The photograph of Helen Miller Kendall and her husband, David Wolcott Kendall, intrigues me. The temptation is to begin by talking about David Kendall, of whom many people have heard because of his work as a furniture designer and his association with the American Arts and Crafts movement.
I have always regretted, however, that despite his association with American Arts and Crafts, he is not as famous as Gustav Stickley (1858-1942), who lived to be eighty-four years old, whereas David Kendall, born seven years earlier in 1851, died in 1910, in his late 50s.
Nonetheless, David Kendall was famous enough in his time to be referred to as the Dean of American Furniture Designers and if/when you are in the Art Institute of Chicago, you can see his armchair, sometimes referred to as the McKinley Chair, manufactured by Phoenix Furniture Company—a company he is credited with saving in his role as the Company’s chief financial officer. And, of course, integrating the pursuit of a career in art or design with an understanding of business is a hallmark not only of David Kendall, but of Kendall College of Art and Design. He knew how to navigate what George Beylerian calls the “romance of the commercial and the intellectual.”
If you are in Grand Rapids, you can see evidence of another of David Kendall’s interests by visiting his grave in Oak Hill Cemetery (Eastern and Hall), where his grave is marked by a huge carved boulder, reflecting his interest in sculpture.
As you can tell, I have completely succumbed to the temptation to focus on David Kendall, who, interesting though he was, is not that Founder of the Feast that we know today as Kendall College of Art & Design of Ferris State University. The Founder of the Feast is Helen Miller Kendall.
Notice that the photograph presents her as audience to David. She is seated, he is standing; she is observing, he, decked out in a costume and with a prop that reflects his travels, is presenting. She is in her own costume, of course, and has several props of her own. From her costume and manner, we would infer—if we did not already know it—that she was a leader of the community, and in her time she indeed played her role as a supporter of the arts and the cultural life of the community.
And, then, eighteen years after his death, she honored and memorialized David by providing the initial gift that established the David Wolcott Kendall Memorial School, a school which her will describes as being for “boys and girls”—which we today interpret to mean college-aged men and women. From its beginnings, it was a school with a professional purpose—it intended to prepare people for professional lives as artists and designers, a purpose shared by many other colleges of art and design in the United States at that time and that continues today.
One thing I have always liked about Helen is that she knew how to combine vision and resources. Many people over the years have told me that they have wonderful ideas—or visions—for Kendall. And I always think that visions are easy; it’s the resources that are the challenge. Helen provided both.
We have many photos of David, not as many of Helen. Yet in terms of a direct influence on American furniture manufacturing and design, she is the actor, not the audience. In terms of the number of people who have pursued lives as artists and designers, she is the actor, not the audience. She is the Founder of the Feast. (And interestingly, although I could research this issue and someone, I am sure, will tell me where Helen is buried, her grave is not near David’s. He is buried near his first wife.) But Helen reminds me of what George Elliot says about the heroine of her novel, Middlemarch: “the effect of [the heroine’s} being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”