff adorns the wall, its fiery color combo suggesting Chinoiserie, a style that became fashionable in the 17th century. (Most Hudson Valley households of the period were stocked with porcelain imported from Canton, China.)
Near the door hangs a framed sketch of a torso by native son John Vanderlyn, which looks surprisingly modern, thanks to the lack of a head and the torn upper edge, like the fragment of a collage. A portrait of a Van Kleek (ancestor to the tire business family) and an exquisite box made of stacked porcupine pine quills, its nested spice boxes intact (making it exceptionally rare), are other highlights.
The dull brown-red paneled wall above the mantel in the Windsor Dining Room — the less formal of two dining rooms — is enlivened with a scrawled, map-like painting by Graves in light yellow, blue and green, a juxtaposition that lends a pleasing contrast of depth to the artwork. The charming, blue and white plates on the table were a gift from Johnston’s client, Henry du Pont, founder of Winterthur. The glassware, with clean, simple shapes and a water-like transparency, were designed by Deborah Ehrlich and hand-blown in Sweden.
The heavy silverware, with handles resembling silver twigs and roots, is on loan from McCarthy, Llewellyn said. Their rusticated forms resonate with the berry, pinecone and barklike textures of the redware crowded into the inset cupboard. With a color resembling a beef tongue, redware has never much appealed to me, but displayed as a cluster of curved, gnarled forms in a dark nook, suggesting a colony of nocturnal wood folk, I was almost beginning to like it.
Llewellyn pointed out the black tin horse from a weather vane on display and noted such items are rare in the house collection, since Johnston sold most of his folk art collection to the Rockefellers for their living-history town of Williamsburg.