Dunbar’s Last Stand

Dunbar in the Desert
Dunbar in the Desert

In the early 80’s my Mother befriended an artist in Fort Wayne who had a store across the river from her apartment. He had a pointillist style of painting but the medium he chose was fabric not oil. Thousands of tiny fragments were used to compose his works. The shop was a combination studio and antiques emporium for him.

Besides the painting technique, his store’s other unique quality was the simple, modern lines of much of the furniture. Indiana is rock red Republican conservative so you don’t see too much of that communist inspired mid-century stuff. As we got to know him better he educated us on Dunbar furniture which was manufactured just 30 miles south in Berne, IN. That’s where most of his furniture came from.

Berne is a small farming town comprised largely of Swiss Amish who still trade on the ancient arts of yodeling and cheese curdling to pull in the tourist bucks. But not all Swiss emigres were Amish and many were skilled furniture makers who Dunbar recruited to work in their factory.

From its inception around 1910 Dunbar made buggies and horse drawn carriages for the gentry class. With the advent of the automobile they transitioned into furniture with well constructed, play-it-safe bourgeois designs: mahogany curlicues, non-challenging Queen Anne redux, and ye oldie English Regency knockoffs. In the 30’s and 40’s, however, the younger artisans coming over wanted to try their hand at the art deco and moderne styles they’d been exposed to in Europe between the wars. They were allowed to experiment as kind of an after hours, extra credit type of assignment. What started as a sideline turned into a major production when Edward Wormley became Creative Director.

Under Wormley Dunbar was one of the leaders in mid-century design. Their biggest claim to fame was the Johnny Carson conical, swivel chair on The Tonight Show. He’s had so many chairs through the years, though, I’ve never been exactly sure which one was Dunbar. Johnny’s endorsement has more recently been eclipsed by Betty Draper Francis’.

The kings of camp product placement, Mad Men, officially anointed Dunbar in Season 3, Episode 7’s “Seven Twenty Three.” At approximately 2:23 Betty’s decorator shows Don the orange  “Dunbar Japanese-influenced sofa.” In her tone-deaf, clueless but determined way Betty later adds the Victorian Fainting Couch where she she-bops thinking of her next husband. The Exquisite Taste Lady is horrified.

In my foray into antique sales this year, kitsch, camp and quality smaller items all have done well. Furniture, on the other hand, has done nothing. As one dealer explained, the local market will only buy furnishings at rock bottom prices. Which baffles me because on Palm Canyon’s modern design strip items like mine are going for up to five times what I’m charging. And compared to the prices Dunbar pieces fetch on websites like 1stdibs, mine are going for a song. But no one is singing.

Still I continue to display my collection at Victoria’s Attic in Rancho Mirage (at The Atrium, 69930 Highway 111). I’m also hawking it on Chairish and Craig’s List. My hope is that someone will just write me a check for the whole collection so I can be done with it.

Birdie? Where are you?



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