Antiques & Design – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 05 Feb 2019 18:04:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Antiques & Design – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Bauhaus Centennial: Two Schools of Thought Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:07:03 +0000 Continue reading ]]> In honor of the Bauhaus’ centennial, Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum showcases its expansive collection of Bauhaus-related works.

Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Coffee and Tea Service: 5-Piece Set, 1924–25

Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Coffee and Tea Service: 5-Piece Set, 1924–25, brass with mercury silvered interiors and ebony fixtures.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Herbert Bayer, Design for a Multimedia Trade Fair Booth, 1924 Lucia Moholy, Bauhaus Building, Dessau, Germany, 1926 Lucia Moholy, Bauhaus Masters Housing, Dessau, 1925–26 László Moholy-Nagy, A 18, 1927 Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Coffee and Tea Service: 5-Piece Set, 1924–25 Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Table Lamp, 1924

Harvard University’s relationship to the Bauhaus can be traced back to three grad students. This triumvirate—Lincoln Kirstein, Edward Warburg, and John Walker—started the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art in 1929 and showed forward-thinking work by artists such as Buckminster Fuller. In 1930, the group put together an exhibition of contemporary German art, and later that year, a show of the Bauhaus—the first exhibition in the United States of work from the revolutionary German art school. “It wasn’t huge, but the group got loans from important galleries in New York, and Lincoln Kirstein wrote a small catalogue for it,” says Laura Muir, the research curator for academic and public programs at the Harvard Art Museums. The exhibition traveled to New York and Chicago and caught the attention of Charles Kuhn, the curator of Harvard’s Germanic Museum—now the Busch-Reisinger Museum—and a supporter of the Society. In the wake of the exhibition, Kuhn began collecting contemporary German art, with a focus on Bauhaus works.

The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 with the intention to promote collaboration between fine art, design, architecture, and craft. Though it had an indelible influence on the arts, it was only open for 14 years before its closure in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime (it was thought to be a hub for communist intellectualism). Like many of his colleagues, Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus’s founder and first architect-director, fled Nazi Germany. After a brief period in London, Gropius joined Harvard’s department of architecture in 1937, serving as the chair of the Graduate School of Design until 1952. Kuhn developed a relationship with Gropius, which lent direction to the curator’s timely reinvention of the Germanic Museum after World War II. The change was necessary: for one, the museum had been started with a collection of plaster casts and Kuhn wanted to shift its focus to original work, but perhaps more pressingly, German art was understandably out of fashion at the time. “As you can imagine, people weren’t so keen on Germanic culture, but right around this time Kuhn began the Bauhaus collection,” says Muir. “The Bauhaus represented something so expansive and modern—it was the perfect initiative for that moment.” Within a few years a call was put out for donations, and by the mid-1950s, there were 10,000 works in the museum’s Bauhaus collection.

Today, the Busch-Reisinger Museum has an enormous cache of 32,000 Bauhaus-related objects in its holdings. It serves as the museum’s core, and a selection of its pieces is always installed in its galleries. In 2016, Harvard Art Museums created The Bauhaus Special Collection, an online resource that serves as an ever-evolving digital catalogue for a collection too big for a comprehensive physical catalogue.

This year, to mark the centennial of the Bauhaus’ founding, the Busch-Reisinger Museum is harnessing the expansive spirit of its digital archive and adapting it for the gallery setting. “The Bauhaus and Harvard,” which opens at the Busch-Reisinger on February 8 and runs through July 28, features some 200 works by 74 artists. Though still a distillation of the museum’s vast holdings, the show is meant to create a broader view of the Bauhaus’ philosophies and its artists’ output. “When you look at the exhibition history of the collection, it’s been about 50 years since we’ve looked at the collection as a whole,” says Muir. “So the Centennial is a really good moment to focus on this collection in its entirety and look at it with fresh eyes.”

The exhibition opens with a gallery devoted to the Bauhaus’ pedagogical practices. Says Muir, “We were devoted to the idea that first and foremost the Bauhaus was a school—which is of course pertinent to us.” The school’s faculty included such esteemed artists as Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky, Otto Bartning, and Herbert Bayer, and began with the Vorkurs, an intensive course that introduced fundamental design principles. The gallery features examples of student exercises that showcase the Bauhaus’s revolutionary approach, focusing on color, form, shape, even sound. They are rarely seen because, being on paper, they are extremely photosensitive. One of the last galleries in the show features work that acknowledges the Bauhaus’ influence in the United States, for instance, Untitled (BMC.121, Exercise in Color Vibration and Figure Background), an exercise produced by celebrated sculptor Ruth Asawa in 1948–49 under the tutelage of Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

Throughout the exhibition, the archive’s depth will be used to expand upon familiar works. Muir cites an installation of Marcel Breuer’s celebrated Club Chair (B3) (designed 1925, manufactured 1929–32, nickel-plated steel tubing and modern canvas) in the show’s second gallery, which is devoted to the domestic interior. Ads by Herbert Bayer, as well as fabric samples from the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop, and photographs by Lucia Moholy, Moholy-Nagy’s wife—materials that are rarely on view because of their light sensitivity—give context to the chair. This gallery also showcases practical decorative art pieces like Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s Coffee and Tea Service: 5-Piece Set (1924–25, brass with mercury silvered interiors and ebony fixtures) and Table Lamp (1924, transparent glass, opaline glass, mercury-silvered German silver, and silvered brass), which underscore the Bauhaus’ utopian project of designing a new world with objects that blended design, technology and functionality.

