Of the thousand or more American quilts that Joanna Rose has amassed since a friend gave her one upon the birth of her first child, just a single quilt is on display in the big old house a stone’s throw from Main Beach where the Roses, with their children and grandchildren, have spent summers and long holiday weekends since 1964. The rest are stored away in cedar-lined closets in one of the 14 upstairs bedrooms.
The framed patchwork exception, her favorite of all, was made for the Roses’ 50th anniversary in 2006, from squares sent by relatives and friends all over the world. The windows near where it hangs had to be specially treated so sunlight would not fade it.
“I don’t usually put a quilt on the wall, because I don’t believe in forcing one’s own interests on anyone else,” Mrs. Rose told a recent visitor.
Mrs. Rose, the matriarch of a close-knit family of super-high achievers, was generalissimo of the army of people who put together the 2011 exhibition “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts,” surely the most singular (and fleeting) show ever to grace Manhattan’s vast Park Avenue Armory. Quilters traveled from all over the world to see what Martha Stewart, her neighbor in East Hampton, called “the most incredible display of quilts that I have ever seen.”
Though on view for just six days, it shattered the armory’s attendance records; some 26,000 visitors were bowled over not only by the quilts themselves but by how they were displayed in the building’s soaring 19th-century drill hall. Improbably, all 651 of them could be seen at once — “a quilt of quilts, thrown exuberantly into three-dimensional space,” as Tom Hennes, head of the design team, described it.
Every quilt jumps off its glossy page in “Red and White Quilts: Infinite Variety,” newly published by Skira Rizzoli in association with the American Folk Art Museum. Half a dozen full-color, you-are-there photographs set the scene, bringing the reader right onto the floor of the armory along with people gaping, pointing, snapping photos on their smartphones, swarming the museum shop for souvenirs.
Four years in the making, the book has introductions by Mrs. Rose, who describes how and why the exhibition came about; Ms. Stewart, who featured it on her TV show; Elizabeth V. Warren, its guest curator, a trustee of the museum and Mrs. Rose’s fellow Bryn Mawr alumna, who contributes an informed and lively overview of the art of quilting and its practitioners, and Mr. Hennes himself, whose account of the infrastructure required to pull off the show boggles the brain. “Red and White Quilts,” which has a list price of $60, is the five-star best-seller in its category on Amazon. “A treat for the eyes, a treat for the soul,” raved one reviewer.
“I thought the book came out wonderfully, and I can’t imagine a better Christmas gift,” Mrs. Rose said. (No wrapping needed, just a big green satin bow around the red-and-white cover.) “Skira and Rizzoli came and said they wanted to do it. I said fine, I want nothing to do with it. I don’t like to take credit for what I haven’t done, and I didn’t do the book.”
So, the name of the woman who was most responsible for the exhibition’s success — she had the idea, she picked the place, she was involved at all times with the elaborate planning, much of which took place in her New York apartment, and, of course, she owns the quilts — is hard to find in the book. “Some said it should say on the title page, ‘The Collection of Joanna Rose,’ but I said, ‘I didn’t write the book, that is not where my vanity is. And I said, ‘my ego is not tied up with the book.’ ”
Mrs. Rose, who as the valedictorian of her Bryn Mawr class won the school’s fellowship to Oxford University, paused for a moment. “The New York Times had a brain teaser that said if you get nine points right you’re very good; if you get 19 points you’re a genius. So I thought, huh! And I did it, and in five minutes I had 19 points. So I immediately called all my children, my husband, my brother — and they said, ‘What are you, out of your mind? You solved a puzzle?’ But that’s where my ego is tied up, my intelligence. It’s not with quilts.”
(Typically, though, she did some research after receiving that first-child gift, and was interested to learn, she said, that the Crusaders wore quilts under their armor for comfort.)
It was not until the ’70s, after the Roses bought the East Hampton house, that the collection took off. “I’d go to Sag Harbor, when they had all those antique stores, and I’d buy a little thing, and they’d wrap it in a quilt!” She found many more, often for $5 or $10, at flea markets, yard sales, and the Ladies Village Improvement Society thrift shop, where volunteers knew to call Mrs. Rose if a likely quilt came in.
