Abstract Art, Amish Style

Over 30 years ago, Tiburon residents Faith and Stephen Brown were drawn to the vibrant colors and strong graphics of Amish-style quilting. The style reminded them of modern art and their interest in the works led them to years of collecting. They now have what is considered the most notable private collection of Amish quilts in the country. Many of their quilts have toured the country and been shown at various venues. Through June, the quilts are on display locally at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. We caught up with the collectors to learn more about what fascinates them about Amish quilts.

At what point did you realize that you were official collectors? It probably was when we had our first museum exhibit. In 1998, we took a vacation to Washington, D.C., and Ann Arbor, Michigan. We “cold called” the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian (where we first discovered Amish quilts in 1973) and made an appointment with a curator. A few days after that appointment, we met with the director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. They were both very enthusiastic and the result was an exhibit that opened at Michigan in 2000 and traveled to the Renwick. It was exciting to see our collection in museums and particularly exciting to see our quilts in the same space at the Renwick as the 1973 exhibit.

Is collecting a business or a passion or both?  It is strictly a passion and has never been a business. We are not in the business of selling quilts or anything else related to quilts. We don’t charge for exhibits and we don’t earn any revenue from gift shops sales of related products. We collect the quilts because we love them, and we exhibit them because we think that others will enjoy them.

What do you do besides collecting? As transplanted Midwesterners, we enjoy exploring Northern California. We love participating in wine and food events in Sonoma and Napa and taking advantage of San Francisco’s cultural resources.Faith is a Marin Master Gardener and works with Marin County Parks and Open Space on invasive plant removal at Old St. Hilary’s Open Space and elsewhere and Stephen is a retired attorney.

What was the first piece you ever bought?  In 1977, we were driving past a store in Chicago and saw an Amish quilt in the window from the moving car. We stopped, went in to take a look and—after much debate (it seemed like a big investment at the time)—we bought it. It’s called Old Maid’s Puzzle, from Holmes County, Ohio, in the 1930s. It’s in the de Young exhibit.

Do you have a favorite piece?  One of our favorites is Stairway to Heaven. This 1930s quilt is very three-dimensional and has many optical illusions (not what most people expect from the Amish). We tried without success for almost 30 years to find a quilt in this pattern. Finally, about four years ago, we found it.

What was the most expensive piece you ever purchased? To us they’re priceless.

What was the least expensive piece you ever purchased? Our first quilt, Old Maid’s Puzzle, was several hundred dollars in 1977 when we bought it. However, that was a lot of money to us at the time.

Where are the best places to find Amish quilts to buy?  After the 1940s, the Amish pretty much stopped making the kind of quilts we collect. If you go to Amish communities today, you’ll often see signs “Quilts for Sale.” These are new quilts, made for the tourist trade. Many of them use white backgrounds, printed fabrics and even representational designs. Some are made of polyester. They are a far cry from the darker, abstract geometric designs that attracted us, and the quilting is not as fine or intricate.

In the 1970s and 1980s, good antique Amish quilts could be found at several folk art galleries in New York, three shops on Hayes Street in San Francisco and occasionally antique shows. These sources are long gone, and great antique Amish quilts are very rare today. We’re still looking for them, but it’s like a treasure hunt and finding one is very exciting.  

How did you get involved with the de Young?  In the past, we had several other museum exhibits. However, we thought the de Young would be a great place for several reasons—they have a dedicated textile gallery, we knew people in the textile department, they have excellent textile conservation facilities, it’s close to home, and it’s an art museum (we like exhibiting the quilts in art museums because we see them as art and because art museums attract people who might never visit a
quilt or craft museum).

What do you plan on doing with your collection?  At some point, we would like to donate our quilts to an institution where they will continue to be enjoyed and properly cared for. It has taken us more than 30 years to collect the quilts and we don’t just want to sell them or auction them off. We hope that future generations will have an opportunity to appreciate them.

Amish Abstractions

Interested in learning more about Amish quilts? Don’t miss Amish Abstractions: Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown, through June 6 at the de Young. The exhibition features 48 full-size and crib quilts from the 1880s to the 1940s, made by Amish communities in Pennsylvania and the Midwest.

de Young Museum (S.F.) 415.750.3600, famsf.org