Saturday, July 10, 2010

Bakelite Boogaloo

Jean says: On June 6th, Valerie and I road the rails to Yonkers, to the Bakelite Show at the Hudson River Museum. Although we talked about going for weeks, little procrastinators that we are, we waited until the closing day to make our appearance. It was well worth the effort. [Valerie explains: Well, we were too frozen chicken, so to speak, to attend the February opening, much as we wanted to, and by the time the weather warmed up I was immobilized by my surgery. So yes, we were procrastinators, but not entirely without reason.]

We met at Grand Central, purchased our tickets, posed for photographs and hopped the Metro North train to boogaloo to Yonkers. The tracks go right by the new Yankee Stadium and then head northward, hugging the riverbank. [With regard to posing for photographs, Valerie adds: Grand Central is a Gilded Age delight for tourists, and we, being nearly Gilded Age ourselves, added not a little to the atmosphere, and stimulated tourists to further photographic frenzy.]

The train ride along the Hudson River is scenic and relatively short. With the exception of the young man at the front of our car who spent about ten minutes shouting into his cell phone, describing to a buddy his previous evening's escapades in excruciatingly graphic detail, the ride was lots of fun. In thirty-five minutes we arrived at at our destination. (Note to the file: This trip would be spectacular in autumn when the trees are changing!)

I was thrilled when Valerie appeared in a black and white ensemble wearing fraternal twin black surgical boots, coolie hat and what I affectionately refer to as her "Wilma Flintstone" necklace of small boulders. Shortly after we took the rude cell phone caller to task, we arrived at our destination. [Valerie notes: I tip my very broad hat to the caller. Immediately after we pounced on this poor unsuspecting young man for a performance that could have rivaled any of Ethel Merman's for sheer lung power, he cut his call short, which puts him miles ahead of most cell phone callers.]

Like a pirate "armed to the teeth", I was dressed for the occasion, sporting a selection of some of my all-time favorites from my bakelite collection. I combined a black Art Deco bakelite necklace with two forearms of multi-colored vintage bracelets, red bakelite and resin rings and graphic black and white plastic earrings.

I love all things bakelite. My first piece of bakelite jewelry was a black cameo that belonged to my maternal grandmother. Bakelite was what my mother described as "costume" jewelry. Savvy readers will remember that the cameo on a black bakelite necklace was featured as #6 in my "Twelve of our Favorite Blings" year-end blog entry. The good thing about bakelite jewelry is that it withstands both heat and cold and both moisture and arid conditions. Although thin vintage chains do occasionally break after up to sixty years of wear and tear, the larger pieces are amazingly durable (so far, at least).

I wear bakelite on a daily basis. I have a large square black bakelite ring with a carved criss-cross design that I purchased in Soho at least 25 years ago and wear constantly on my right ring finger. (It is visible in both "armload" photos. Click on photos to enlarge.) About ten years ago, Henry Grossman, one of the dealers at the NYC indoor flea market at the Garage on 26th Street, found matching earrings in Paris and brought them back for me. Although after a quarter century of slamming it into things, the ring is still intact, I live in constant fear of the day it chips or shatters. So much so that when I found its twin over a decade ago, I purchased it and tucked it safely away as insurance against that rainy day. Then, I found its other 'twin' in clear plexiglass and ...

I began collecting bracelets, necklaces and rings about thirty years ago, when you could still pick up a decent bracelet at a yard sale for $5 to $10 and a hand-carved gem of a bracelet for $30 to $40. I am shocked to see identical versions of my bracelets on e-Bay and the internet with asking prices ten times what I paid for them. [Valerie interjects: Do I detect the merest hint of smugness hidden in this apparent lament for bygone days? Is this the Jean version of Captain Renault in Casablanca, who was "... shocked, SHOCKED to find that gambling is going on in here!"?]

Back to Jean: FYI: The Brooklyn Museum has some selected bakelite items for sale in its ground floor museum shop. (All I can say is that I'm glad I started collecting before prices became so astronomical.)

[Valerie, getting her snarky on, says: Readers, did you ever wonder how the price of bakelite - a mass produced plastic - got so high? It has to do with the singlehanded embezzlement of $7 million from a high profile law firm by a member of their accounting staff. Read about it in this New York Magazine article. By way of full disclosure, I should add that I own probably FIVE pieces of bakelite. Not because I don't love it, but because I failed to get on the $5-10 gravy train, and later refused to compete with the above-mentioned law firm accountant, having no way myself to embezzle $7 million. SIGH. Life is so unfair.]

The Hudson River Museum is a very pretty facility (modern concrete building attached to a Hudson River-style stone mansion) in a striking setting (overlooking the Hudson) coveniently located (only a three block walk from train station through a park). Here's Valerie at the front door, flaunting that orthopedic footwear sans cane. Isn't it a shame she's so shy and retiring?

