Peter Hunt painted dresser pre-WWII Our Peter Hunt-inspired dresser by Joy Less Posh- $750
Years ago there lived a man who had a shop on Peacock Alley in a land he christened Peasant Village. He sold furniture and other bits-and-pieces he found in the streets with bright, folksy lovebirds, hearts and flowers. His name was Peter Hunt, his shop was in Provincetown, on a little lane known before and after as Kiley Court, and his “village” of workshops and stores was housed in a row of former fishermen’s shacks on the town’s East End.
If you know Provincetown, you know the little lane: It’s the home of Ciro and Sal’s Restaurant, off Commercial Street, at Poor Richard’s Landing. But chances are you don’t know the name Peter Hunt, or recognize the work of this Provincetown legend, now mostly faded from memory.
Hunt was a man-about-town from the 1930’s through the 1960s. His brightly painted, folkloric furniture and house wares became a signature of Cape Cod, favorites of society ladies and housewives across the country. They were sold at Bloomingdale’s and featured in Life, House Beautiful and Mademoiselle.
I was charmed by Hunt’s designs the moment I saw one of his old-fashioned-looking tole trays in the window of a vintage shop. When I learned more about him, I came to admire his hauteur, his apparent madness and creativity, his joy in color, his ingenuity, his life of contradictions and big dreams.
Hunt was a famed raconteur and teller-of-tall-tales, most especially about himself. Born in a New Jersey tenement, he told people he arrived in Provincetown in a storm on the yacht of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and decided to stay because he liked it so much.
In fact it seems Hunt – like many who settle in Provincetown – came looking for something to do and somewhere he could recreate himself, far from a previous life.
Serendipity presented his inspiration in the cheery, folkloric patterns painted on discarded furniture by the wives of Portuguese fisherman, who did their work outside in the streets winding through the dunes. Eventually he hired the women, their daughters and aspiring artists to paint his own version of these native patterns on furniture and objects, under his own name.
I wish I’d known Peter Hunt, who is said to have hob-knobbed with Eugene O’Neill, Helena Rubenstein and Somerset Maugham. I find it both comic and inspiring that this man, who apparently created a patrician family history that he relished talking about, should find his calling in the naïve home craft of his hard-working neighbors. One can only hope he rewarded them well, as they inspired him to create his own universe.
Hunt’s Depression-era gift for making old things seem new was eventually perfectly timed for home-makers during World War II, when he created a line of paints and how-to booklets for DuPont, making it affordable to redecorate on a ration stamp budget, especially with his border decals. He also published three books: Peter Hunt’s Workbook, Peter Hunt’s How-To-Do-It Book, and Peter Hunt’s Cape Cod Cookbook, which is a gem.
Hunt built a brand before the word was widely used and was one of the first entrepreneurs of the decorative home, long before Jonathan Adler or Martha Stewart, and all before he lost his fortune by over-spending and failing to innovate. Now connoisseurs of American Folk craft collect Hunt’s work, though his wartime palette (granny pinks and milkmaid blues) can look a little fuddy-duddy. And though his name is no longer broadly familiar, it likely remains the one most broadly associated with Provincetown in its time or since, except perhaps Norman Mailler’s or Michael Cunningham’s. He made painted furniture an essential part of Provincetown style, and inspired me to give an old dresser which I found in the street (still a Ptown habit) to Joy Less Posh of Coastline Tattoo (www.coastlinetattoo.com). I think her tough/tender hand perfectly updates Hunt’s style for today. So here’s to Peter Hunt.