A section of the show devoted to the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop not only emphasizes some of the Busch-Reisinger’s strongest holdings, but also gives recognition to members whose voices might not have been as loud in the past—in short, the school’s women artists. “Throughout its history, we’ve had a lot of exhibitions devoted to this collection, but they’ve surrounded a lot of the same familiar male figures. We want to show the contributions of the women artists,” says Muir. In this section, Gunta Stölzl’s Tapestry (1922–23), an exploration of Modernist form and color in cotton, wool, and linen fibers, sings, as does Design for a Rug (1927, black ink and watercolor over graphite with drawn and cut paper additions on off-white wove paper) by Anni Albers.

The photographs of Moholy, another woman artist who has been predominately overlooked, are a through-line of the show. In the past, many of them were credited to Walter Gropius, because they featured his architecture. Her images, which depict everything from student exercises to artworks, decorative pieces, interiors, and architecture, give perhaps the most visceral sense of the Bauhaus’s culture and output. Muir says, “It was her vision that helped shape the vision of what the Bauhaus was.”

The exhibition’s final gallery is devoted to the Harvard Graduate Center, which Gropius designed with his firm The Architects Collaborative. Opening in 1950, it became the first modernist building complex on the university’s campus. The Center, says Muir, has never been the focus of an exhibition. The section will feature examples of artwork and studies commissioned for the building, such as Herbert Bayer’s Verdure (1950, oil on canvas), which was until recently undergoing conservation, and decorative pieces such as the plaid bedspread Anni Albers designed for the Center’s dorm rooms.

In a sister exhibition at Harvard’s University Research Gallery, “Hans Arp’s Constellations II,” the 13-panel relief of the same name, which was commissioned by Gropius for the Center, will be on view. Constellations II was first installed on the walls of a popular dining hall in Harkness Commons (now the Caspersen Center), but, in perhaps a rare convergence of Bauhaus and Animal House, had to be raised above table height in 1958 due to damage. They have since been moved and, recently, conserved.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Arms and the Man Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:05:16 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Met puts a cache of rare decorative English firearms on view for The first time.

Pair of Flintlock Pistols

Gunmaker: Samuel Brunn, silversmith: Michael Barnett, Pair of Flintlock Pistols, British, London, 1800-1801

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Pair of Flintlock Pistols Detail of a pair of Flintlock Pistols Detail of a Pair of Flintlock Pistols Barreled Turnover Percussion Pistols Cased Flintlock Target Pistol

When John Byck first joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Arms and Armor as Assistant Curator three years ago, one of his first tasks was to identify areas of the department’s collection that could benefit from further research. While digging through the collection, he came across a remarkable find: a group of about 30 British firearms from the 18th and early 19th centuries, all in storage, that had not been critically examined since they entered the Met’s collection almost a century before. What’s more, many of them were highly significant—either very rare pieces or of exceptional quality. Byck had found his next project.

“I read every book I could find on the subject,” he says. “And while I was recataloguing the firearms, I found that many had these exciting stories to tell.” To track down these stories, Byck made several trips to the United Kingdom to visit archives and private collections. The result of this research and analysis is the exhibition “The Art of London Firearms,” the first U.S. museum show to examine the topic. It opened on January 29 and will remain on view through January 29, 2020.

The guns in the exhibition were all made by a small group of gunmakers on the outskirts of London, beginning around 1780. These craftsmen were in fierce competition with one another to attract commissions from wealthy customers, and this situation produced a level of artistry and refinement previously unknown in the flintlock firearm. This time period therefore not only resulted in higher-quality decoration but also in the first development of a truly English style of firearm.

With so many impressive examples of British firearms from this time period, one of the first questions Byck approached was how to determine the gun’s quality. “In order to understand where they fall on the spectrum of quality, as is true of any artwork, we have to look at the best examples and determine what those markers of quality are,” Byck says. “What type of embellishments do they have? How beautifully are the barrels made? Are the stocks finely finished? What motifs are commonly featured on royal firearms? Are the pieces still in their original cases, with original finishes?” The pieces in the Met’s collection were made for presentation or sport and were considered functional works of art in their own day, just as they are now.

In addition to the decorative elements, provenance was another highly important factor in Byck’s examination of this collection—and this was something that could really only be thoroughly researched through travel. One of the pieces that was most rewarding for Byck was a cased set of four-barreled percussion pistols made by gunmaker James Purdey in 1831, purchased by the Met in 1935. “When I found these pistols, I knew they were important, but I didn’t know exactly why. So while I was in London, I had the chance to visit Purdey’s archive, and in that archive I found these pistols,” Byck says. He discovered the original owner, the date of purchase, and the price paid for them—which revealed that they were the most expensive pistols Purdey had made up until that point, 30 or 40 years into his business. What’s more, Byck found that the purchaser was the 4th Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne, an influential politician at the time whose archives still survive. By visiting that archive, Byck was able to reconstruct almost the entire story of the pistols’ commission.

Another significant piece is a pair of flintlock pistols made by Samuel Brunn. Decorated with extremely fine silver mountings, they were most likely made for the Prince Regent. “They’re arguably the finest Neoclassical British firearms in the world,” Byck says. Yet another standout is a target pistol made by Robert Wogdon and John Barton for Prince William Frederick, 2nd Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh. The pistol has an elegant curved stock and long barrel, with minimal embellishment.

In addition to displaying these items, many of which have never been on view before, “The Art of London Firearms” includes other pieces to help contextualize the guns. One of those was an extremely exciting find. “I found the tradecard for the artisan who made one of the firearms,” Byck says. “It’s very beautiful, and very rare. The card is one of those ephemeral pieces of art—it’s amazing that it survived. I’m very excited to be able to unite one of our star pieces with this really extraordinary trade card.”

By Elizabeth Pandolfi

Whole Cloth Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:04:38 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Wolfsonian’s latest exhibition brings the history of Italian textile design from Genoa to Miami.

