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The Nostalgia Broker

Alex Shear's Obsession with consumerism Has Created a Mirror of Modern America
Melissa Milgrom
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 1)

Shear's unique take manifests itself in a variety of job descriptions that are well suited to the upcoming fin de siècle celebrations. He calls himself a retro marketer, a millennium planner, a corporate curator, an exhibit designer, an armchair anthropologist, a fad forecaster and, of course, a nostalgia consultant. His long-term vision is to establish his own museum, The Museum for Regular People, but he'd gladly host PBS' "Chubb Antiques Roadshow."

Ever since he contributed items to "Great Stuff," a 1992 exhibit at the Children's Museum of Manhattan, Shear's collection has been in demand. He has exhibited his tin men--actually, steel-dipped-in-zinc men--at a congressional meeting of the American Zinc Institute in Washington, D.C., and his industrial paperweights at an American Iron and Steel Institute meeting. He's been featured in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. The History Channel filmed a segment on 100 years of the American home, using many objects from Shear's kitchen archive. (He had 24 hours to rummage through his five cluttered storage facilities outside the city for the best of his 60 coffeepots, 60 toasters and 25 vacuums.) And if he has his way, Good Housekeeping magazine will launch an exhibition of items that didn't get their seal of approval, such as a 1980s-era .357 Magnum Hand Gun Blow Dryer.

Still, Shear's high point in terms of credibility was when the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, which is the National Museum of Design of the Smithsonian Institution, included objects from his collection for its 1993 exhibition, "Mechanical Brides." The show featured household objects specifically designed to make housework alluring to women, to show the gender-based division of labor from 1920 to 1960. Many of the items were lent by Shear: miniature 1950s AT&T phones in pastel colors; "just-like-mommy" electric washing machines for girls; five rare Corning "Silver Streak" Pyrex glass irons that took Shear 20 years to collect, at around $800 each. Today, the jewel-like irons, made mostly of glass during the Second World War because of the metals shortage, are nearly impossible to find due to a fatal manufacturing oversight. Use them too often and the gem-like colors--ruby, emerald, cobalt--turn as brown as a Sylvia Plath mood ring.

Unlike a museum curator, who must adhere to certain directives and social obligations, not to mention established organizing principles, Shear serendipitously buys from instinct. "You see, this is so personal from my eyes," he says. "A curator in a museum setting is given an assignment to cull, to develop a whole collection. That is different from building an arcade of products from the heart." To bolster his claim, he produces a letter that Rodris Roth, curator of the Division of Social History Domestic Life Collection at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote to him in 1993: "None of us has or can gather objects to the extent that you have or display them in quite the way you do. As you know from having lent to 'Material World,' our exhibits provide an index of sorts to our collection--as well as what we may lack!"

By collecting everyday consumer artifacts such as hair dryers and coffeepots, Shear has built a time capsule that reflects and records daily American life. While curators and auction-house buyers were acquiring exceptional, one-of-a-kind artifacts from the past--such as paintings and fine furniture--that reflected a limited segment of the population, Shear was building an archive of mainstream Americana for mainstream America. As such, his collection offers broader insights into the average American's life during the twentieth century, from Depression-era ingenuity to postwar materialism to 1970s disco culture.

As we cross into the next century, Shear's collection provides us with a fantastic window into who we are as a culture. "Alex has created an invaluable resource for serious scholars by seeking the things that people did not value, which is what great collectors do," says Ellen Lupton, a curator of Contemporary Design at the Cooper-Hewitt. "As a museum curator, I'm interested in the social and aesthetic value of material culture, but you can't study that without the objects. Alex has the actual stuff."

It seems that as we near the millennium, nostalgia has never been more cutting-edge. Everyone, particularly baby boomers, is buying items from the 1950s, '60s and '70s; the word "retro" has replaced "cool"; and Shear America is fielding calls from museum curators, television producers, corporations and trade associations, discussing possibilities ranging from traveling exhibitions to a television series. It seems that everyone wants a hand in documenting the twentieth century. "There's no question this is overwhelming," Shear says, referring to the immense scope of his ambitions versus the two years until the millennium. "I see myself as a pilot with an overloaded 747 trying to lift off a short runway."

Shear believes he has a patriotic mission to communicate through his stuff, which for him means focusing on the struggles and the triumphs of the common man. This is why he won't buy, say, one of Andy Warhol's Little Red Riding Hood cookie jars--or any cookie jar, for that matter, unless, of course, it is in the shape of Famous Amos. (The self-made cookie entrepreneur is one of Shear's heroes.) Or why he'd pass up the ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz , which are now behind glass at the Smithsonian Institution. Shear yearns to understand and celebrate the regular guy, the working stiff who had to put milk on the table, not the celebrity. "Through these artifacts I might better define who we are as a people," he says. "This is about this country's social mosaic, its problems, its hopes, its desires, its unfairness. I celebrate America. I'm a patriot who does not wave a flag."

To demonstrate the point, Shear reaches two shelves below "Brook Shields: The Most Glamorous Teenage Doll" and the "Music for Washing and Ironing" record album and grabs a foot-tall ceramic ashtray in the shape of a nuclear cooling tower. The ashtray, which was mass-produced, has a thin brown-and-white glaze like a coffee mug that you might find at a tourist-trap gift shop. The tower says "Three Mile Island" in brown block letters and has turret-like cutouts on top. Rest a lit cigar in one of them and the plumes of smoke suggest a nuclear meltdown. Although highbrow collectors would dismiss the ashtray as mere kitsch, the piece is the equivalent of a Rembrandt to Shear. It forms part of his Duck-and-Cover/Fallout Memorabilia, which comes under the heading of Atomic Bomb Memorabilia. He owns 62 items in this category, from a low-budget board game called "Reactor: A Radiating Experience" to a first-run fallout shelter sign.

"There's a collective response from average folks that I'm interested in hearing," he says. "You have The New York Times and then you have this, the popular response." When Shear gets going it's hard to cool him down. "This is America at its best," he goes on. "This is the Three Mile Island disaster that they are covering up. This is our Chernobyl. They don't know what they are doing! This is scary. This ashtray is, in a sense, the middle finger to the whole thing."

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