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Furniture museum reigns from atop the artistic throne
Collection shows off decorative arts ranging over 90 years

ATLANTA -- If someone deserves a key to the High Museum of Art, if not the city, it is Virginia Carroll Crawford.

Through the Atlanta resident's patronage and the good work of curator Donald Peirce, the High owns a stellar collection of decorative arts from 1825 to 1917. The objects run the gamut from cabinets to silver pitchers, pottery to light fixtures. They represent a period of swiftly changing fashion that encompasses ornate carving and materials as well as the pared-down simplicity of the Arts and Crafts movement.Decorative arts fans should be thrilled, and others might be converted. Anyone can appreciate the skill and craftsmanship here or find oneself in an aesthetic swoon at some point, even if the piece in question doesn't match your personal taste.

Most of the collection can be viewed in the handsomely and thoughtfully installed exhibition on the fourth floor. Though arranged as a history of style rather than in period vignettes, Peirce's exhibit evokes the context in which the pieces were used or made. One first walks into an airy space with wrought-iron garden furniture and ferns in which objects displayed at various world's fairs and expositions are installed. This gives us a sense of how style, a maker's reputation and merchandise were disseminated as well as new ideas.

Objects are frequently displayed with photographs or drawings of them in situ. There is a photo of the lobby that housed Louis Sullivan's elevator grille, for instance, and a drawing that reveals how the Herter Brothers' stunning gilt and mother-of-pearl chair was used in the Vanderbilt's New York mansion.

More than 50 pieces, specially marked, remain in the permanent collection on the second and third floors. It's a testament to the Crawford collection's breadth and importance that removing these pieces would have eviscerated the display. Some of the quirkiest and most interesting pieces are there, like a fabulous silver ice bowl and spoon, which feature snarling bears and drip with stalactites.

"Art and Enterprise:

The Virginia Carroll Crawford Collection

of American Decorative Art, 1825-1917"

Through Sept. 26. High Museum of Art, Atlanta

The verdict: Top notch.