Design drawing for a rug, 1947

Design drawing for a rug, 1947, for MITA’s Rug Competition for the T8. VIII Triennale, Milan Antonia Campi, designer, tempera and graphite on paperboard.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Panel, Mulinello [Whirl], 1957 Tapestry, Flauto magico [Magic Flute], for the Eugenio C Design drawing for a rug, 1927 MITA Factory, Genoa Nervi, 1940 Design drawing for a rug, 1947

“Made in Italy.” Which other three little words, almost always placed in a hidden, unassuming location on a variety of artistic and agronomic products, have come to hold such strong cachet worldwide?

In fact, none of the artworks on view in the eponymous exhibition at The Wolfsonian–Florida International University in Miami Beach includes that evocative phrase (and the “Made in Italy” mark was not put into place until 1980). But none of the masterpieces here would even require such a moniker. Their Italianness, both in their quality and in their artistic composition, needs no regulated stamp to be understood. “Made in Italy: MITA Textile Design 1926–1976,” organized with The Wolfsonian’s sister institution, The Wolfsoniana–Palazzo Ducale Fondazione per la Cultura in Genoa, celebrates the artistic output of the Manifattura Italiana Tappeti Artistici (Italian Artistic Carpet Manufactory), an enterprise that, for 50 years, espoused the finest Italian craftsmanship and newest textile technologies in all their modernist furnishing and sartorial glory. Curators Silvia Barisione, Matteo Fochessati, and Gianni Franzone present MITA’s contributions in the history of textile and carpet production, situating the company at the forefront of the Italian avant-garde, from Futurism to Abstract Expressionism and even a bit of Pop.

Established in 1926 by the industrialist and entrepreneur Mario Alberto Ponis in Nervi, a suburb of Genoa, MITA was in many ways ahead of its time. Ponis envisioned a business that functioned as a hands-on factory as well as a place for artistic experimentation and learning. His friendships with many members of Italy’s cultured circles led to the company’s first collaborations with artists, drawing on Italian artisanal traditions while embracing the spirit of mechanized production. This marriage of art and industry would irrevocably change the Italian design landscape until the firm’s closure in 1976.

Ponis collaborated early on with an impressive roster of painters, designers, and architects, including the Rationalist architect Mario Labò, the architect-designer of the Novecento movement and Domus editor Gio Ponti, and the Futurist artist Fortunato Depero, whose textiles and carpets had already earned him accolades at the 1925 Exposition in Paris. Depero’s 1927 drawing for a carpet produced by MITA would have made a particular impact with its fiery colors and explosive forms. Depero pared down the geometry to a deceivingly simple two shapes and four colors, but the dynamism matches and arguably even exceeds that of its cousins being produced in France at the same time, like Sonia Delaunay’s textiles, which Depero no doubt saw when in Paris. Testifying to MITA’s initial artistic success, Depero’s Futurist colleagues Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Giacomo Balla even purchased rugs from Ponis. Shown alongside three colorways of this rug design are period ceramics, illustrating the modernist Gesamtkunstwerk in interior decorating during the 1920s, and Depero’s famous bolted book, which, in wonderfully Futurist fashion, was finished with hardware so as to damage the books shelved next to it, and which included a dedication to Ponis.

Seggioline (Chairs), produced in 1935 from a drawing by Gio Ponti, is a playful pattern of tiny, repeating stylized chairs, which refer to his work as an industrial designer. Ponti not only created rugs and textiles for MITA but also frequently visited Ponis’ factory and included their products in Domus’ pages, a practice of familial promotion that he would continue throughout his tenure at the magazine. “You won’t find in Ponis the master artisan,” Ponti later wrote, “but rather a man who, without speculative address and with intelligence, plays an important role … [as] mediator between creators of fabric and architects.”

In the 1930s, Ponis worked with Rationalist architect Luigi Carlo Daneri to design the new and ultra-modern MITA factory, itself an ode to French modernist architecture with its flat roof and ribbon windows in the style of Le Corbusier. Inaugurated in 1941, the factory was quickly closed and refitted to produce helmets, life jackets, and emergency food bags.

In the postwar period, at a moment when Italy sought to find an artistic and industrial identity that could help reinvigorate the economy, MITA reopened and its production expanded to include tapestries, limited-edition and one-off artist panels, yard goods, and even scarves, to compete with the new wave of high-end Italian textile manufacturers like Fede Cheti and the Manifattura JSA, who shared some designers with MITA, including Ettore Sottsass, Jr. Sottsass’ abstracted kaleidoscope of hues, along with sculptor and ceramicist Antonia Campi’s rhythmic inversions of polymorphic shapes and lines, comprised MITA’s winning entries for the rug competition at the VIII Triennale of Milan in 1947.

During the 1950s and 1960s, MITA added to its ranks artists like Eugenio Carmi, Enrico Paulucci, Gio Pomodoro, and Leo Lionni (best known for his children’s book illustrations), to name just a few. Unlike other Italian fabric manufacturers who commissioned artists, though, Ponis smartly branded MITA’s goods as standalone works of art, even signed with the artists’ names, whether in printed ink or color, or woven into the tapestries. These one-of-a-kind works helped MITA to establish itself internationally, in regular showings at the Triennali after 1947, as well as by participating in the landmark 1950 touring exhibition in America, “Italy at Work: Her Renaissance in Design Today.” In 1951 at the IX Triennale, Italian artist textiles were exhibited for the first time. Among the invited companies was MITA, whose works included those by painters Carmi and Paulucci.