We are keeping our eye out for future shows there. One major drawback, however, is the fact that there is no food on the premises and there are no stores or coffee shops or delis within walking distance or on the way from the train station. There weren't even vending machines at the museum or on the train platform and the station was closed on Sunday afternoons. With the park with grassy hills surrounding the museum, picnic lunches should be the order of the day. [Valerie sticks 'er oar in: Having said that, though, the boom boxes at the bottom of the grassy hills were completely audible to us at the top of the hill. So if you're going for a quiet picnic, don't. Or bring your own music to drown out others'. Or bring your ear plugs.]

River View - Here I am on the patio cum viewing platform between the modern and Victorian buildings.

Hudson River Rear View. Here's Valerie surveying the coastline and looking glam. [Valerie sez: Yeah. Notice how I've reworked the Michael Jackson single white glove thing into my very own single white sock thing. And of course who ELSE is doing the single polka dotted shoe thing?]

Bakelite, a synthetic resin, was invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist, in his barn in Yonkers, NY in 1907.

Although the museum did include some jewelry in the show (and for sale in the museum store), the show itself focused on the wide variety of uses for bakelite, from industrial (electrical transformers, microphone housings), office (telephones, adding machines, letter openers), home (appliances, flatware, jewelry cases, cigar cases and bar ware) and gaming (poker chips, mah jong tiles, billiard balls, dice and dominos). The show included other phenol-based plastic-like materials too, so there were delicate celluloid boxes, beautiful clear plexiglass-like objects and candy-colored clear objects like lollipop red cocktail shaker handles. There was a short 15-minute documentary film from the 1950's that was wonderfully informative and totally of the period. The museum also featured modern bakelite objects inspired by the original, including a lipstick red toilet seat by Philippe Starck. (Can you spell E-N-V-Y?)

One of the articles published about the compilation of the objects in the show mentioned the fact that neither of the show's main contributors owned that most elusive of collector's items -- a bakelite coffin. Interesting factoid I gleaned from the movie "Savage Grace" featuring Julianne Moore as Barbara, the nymphomaniac wife of the grandson of bakelite's inventor, Anthony Baekeland - that the casing for the atom bomb was made of bakelite!

Here's Valerie in the small garden in front of a beautiful Japanese maple tree and rather ancient mill stones.

Here I am in the garden next to the stone mansion.

We posed for photographs just before a huge storm blew in, complete with driving rain and high winds. Minutes after we stepped inside the older portion, the rainstorm struck. By the time we'd finished our visit, the raindrops stopped, the dark clouds dissipated and we walked back down the hill to the train station.

Avid readers will remember Valerie's comment in a prior entry about how it is forbidden to photograph members of some royal family or other while they are eating. In this photo, Valerie appears to be invoking similar privilege.

Valerie is wearing: designer straw hat purchased in the mid-'90s at now-defunct Weber's outlet store for $4.99; ceramic necklace (much lighter than everyone seems to think) by Peter Lane Clay; black linen designer dress purchased recently at a thrift shop for $20; black metal and elastic cuffs purchased in the '80s at Matsuya Ginza; black and white cotton and lycra striped leggings from Top Shop; mismatched black surgical shoes, from the most recent and an earlier foot surgery. (I wore the second surgical shoe on the right foot because it was the same height as the medically necessary shoe on the left foot, and so was a better match than any of my regular shoes.)

Jean is wearing: Ignatius straw hat with denuded peacock feather; black TALE N 3 dress from the eponymous shop in Milan; assorted vintage bakelite bracelets, rings and necklace; vintage plastic earrings; Dansko clogs and Moss Lipow spectacles.

BAKELITE BONUS: Xtine, a fellow East Vilage denizen and bakelite afficionado extraordinaire, sent us a photograph and missive from the great Nortwest that we just had to share with you. Xtine is a wonderfully unique individual. I don't think I've ever seen her without a fabulous hat -- or bakelite. Instantly recognizable and iconic, she evokes another era. She combines wristsful of bakelite bracelets and either vintage or retro-inspired clothing and footwear. Here we go:

Xtine says:
Hi, Snappy Dressers, Jean and Valerie!
Hullo, Ladies--
Thought you might enjoy this snap of me that my mother took while I was sawing up an old tree for the garden waste on my visit to my parentals in Edmonds, WA a couple of weeks ago.

Sporting my all-purpose, mostly-9th street outfit: City Slicker duster and gingham slipdress over black slipdress by Jill Anderson, hat by Huminska, stripey sox from Duane Reade, booties by John Fluevog, vintage bakelite bangles, mom's workgloves. Saw optional.

Hope you are well. Xtine

Jean says: Valerie and I totally cracked up when we saw her photo and commentary. Her retro-chic approach to gardening is a total hoot. Fluevog shoes for garden tramping and tree chopping! Who'd a thunk it? Next time any of you are in the East Village, drop into Jill Anderson's store on E. 9th Street (between 1st and 2nd Ave.). The owner commissioned a local artist to paint portraits of her favorite customers. As her first customer, Xtine holds the place of honor at the lower left of the grid of paintings, closest to the entry. Check out the clothes too. It's a terrific shop.

Attention, all you other Snappy Dressers out there! Do send us your comments and photos (to: - we'd love to hear from you.

1 comment:

  1. Love your armed to the teeth photo the best, very brazen and bold and out of the ball park wonderful.