Ever since the armory show, she said, “people keep calling and offering me quilts — at astronomical prices. The irony is that I made my own damn market. But I have acquired a great number of very interesting quilts.”
The Roses first came to East Hampton to spend a spring weekend with Ben and Judy Heller on Jericho Road. “And I said, ‘Oh, Dan, this reminds me of how I grew up near the ocean [in Cedarhurst]. I said, ‘I really feel comfortable here.’ ”
The house they eventually bought, after renting it for seven or eight years, was built in 1902 by the summer colony architect Joseph Greenleaf Thorp (of whom, in 1903, the magazine Architectural Record wrote, “The character of East Hampton’s unpretentious architecture owes a good deal to his taste”). It has been little changed since then, except for a monster washing machine and dryer added to the laundry room when grandchildren began arriving. All the fixtures and built-ins are original, and much of the furniture as well. The Roses are only its third owners.
“I said, I want a big house, an old house, but not with a long driveway. I don’t want it pretentious, and it has to be near the beach, but not on the beach. My husband says books get moldy on the beach, which is true. It came with everything — the cleaning lady, the sheets, the china — I did not bring a thing to this house, and I haven’t really changed anything inside.” (Except to build extra bookcases. Mrs. Rose, chairwoman for 30 years of Partisan Review magazine until it stopped publishing in 2003, estimates that between East Hampton and New York, she has at least 10,000 books.)
“That was an icebox when I came here,” she said, pointing. “We had to go over to the village and bring it back filled with ice. And that was a coal-burning stove and a hot-water heater, and my children have never forgiven me for replacing it. Drawing a visitor’s eye to a table, she said it was in the house since 1905. They had it raised, she said, because “the cook was short, and she had trouble standing there.”
For the couple’s 30th anniversary, in 1986, they bought the property next door, “so then we had a compound.” They routinely use the second house for sit-down-dinner publication parties and lectures, often for or by one of their four children. In the city they do the same, keeping a separate apartment in their building for entertaining. Gavin Ashworth set up a studio there when he was making the dazzling photographs that appear in “Red and White Quilts.”
The idea for the armory show, which was underwritten by Mr. Rose and was free to the public, “came about six months before my 80th birthday, when someone asked me how many red-and-white quilts I had,” his wife recalled. “I said, ‘I think I have about 70.’ But I didn’t know how many. They’re all here.” So she came out, with a cadre of helpers, to count them, “and one by one we counted, and there were 700. And one by one we washed them and set them out to dry in the sun — and I said to my husband, ‘I should’ve collected stamps.’ ”
“I never checked to see if I had a pattern before, because I have a very strong visual memory. But ever since the show, I feel compelled to check. That’s another nice thing about the book. It’s true that ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts.’ ”
By all accounts, the armory exhibition helped to propel the appreciation of quilts and quilting in this country to new heights. Mrs. Rose is of two minds about that. The renewed interest, she said, has gone beyond her own, which runs more to “where the women lived, what they did, that kind of thing” than to the craft itself.
She was lecturing at the museum when she realized it. “I brought an early quilt — eagles, industry, Benjamin Franklin — that I had, and when I finished, the questions were all about stitching, which I have no interest in and can’t do. My interest is in patterns and social history. And I realized that quilts have gone farther; they are art, not folk art. Folk art to me means usefulness. It has to have a use.”
She elaborated: “There was a Yehuda Amichai poem that said, ‘It’s not enough to take the swords and turn them into plowshares, you have to take the plowshares and turn them into musical instruments.’ Well, in a sense, the scraps on the floor and the drudgery and the unhappiness, that was the sword; the quilts that were on the bed, that was the plowshares. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that people realized you could put them up on the wall, and they were art. I did not collect quilts to put on the wall.”
Mrs. Rose has given seven of her “best Amish” quilts to a museum in Lancaster, Pa., and her entire collection of invitations to quilting bees to another at the University of Nebraska. She plans to bequeath 25 quilts of her choosing to the American Folk Art Museum.
“I have not made final provision for the red-and-white quilts, but the one thing guaranteed is that they will not be sold,” she said decisively. “They will stay together as a collection. I haven’t decided where would be the best place.”