On display at The Wolfsonian is Carmi’s Mulinello (Whirl, 1957), exhibited in 1959 at the Fundación Mendoza in Caracas. A rumination on Italian abstract expressionism in neutral tones, Mulinello could rival the works of the Americans at that moment, both in its composition and scale. At the X Triennale in 1954, MITA focused its attention on one artist—and one work, as the title of the exhibition made clear. The Mostra del Pezzo Unico (Exhibition of the Unique Piece), featured Favola (Fable), a monumental tapestry by Emmanuele Luzzati, best known today for his theater designs and book illustrations. Favola depicts a myriad of characters from the uplifting fairy-tale worlds Luzzati created through his illustration and stories, drawing as much from postwar optimism and a need to escape Italy’s recent war-torn past as from its more distant theatrical past in the form of the Commedia dell’Arte.

Perhaps most telling of the company’s mid-century success are MITA’s commissions “at sea” to decorate the luxury ocean liners Andrea Doria (which sank in 1956), Eugenio C., and Leonardo Da Vinci. MITA’s work for the three vessels aptly recalls Gio Ponti’s summation of these cruise ships as “floating art galleries.” Among the stars of the Wolfsonian show is another of Luzzati’s tapestries, Flauto Magico (Magic Flute, 1966); Russian-German artist Michael Rachlis’ tapestry design; and Paulucci’s Gabbiani (Seagulls, 1960). Luzzati chose cool, aqueous tones and forms that suggest not Mozart (although the operatic reference was no coincidence for the seasoned stage designer) but rather the seaweed and coral glimpsed in underwater exploration, an appropriate reference given the tapestry’s original home in the Eugenio C.’s first-class dining room. The circa-1952 tempera sketch by Rachlis for the tapestry in the Andrea Doria first-class reading room is all that survives, but one gets a sense of the artistry in wool paired with a maritime decorative program. MITA produced Paulucci’s design for a silk scarf, fittingly featuring seagulls, as a giveaway for the inaugural voyage of the Leonardo da Vinci, which was built to replace the Andrea Doria. (In the 1960s, silk scarves were a fashionable means of promotion that was particularly favored by corporations, from pasta producer Prince to furniture giant Knoll.) Luzzati also produced a scarf, Cabo San Roque – Cabo San Vicente (circa 1960), an advertising freebie in association with the Spanish shipping company Ybarra Line.

In 1987, designer Andrea Branzi wrote that it was the “incredible fabrics” produced in Italy after the war that had brought Italian design “out of the doldrums of rationalism”—perhaps despite the Rationalist theories on which Ponis founded his business and its aesthetic, and with which Daneri had designed the factory—and “onto the hottest beaches of post-industrial culture,” a harbinger of the soon-to-come postmodernism. Branzi’s words are brought to life at The Wolfsonian thanks to MITA, the innovative vision of Mario Alberto Ponis, and the avant-garde compositions of the artists he employed. “Made in Italy” is a rare chance to see, outside of that country, the important products of a design great.

“Made in Italy” is on view through April 28, 2019 at The Wolfsonian–Florida International University in Miami Beach.

Have a Seat Fri, 30 Nov 2018 03:12:16 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition explores 200 years of American design through the example of the chair.

Large Diamond Lounge Chair, circa 1952

Designed by Harry Bertoia, Manufactured by Knoll Associates, New York City, NY, Large Diamond Lounge Chair, circa 1952.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Current, 2004 Large Diamond Lounge Chair, circa 1952 Centripetal Spring Arm Chair, circa 1850 “McKinley” Arm Chair, circa 1894-96 Sling Seat Lounge Chair, circa 1935 Synergistic Synthesis XVII sub b1 Chair, 2003

In the realm of decorative arts, the humble chair is unique in its capacity for both functional utilitarianism and powerful symbolism. A chair can be meant for something as straightforward as dining or for conveying one’s status to a throng of admirers. It can be a piece of art or a piece of furniture. It can be simple and timeless, like a ladderback rocker, or practically unrecognizable.

It’s this wide range of uses, styles, and materials that is on display in the exhibition “The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design” at The Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Fla. Spanning the early 19th century to today, the show includes important pieces by major designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Frank Gehry, Isamu Noguchi, and Frank Lloyd Wright, not to mention historically significant pieces like the 1857 House of Representatives Chamber Arm Chair.

This touring show was originated by the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, and features pieces from the private American Chair Collection, as well as the Thomas H. and Diane DeMell Jacobsen Ph.D. Foundation. And while the chairs themselves are, of course, the focus of the show, “The Art of Seating” also aims to give viewers a comprehensive look at the design process through patent drawings, artist renderings, and other documentation. “This project presents chairs as not only elegant art forms but also relatable everyday objects that speak to aesthetic trends, the emergence of new technologies, and concepts of ergonomics,” says Rebecca Dunham, curator and Head of Fine Arts at The Society of the Four Arts.

There are several standout pieces among the 43 chairs on display, from a wide range of time periods. The circa 1894–96 “McKinley” Arm Chair, a style named for U.S. President William McKinley, is one of the most historically significant pieces in the exhibition. The chair was designed by David Wolcott Kendall and manufactured by the Phoenix Furniture Company. Crafted of cane and oak, and with minimal decoration—only subtle Moorish arches on the arms—the “McKinley” chair is often cited as an early example of the American Mission style. After one was presented to President McKinley, and shortly thereafter named after him, other designers began copying the design. This led Kendall to patent it in 1897.

Another piece, the Centripetal Spring Arm Chair, is one of Dunham’s favorites. The circa-1850 chair, designed by Thomas E. Warren, is an example of “Patent Furniture,” she says. “It speaks to America’s enchantment with gadgets, especially in the 19th century when technology and innovation were on the rise. Here, you see a relatively young nation embracing new materials and construction techniques in order to address the age-old needs of function. The complicated design allows the chair to move laterally, rotate in various directions, and accommodate the verticality of the sitter. Shifting the sitter’s position and permitting both movement and comfort while seated was a key goal of designers in the Victorian Era.”

