Mission-ary Zeal

Bruce Johnson of The Arts & Crafts Conference. Photo by Tim Robison

Bruce Johnson of The Arts & Crafts Conference. Photo by Tim Robison

When Bruce Johnson was a teenager, his father gave him an Arts and Crafts drop-front desk, which Johnson promptly covered with baseball decals. “I’ll never forget when my dad walked into the room and saw the decals,” says Johnson. “I could see his look of disappointment.”

Johnson, Director of the Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Conference since 1988, recognized his disrespect and at 19 refinished the desk in his maternal grandmother’s backyard. “I’ve moved 10 times, and the drop-front desk always comes with me, and when my 88-year-old dad comes to visit, he always sees it,” says Johnson.

His grandmother’s example helped him pay attention to antiques through the yard sale pieces she refinished. And in her house, she labeled pieces with the names of the people she wanted to have them. “We’d sneak a look to see who was going to get what,” Johnson says. “My grandmother recognized that these things are treasure pieces because of the stories behind them. Once the pieces go, we forget the stories and deprive a generation of that connection to their heritage.”

His grandmother’s philosophy dovetails with that of the Arts and Crafts Movement begun first in England in the mid-1800s and continued in America from about 1895 to 1940. “It was a revolution against the excesses of Victorian style exemplified by the 1895 Biltmore House,” says Johnson. “People began to want goods more suited to the middle class like the bungalows with hardwood floors, fireplaces, and no need for servants’ quarters.”

And like Johnson’s grandmother, they didn’t want goods easily discarded; they wanted quality that could be passed down. They were after craftsmanship. That yen began to reassert itself in the United States again in the 1970s and ’80s, a reaction to the poorly made post-war plastics that fell apart.

“But I wasn’t one of the 1970s Arts and Crafts [revival] pioneers,” says Johnson. “I was the second wave.” After college, while Johnson taught high school English first in Southern Illinois and then Iowa City, Iowa — both his home states — he began collecting golden oak Victorian furniture. “But then I was introduced to Roycroft dining room chairs — so stern and dark and Lutheran. I sold or gave away all my golden oak and went after Arts and Crafts, or mission oak.”

Johnson’s passion for Arts and Crafts grew and in 1978 he left teaching to start an antiques shop and refinishing business, Knock on Wood, in Iowa City. After seven years, his first wife’s medical residency at Duke in Durham, North Carolina, put the pair within visiting distance of Asheville. “I was already hooked on Arts and Crafts — and the Arts and Crafts heritage was symbolized by the Grove Park Inn,” says Johnson. “Then I fell in love with the mountains.

Johnson moved to Asheville and in 1988, the owner of the Grove Park Inn, Elaine Sammons, tapped Johnson to write its history, Built for the Ages. The same year, collaborating with the Inn, Johnson inaugurated a weekend Arts and Crafts Conference. Three hundred people attended, including more people from California, where the Arts and Crafts revival flourished, than from North Carolina. “We wanted a three-day conference that would emphasize the education of the Arts and Crafts collector,” says Johnson, ever the teacher. “No one wants to collect who can’t understand what they are looking at.

Johnson schedules expert seminars, workshops, and demonstrations in the mornings and evenings, and in the afternoons holds two shows, one for antiques and one for contemporary Arts and Crafts, featuring 125 exhibitors. “When the seminars are going, we lock the exhibit doors, so you don’t ever feel like you’re missing out on something,” says Johnson

Every year, Johnson schedules an event he feels particular excitement about. This year his passion centers on Arts and Crafts photographer George Masa, a Japanese immigrant who settled in Asheville in 1915, working as a bellhop and valet at the Grove Park Inn. “He was an unsung hero credited with helping to form the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” says Johnson. “His photos [of the mountains] were sent back to D.C., and lawmakers then appropriated the money to preserve [the land].

The conference will present the 2003 documentary The Mystery of George Masa by Paul Bonesteel, and Asheville photographer Ralph Burns will offer a seminar on the fine arts photos of the Arts and Crafts era. Says Johnson, “I am excited that people will leave Asheville with an even deeper appreciation of Masa, of fine art photography, and of the Great Smokies.

To work on the conference and his writing, Johnson gets up at five each morning and heads with two dogs and cats to the 900-square-foot garret he built seven years ago, an overhaul of his garage’s second floor. “I remarried, and my wife said she’d marry me if I’d move my office out of the house,” says Johnson who lives on a small horse farm in the country. “My office is a writer’s dream, and if I can’t work from there, it’s my fault and there’s no one to blame.

His office holds eight desks, each with an assignment, he says: “One for bills, one for Arts and Crafts, one for writing. The drop-front is my business desk — my dad’s old business desk.”

He is always working on two conferences at a time, this year’s and next year’s. “When you have 3,000 people coming from all 50 states, Canada, England, and Puerto Rico, you know they don’t want something disorganized. So we’re already booking speakers and planning events for 2015 while we put the finishing touches on this February’s conference.

His enthusiasm for the conference is not something that runs dry. “I thought I might stop the conference at year 25 but at year 27, it’s still such a passion,” says Johnson. “In January and February, there’s a certain amount of drudgery. But all it takes is one phone call from California or New York when someone says, ‘This conference is the highlight of my year. Then I know I can’t screw it up. I have to make sure that when these people leave on Sunday they’ve had the weekend they wanted. If that doesn’t get me passionate, then it’s time to find something different to do.”

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