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American Craft Exposition founder creates a collector's home
Source: Tribune reporter Author:William Hageman Updated Date:27 Aug 2009

Take a lesson from passionate collector that how to create a home that lets your artwork shine.

Chris Robb traces her love of art to an art course she and her future husband, Bill, took as seniors at Northwestern. It was, she says, the start of a commitment they have made to art.

"The opportunity to be involved with the people involved in crafts and their objects has really changed our lives," she says.

Robb likewise has made an impact on art, artists and collectors through the American Craft Exposition, which she started 25 years ago and is considered one of the top craft shows in the country. (This year's event is Friday through Aug. 30 in Evanston.) Proceeds from the show support breast and ovarian cancer research at NorthShore University HealthSystem. Also benefiting are the artists, visitors and even Robb herself.

"The craft show has given us the ability to look at things in two or three dimensions," she says, noting the variety of items on display each year. "Before, I was only interested in flat art. I didn't appreciate sculpture or three-dimensional pieces."

Through her years shepherding the show, Robb's home became a celebration of all types of art and demonstrates how an art lover can build on a collection to create beautiful rooms. She estimates she has 50 pieces from past expositions on display. Here are her secrets to displaying it all coherently:

Mix things up. It starts in her foyer, where an older chest of drawers, a modern wood bench and a metal hall tree work together, despite their seeming lack of connection.

"What I've tried to do," she says, "is use different styles and different pieces."

Group smaller objects. There are striking pieces throughout the home -- a large "Planet," a spherical glass sculpture by Josh Simpson; andirons and fireplace tools by Albert Paley; a painting by Rodney Carswell over the fireplace. But less eye-catching items work well too, especially when paired with other pieces.

On a table in one corner, for example, is a representation of a person, made of a gourd and dressed in a tapestry and created by Phillip and Hope Holtzman. Hanging on the wall next to it is a large photo, muted and dark, of figures of a woman and three children, by David Levinthal. The texture of the tapestry and straw on the person is reflected in the texture of the material from which the figures are made, Robb says.

Useful can be beautiful. Another aspect of Robb's collection is that it is functional. She uses her Claudia Reese dishes for entertaining, a Thomas Mann mirror hangs in a bathroom, and nearby is a metal tissue holder by Wendy Stevens. All attractive and interesting pieces of art, all used almost daily.

"So many think of art as something that can only be looked at," said Robb, who has an interior design company, Artists Concepts, in Winnetka. "The furniture, all these things are pieces of art that are part of my life and that we use every day."

Every piece tells a story. Robb says the items in a collection are made more interesting by the stories behind them, and the best way to learn those stories is to go to a show.

"If you go to a store or a gallery, you get only part of the story. But at a show you meet the craftsmen, you engage them, ask what they did before. You learn about them. ... And they become friends."

Her advice for first-time visitors to the exposition: walk and talk. Walk the show once just to get a feel for what's out there -- sort of as you would at a museum -- then go back and explore items that caught your eye. And, most of all, talk to the artists.

"Don't be afraid to ask the price. And don't be afraid to ask if they have something less expensive," she says. "They show bigger items, but they do have less expensive things. There's always something you can come away with."

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