Another striking chair on view is a bright, bold blue Texas Longhorn armchair crafted out of Texas Longhorn ivory, brass, glass, and silk, circa 1890. The piece was designed and manufactured in San Antonio, Tex., by designer Wenzel Friedrich. There’s also an unusual 1870 Curule Side Chair, featuring graceful curves in ebonized cherry and a yellow silk show cover. The design was created and patented by George Hunzinger.

Moving into the 20th century, visitors can see the celebrated LCW (Lounge Chair Wood), designed by the famed husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames. “The chair’s biomorphic design and clean lines are underscored by its materiality of lightweight, molded plywood,” Dunham says. “When the LCW debuted in 1954 it was hailed as the ‘Chair of the Century.’ It has striking aesthetics that continue to appeal to contemporary tastes for mid-century modern-style furnishings.”

Those interested in design of the 20th century will also enjoy architect Frank Gehry’s minimalist High Stool. Crafted in 1971, the two-legged stool is made of corrugated cardboard, wood, and Masonite, and reflects the same fascination with curves, functionality, and experimentation that would come to characterize Gehry’s later architectural creations.

There are many other exceptional examples of 20th-century design, specifically mid-century modern, in this exhibition—Isamu Noguchi’s Rocking Stool, from 1958, Harry Bertoia’s Large Diamond Lounge Chair and Bird Lounge Chair, both from 1952, and Erwine and Estelle Laverne’s acrylic Lily Chair, from 1957.

More recent selections include the 2004 wavy, electric-blue metal chair Current, by New Hampshire-based artist Vivian Beer and the almost mechanical-looking Synergistic Synthesis XVII sub b1 Chair by Berkeley, Calif., designer Kenneth Smythe.

“The Art of Seating” does what all the best investigations of decorative arts do: It gives us a new way to look at and understand the objects that surround us every day. “Visitors can witness the history, social implications, and cultural developments of American design through the lens of these chairs,” Dunham says. “Designed for functionality, but preserved and displayed here as pieces of art, each chair also has a story to tell about our national identity.”

By Elizabeth Pandolfi

Al Thani Collection: Royal Splendor Wed, 24 Oct 2018 22:53:44 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition of the Al Thani Collection in San Francisco highlights the currents of mutual admiration and influence that flowed back and forth between Indian and Western jewelry traditions.

Nawanagar ruby necklace, Cartier, London, 1937

Nawanagar ruby necklace, Cartier, London, 1937, platinum, rubies, and diamonds, 20.5 x 19.5 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Pendant, India, circa 1575–1625 Nawanagar ruby necklace, Cartier, London, 1937 Arcot II diamond, India, circa 1760 Turban ornament, India, circa 1900 Taj Mahal emerald, India, 1650–1700 Rosewater sprinkler, North India, 1675–1725 Aigrette Robert Linzeler, Paris, 1910

In India, it was the men of power, rather than the women, who wore the biggest jewels. Not only elaborate rings but brooches, turban ornaments, bracelets, and necklaces adorned kings, princes, and courtiers of the Muslim and Hindu princely states that predated the British Raj, uneasily coexisted with it, and finally came to an end with the creation of the independent nations of India and Pakistan in 1947. In particular, the members of the Mughal dynasty—descendants of Central Asian Turks who invaded India in the early 16th century and ruled the greater part of it until their decline in the 18th century and demise in the 19th—sported the most magnificent jewels, richly colorful creations that captured the imagination of Western travelers, traders, and jewelers alike.

They also captured the imagination of a modern-day Muslim prince, the very deep-pocketed Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar, who has managed to acquire an array of Indian royal jewels, as well as jeweled objets d’art and pieces of ceremonial weaponry, that is unparalleled in today’s world. Originally the collection was a personal quest, inspired by his admiration for the work of two contemporary jewelers, one Indian and one American, and his love for Mughal paintings, which frequently portray jewels and their wearers. However, in the past eight years, the Al Thani trove has grown into a truly comprehensive historical jewel archive which is a source of loans for museum exhibitions and book publications. A major show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2009–10 revealed to the world a cross-section of the Al Thani collection, using it as means of chronicling the history of taste in India, Britain, and Europe. In 2014–15, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted around 60 pieces in the exhibition “Treasures from India: Jewels From the Al Thani Collection,” and portions of the collection have also been loaned to exhibitions in Paris, Venice, and Kyoto.

On November 3, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will open “East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection” at the Legion of Honor, showcasing a larger selection of pieces in order to demonstrate how the jewelry arts of the Indian courts both transmitted their influence to Europe and received influences from it, starting at the beginning of the Mughal era and going up through the Art Deco period and right down to the present moment. Organized by Martin Chapman, Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Amin Jaffer, Senior Curator of the Al Thani Collection, the exhibition will be on view at the Legion of Honor through February 24, 2019.

“This show is much larger than the Met show and incorporates the collection according to a different agenda,” says Chapman. “It is concerned with the intersection between India and West, as well as with gender roles and their expression though jewelry.” By way of illustration, he points to some of the royal portraits that are included in the exhibition as documentary supplements.” A photograph of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII, taken on the day of her husband’s coronation as King of England and Emperor of India, shows the queen draped in string upon string of large pearls—a look originated by the Mughal Emperors of India. Although there is political truth and a degree of irony in this look, Alexandra’s act of appropriation doesn’t just reflect the British takeover of India; it reflects the Indian conquest of the world of fashion. A style of jewelry created for Eastern men of power became de rigueur for women of taste in the West and eventually all over the world. The reverse of this gender-to-gender movement (and geographic movement) can be observed in another photo in the exhibition, a portrait of Sir Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, from 1911. The multiple loops of pearls with pendant gems adorning the neck and chest of this modern-day Indian prince, so elaborate that they look almost like a breastplate, were originally made for the jewelry trendsetter Empress Eugénie of France, wife of Napoleon III.

