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Tastemaker John Scott Bradstreet changed Minneapolis’ aesthetic

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
John Scott Bradstreet around 1900

John Scott Bradstreet was a key tastemaker in early twentieth century Minnesota. As a designer of objects and interiors, he shaped the aesthetic tastes and parlors of the Twin Cities. Beyond his retail operations, Bradstreet’s work as an organizer and booster of the fine arts in Minneapolis was central to the development of art exhibitions and societies, and eventually led to the founding of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Bradstreet was born on December 14, 1845, in Rowley, Massachusetts. In 1873, he moved to Minneapolis and began working for the furniture firm Barnard, Clark, and Cope. At the time, local decorative tastes tended toward the complicated flourishes of late Victorianism. Within a decade, Bradstreet would strongly influence these tastes and position himself at the center of the art world of Minnesota.

The furniture sold by Barnard, Clark, and Cope was too old-fashioned and too ordinary for Bradstreet’s growing aesthetic vision. Bradstreet opened his own furniture store in 1875, selling furniture and decorations more in line with his interest in the Gothic Revival and English Arts and Crafts styles. After closing his store, he opened another in 1878, with Edmund Phelps, and another with different partners in 1884.

Bradstreet split from his partners in the 1890s and started the solo operation John S. Bradstreet and Company in 1901. By then, Bradstreet’s interests had turned decidedly to the arts of Asia—Japan in particular. In 1903, Bradstreet’s showroom moved to an Italian-inspired residence on South Seventh Street. The building didn’t remain Italian inspired for long.

Japan was the inspiration for the remodeled building, called the Minneapolis Crafthouse. The Crafthouse was Bradstreet’s gallery, sale floor, and museum. Aesthetically-minded Twin Citians crowded the rooms, and soon it became a tourist destination and cultural center for lectures and exhibitions. By the end of the decade, it was a large operation, with about eighty employees handling imports and creating objets de art, furniture, ceramics, and lighting fixtures.

Visitors entered the Japanese-inspired grounds through a Japanese-style gate. The walls of the main hall were covered with Japanese frescoes, draped with imported gold textiles, and hung with paintings, prints, and carvings. The showroom next door was massive (fifty-six feet long) and stuffed with Bradstreet’s own pieces, reproductions of antiques, and imported Moorish, Middle Eastern, European, and Asian antiques.

Of all that was displayed in the Crafthouse, Bradstreet is best known for his favorite and most distinctive product, a line of Japanese-inspired furniture and decorative objects called jin-di-sugi. His jin-di-sugi work was a synthesis of a Japanese carving technique with the American Arts and Crafts style, resulting in a distinctive curvilinear look based in natural forms. Today, many of the objects that once crowded the Crafthouse are recognized as part of American art history.

Bradstreet was also a major player in the development of public art in Minnesota. In 1878, a hotel in Minneapolis hosted the city’s first real art exhibition. Bradstreet, enthusiastic about spreading the gospel of art and able to levy his relationships with the city’s elite, was involved with organizing and putting on the exhibition. His collection even provided an entire room filled with Asian art.

Acting as a promoter, an organizer, a lender, and a donor for art in Minneapolis continued to be central to Bradstreet’s life. He was involved with the founding of the Minneapolis Fine Arts Society in 1883, with the many exhibitions put on by the Society, and, in 1915, with the founding of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Bradstreet didn’t live to see the opening of the Institute. On August 10, 1914, he died in Minneapolis. Five months later, the John Scott Bradstreet Memorial Room opened with the rest of the Institute on January 7, 1915.

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