Design by Random: Collecting Louisiana Material Culture

Synchronicity is a term Carl Jung used for a meaningful coincidence that has a low probability of being a random event. Paul Fitch explains it in a simpler way: “I’m not very methodical, I’m more scattershot, but after awhile things come together, and start to make sense.”

Fitch is an expert in, and a diehard collector of Louisiana material culture – paintings, furniture, objets d’art. He’s been doing it for 25 years, and is one of the directors of the Grevemberg House in Franklin [see whatever issue our fabulous story on the GH was in]. When he found a bargain of a house in the center of Franklin a few years back, he also found a focus for his passion, and the beginning of a series of wonderful synchronicities.

“I was just flipping through the newspaper,” he remembers. “And found this house for sale for $35,000. I thought, ‘It cant be much.’” But when he investigated, he was pleased with what he found. “The exterior was charming, and even though I wasn’t in the market for a house at all, I talked them down $29,000.”

His joy is Louisiana portraiture and furniture, “I had everyday objects right next to museum pieces all piled up in one room.” The house, which was built in 1916, became “a playhouse for me,” he could now showcase “everything that I’ve been amassing over the years,” he laughs.

But he didn’t really start out with a concerted drive to outfit his new house, “It’s a snowball I keep adding things and adding things and now its fully furnished.” Because the house was small, he virtually doubled the cost through renovating the interior, but keeps the exterior humble. “It really needs a paint job,” he admits, but he likes that the interior is “a real surprise.”

Fitch, who lives in Jeanerette, kept his eyes open looking for treasures at estate sales, as gifts, online, even looking through trash heaps, “I drive around on bulk trash day,” one could call his style “Roadside Boutique.” And as he searched, odd coincidences helped round out the furnishing of the house.

He found a rare 19th century religious statue at a Decatur Street vintage store in New Orleans, six months later he found its partner on eBay. He found an iron coffee table base in one trash heap, and a perfect glass top for it in another. He inherited a crystal set from his parents, the set was a wedding present in 1947. Recently, friends gave him crystal cups from an estate sale of a distant cousin. The patterns matched exactly.

“I took part in an eBay auction for a church sale in Savannah,” he tells. “From that sale I found this portrait.” The 1839 portrait is by Franz Fleischbein, a Bavarian who painted in New Orleans in the 1830s. Less than a year later, Fitch found a frame that exactly fits the portrait — the inside label identifies it as being made in New Orleans in the same decade.

“Anything I like, I put in there,” he admits. But because of the random nature of the things he finds, Fitch says “I can’t really be a purist.” But as he hones in on his favorite pieces, from his favorite epoch, the Indiana Jones of mid-century Louisiana decorative arts understands the role of patience and perseverance in treasure-hunting, he smiles, “Things seem to work out.”

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