India has long been a source of gemstones—most famously from the mines of Golconda, which supplied most of the diamonds in the world until the modern discovery of diamonds in South America and then in South Africa. Kashmir produced the best sapphires, and Badakhshan the finest spinels. India also occupies a fortunate position at a trade-route crossroads which allowed it to obtain gems from Ceylon and Burma, and pearls from the Persian Gulf. So it is hardly surprising that jewelry has always occupied a special place in the Indian aesthetic cosmos and rose to a level of artistry that is unique. In Hindu culture, each stone had mythic and magical associations with astrological signs and talismanic properties, as well as cultural associations with rank, marital status, and political and military power. Gazing into the depths of a gemstone, one may imagine oneself contemplating a tiny universe; for Indian connoisseurs, this was literally true.

The Mughals, who were Muslim and foreign-descended, assimilated native Indian jewelry and gemological traditions and added touches of their own, deriving not only from the Islamic and Chinese traditions that traveled over the Silk Road. At their court, based in Delhi, the art of jewelry and jewelry appreciation reached a level that is arguably the highest of any culture in the world at any time. In this exhibition, the sense of wonder inspired by Muslin courtly jewelry arts comes through particularly powerfully when viewing the non-wearable objets d’art, such as a rosewater sprinkler from circa 1675–1725 encrusted with rubies, emeralds, and pearls held in a matrix of gold strips, a circa 1740–80 flask from North India or the Deccan made of pure rock crystal with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds set in gold and silver embedded in it, or a magnificent 18th-century figure of a green parrot mounted on a jeweled stand and carrying an emerald in its beak. Another astonishing piece is the Wine Cup of Jahangir, from 1607–08, made of jade on personal commission from the Emperor and covered with ornamental script spelling out Persian poetry and the titles of Jahangir. There is also a profusion of artistry on view in the form of intricately jeweled and enameled sword and knife hilts and scabbards.

The eclectic Mughals also absorbed influences from the West, even at the very beginning of their reign, since Portuguese traders had already set up shop in Goa, on India’s west coast, before the Mughals even established their empire. (In fact, the emeralds so prized by the Mughals were imported to India from Colombia, in South America, by the Portuguese.) Among the European techniques the Mughals made their own was gemstone carving, which, Chapman explains, “is an art that is partly elevated under the influence of the West, as Venetian gem cutters reached India and were working in the trading posts.” The Mughals came to especially favor carved gemstones, particularly emeralds and spinels. These frequently featured Persian and Arabic inscriptions, primarily of a religious nature. Such stones, Chapman says, were worn with the inscription against the skin, since the writing was meant for the wearer, who would thus absorb its beneficent energies. Sometimes they carried inscriptions betokening rank, such as the famous Shah Jahan Emerald, a massive 30.31-carat cabochon-cut stone which is carved with the name and title of the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal (it actually dates from 1621–22, around six years before he became Emperor).

Mughal openness to Western influence extended to gemological technology. The 17th-century French gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier did a lot of business in Mughal India, helping to create a taste for diamonds in the French court, “establishing the preeminence of diamonds in the West never dreamt of before,” says Chapman. “In a way, Louis XIV is echoing what the Mughals do. Before him, although diamonds are much admired in the West, they are not worn in the same profusion or acquired with the same passion.” At the same time, in the West there came about a change in the way diamonds were cut, prefiguring the modern brilliant cut. “This runs directly counter to the Indian culture, where they polished the existing facets of the stone to preserve the weight, because the value is in the weight,” explains Chapman. “In the West, they took an approach that is, in a way, braver. Working with the principles of reflection and refraction, which is a different science, they lose weight and gain sparkle, proportion, and symmetry.” This approach to cutting caught on with the Mughal emperors, especially Jahangir and Shah Jahan. “At the height of its confidence, the Mughal Empire is outward-looking—toward other cultures, toward Western technology and innovations,” says Chapman. “Diamond culture is part of this.”

With the decline of Mughal and other native Indian power in the 19th century, Western influence on Indian court jewelry became stronger and stronger. Some maharajas, as we have seen, were quite happy to wear pieces that had been designed for Western women, and many had their own traditional Indian pieces sent to Europe to be reset or recast in Western styles. The French jeweler Cartier became the go-to source for this, and it was Cartier that ushered in the next phase of the often paradoxical and ironic history of cultural interchange between India and Europe in the arena of jewelry. In the 1920s and ’30, during the Art Deco period, Cartier (and other jewelers) created completely new and in many ways modernistic designs that incorporated influences from traditional Indian courtly jewelry. For example, multicolored arrays of carved gemstones became the basis for Cartier’s iconic “tutti-frutti” style, so called because of its perceived resemblance to hard candies.

In the 21st century, contemporary art jewelers are taking inspiration from older Indian styles and even techniques, and the San Francisco exhibition ends with a section on their work. When the Sheikh Al Thani started his collection, he was particularly enthused by the American-born, Paris-based craftsman JAR (Joel Arthur Rosenthal) and the Mumbai-based Indian jeweler Bhagat. Both are interested in Indian approaches to gem cutting that go against the prevailing practice of geometric faceting. In search of this look, JAR has incorporated historic stones into his pieces, some of which also draw on classic Indian motifs. Bhagat uses custom-cut flat diamonds in his work, which is more modernist and even minimalist in style, while adhering to the ancient Indian technique of kundan, or setting gems in almost invisible settings. With these artists, the East-West circle closes—or at least takes one more turn.

By John Dorfman

Thomas Chippendale: Self-Made Man Thu, 24 May 2018 21:48:32 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Thomas Chippendale’s story of entrepreneurship arrives at the Met.

China table, England, circa 1755-60

China table, England, circa 1755-60, mahogany, overall: 28.25 x 37.75 x 26.5 in.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Workshop of Thomas Chippendale, Side chair (from a set of fourteen), London, England, circa 1772 Tea chest, British, circa 1760 Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown for Knoll International, Incorporated, #662 “Chippendale” Chair with “Tapestry” pattern upholstery China table, England, circa 1755-60 Thomas Chippendale, Ribband Back Chairs, 1754

The world of 18th-century cabinetmaking is perhaps not the first place one would think to look for a story of ambitious self-promotion and successful entrepreneurship. And yet, that’s exactly what is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this season in the exhibition Chippendale’s Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture-Maker. On view through January 27, 2019, the show will feature original Thomas Chippendale drawings alongside furniture, from a range of eras, inspired by Chippendale’s designs.

Chippendale was a London-based cabinetmaker who became one of the most influential furniture designers of his time. In fact, he was so influential that his designs were still being looked to for inspiration as recently as the 1980s. His designs were largely inspired by the ornate French Rococo tradition, which he anglicized—in other words, toned down—to appeal to his fellow countrymen and women. He also created designs inspired by both the Gothic and Chinese traditions, although his English Rococo designs remain the best known.

One major reason for Chippendale’s huge influence on Western furniture design is that he took a bold and unusual step in order to promote his cabinetmaking business. He wrote, published, and disseminated a groundbreaking book of designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. Released in 1754, the book featured 160 designs for chairs, tables, beds, and other furniture, showcasing Chippendale’s skill as a designer as well as establishing him as an authority in the design world. The Director was a first of its kind—a manual for the middle and monied classes that helped define “good taste,” as well as a hugely successful marketing campaign.

The book is the entry point for the current exhibition. Visitors entering the galleries will first view the Met’s first-edition copy of the Director, alongside three Chippendale chairs from different eras: one from Chippendale’s own London workshop, one made for a wealthy Philadelphia merchant by colonial American craftsmen in 1769, and one created by the influential present-day architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The range, in both geography and time, speaks to a core point of the show.

“We wanted to show how deeply the Director impacted the rest of the Western world,” says the exhibition’s co-curator Alyce Englund, Associate Curator of the Met’s American Wing. “This book truly presented Chippendale as an authority on design, placing him in the sphere of designers operating on the continent.” While the book itself is remarkable, both for the quality of its designs and for being the first of its kind, the circumstances of its production are no less impressive. “What’s amazing about this book is that Chippendale produces it when he’s 36, and he’s already got lots of responsibilities,” Englund says. The cabinetmaker had several children by this time, and he’d taken out debt to finance his new workshop. Chippendale needed to do something that would make people come to his shop instead of to one of the hundreds of other cabinetmakers’ shops in London. Creating the Director was a major endeavor—and one that could easily have failed.

Of course, it didn’t fail. In addition to promoting Chippendale’s designs, the book also helped establish a truly British style of decorative arts that could compete with, but also converse with, styles from continental Europe. While many people may have seen Chippendale furniture—or at least replicas of Chippendale furniture—few will have seen the original drawings that will are part of this show. The Met acquired one of the largest collections of Chippendale drawings in 1920, but these are rarely on view. “They’re kept in albums and are really hard to display,” says co-curator Femke Speelburg, Associate Curator, Drawings and Prints. “This is the first time since the Met has owned them that we’ve decided to take them out of the albums to display on the gallery walls.”

The drawings that will be on view preceded many of the actual furniture pieces we know as Chippendale, as most of them were done in preparation for the book. They’re significant for another reason, as well. “These drawings help tell the story of this man who was an entrepreneur, a cabinetmaker—and he could draw,” Speelburg says. “For a long time, scholars thought Chippendale hired someone to do these; they didn’t think someone who was a furniture maker could also make these beautiful drawings.”

Together, the furniture and works on paper on view at the Met will offer viewers a more comprehensive, more nuanced understanding of the famous cabinetmaker’s legacy than many may have had before. “Chippendale was an extraordinarily talented designer, but he also had this great business sense,” says Englund. “And he was a very talented craftsman.” That’s what it takes, it seems, for a design tradition to endure for 300 years.

By Elizabeth Pandolfi

Silver Age Thu, 30 Nov 2017 07:49:54 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The best pieces of antique English silver are sought after for the inventiveness and exuberance of their designs, as well as for the exquisite craftsmanship they embody.

George III silver epergne

Lewis Herne and Francis Butty, George III silver epergne, 1762;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) sterling silver basket William IV ivory-mounted sterling silver two-handled oval footed tray sterling silver cream boat George IV sterling silver egg frame and six parcel-gilt egg cups George III silver epergne basket-form centerpiece

Oooooh, shiny.

That’s the reaction most people have when they see a large array of splendid antique English silver. That “Oooooh” is rarely said out loud, happening purely at the lizard-brain level of thinking, and it has a different meaning now than it would have when the pieces were newer, but truly great English silver provokes delight just as well as it did centuries ago.

Displayed on the sideboards and the table of the dining room of a great English estate, a fabulous silver display left guests awestruck and told them, in no uncertain terms, how wealthy and powerful the homeowner was. By the 19th century, silver had transcended its function as a tool and a status symbol to became collectible. The “Oooooh” still burbled forth, and the silver still advertised the owner’s wealth and power, but that wealth and power had to do with the owner’s strengths as a collector.

Antique English silver must pass tougher tests in the 21st century. We don’t need egg cruets or muffin cups or toast racks anymore, and we can get by just fine without many of the other silver accoutrements of ages past. But the long-since-antique pieces of English silver that draw forth an exclamation now are the same ones that have always done so. Invariably, they are the pieces that bear the marks of the best English silversmiths, they display the finest, most sophisticated workmanship, and they have survived in good to excellent condition.

“Anything unusual or different tends to be most sought-after, and people will fight over it,” says Todd Sell, vice president of silver, furniture, and decorations at the Doyle New York auction house. Mark Antebi, owner and president of M. Antebi and Son Silver & Antiques in Atlanta, Ga., concurs. “The extraordinary always commands a good valuation and good prices,” he says. “The ordinary is no longer being sought, and that’s true across the board. It takes something special.” Spencer Gordon of Spencer Marks, a 30-year-old dealership in Southampton, Mass., accepts how things have changed. “What’s good is that people are freed up from the rules of what you’re supposed to buy, and they buy what they like.”

Naturally, some of the finest works of English silver belong to institutions. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond has hundreds of objects from masters such as Paul Storr, who was active from the late 18th century to the early 19th century. They include Hebe, a solid silver statue of the cupbearer to the Greek gods. Made in 1829–30, it weighs 303 ounces and depicts its subject bare-breasted and raising a pitcher. While Hebe is a natural choice of theme for a grand 18th-century English table setting, it probably wasn’t a standard Paul Storr offering. “A large, expensive piece like that would not have been made on spec. It’s complicated and sophisticated, and would not have been undertaken without a client in mind,” says Mitchell Merling, Paul Mellon curator and head of the department of European art at the VMFA. “It’s also got clarity of design. It’s really clear, it’s really bold, and it reads from across the room. You see it and you know what it is, and you know it’s perfect.”

Basket-form centerpieces were perennially popular, but few English silversmiths could execute them at the level of virtuosity and finish that Storr did in 1813 for an example that now belongs to the VMFA. “It’s definitely a show-stopper. Usually baskets are a bit more functional. This is a tour-de-force, characteristic of a collection that has powerful pieces in it,” Merling says before launching into a new chorus in singing its praises. “It’s not just a good example of grand Regency silver, it’s the best. It’s designed to impress, and it impresses aristocrats [of the time] as much as a row of John Nash townhouses in Carlton Place,” he says, referring to the architect who served the future King George IV and designed and built Carlton House Terrace in London in the late 1820s and early 1830s. “Everything is thought through, and every detail is perfect, but the whole design is not sacrificed to the parts,” Merling says.

Storr’s work survives in larger quantities than that of other prized England-based masters, such as Paul de Lamerie, the go-to silversmith for the elite of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, simply due to timing. Silver played such a large role in the lives of the well-heeled English that it was vulnerable to changes in style. Sending a service back to the silversmith for periodic “refashioning”—tweaking it so it conformed to prevailing tastes—was a common practice. Tim Martin, president of S.J. Shrubsole, a 105-year-old Manhattan dealer that specializes in English silver from the 14th century to about 1750, recalls seeing a house ledger kept by a butler that tracked decades upon decades of silver maintenance. “You can read back and see it [the silver] being refashioned from generation to generation. I want to weep, because if it was left as it was in 1735, it would be the most precious silver in the world. But they [the family] didn’t. They were too rich. They had everything melted down and refashioned. Their silver is impressive, but not as impressive as if they left it as it was in 1735.”

The losses to fashion make more sense when you consider the extent to which silver dominated the culture before the arrival of the Internet, movies, record players, radio, and electric light. Today, we sometimes call throwing a dinner party “entertaining,” and back before those many other phenomena came on the scene, hosting invitees at home was, quite literally, entertaining (or at least it was meant to be). Silver was a key part of the overall experience, and the best silver was literally entertaining, serving as conversation pieces and holding the gaze of the guests. Speaking of a Paul de Lamerie cream boat from 1742 or 1732 that Spencer Marks sold in the past, Gordon says, “It’s a fabulous thing, expensive when it was made, expensive when it was sold, and part of an extraordinarily beautiful social setting. The cow’s head on the side of the creamer was a visual pun. They [the guests] probably politely commented to the host on how fun it was.”

To hear Merling tell it, great English silver could be livelier and more interesting than some of the human guests who gathered around the table. “Light is very reflective on the silver. It dances. It moves. It’s alive. It participates in life. It takes on the quality of life around it,” he says, adding that the decorative flourishes of top-flight works in silver were often loaded with literary allusions. “Silver summoned up other worlds—the Gothic world, the Greek world, the world of shepherdesses,” he says. “You could amuse yourself endlessly with the conceits embodied in silver.”

The starkest example of silver-as-entertainment comes in the form of novelties. Rundell, Bridge and Rundell served as the Royal Goldsmith from 1797 to 1843, but that didn’t stop the firm from creating charming pieces such as a mustard pot that depicts a monkey laughing at a human hand jutting from a barrel. Dating to 1824, it sold for £26,400 ($34,858) at Bonhams London in July 2008. “They [the British] loved novelty, and they loved exotic forms and shapes,” says Aileen Ward, director of the silver and objects of vertu department at Bonhams U.S. “Even in the 1820s, a monkey was an exotic pet, and it would have made people smile.” The mustard pot still possesses that power, even though we no longer live in an age when a host’s kitchen staff was expected to create a house mustard blend and fill the charming little pot with it. “The immediate reaction is, ‘Wow, what a funny object,’” Ward says. “Then when they learn what a mustard pot is and they identify its use, it takes on a whole other realm of enjoyment and value, and the quality is pretty self-evident.”

Sometimes, the backstory of a silversmith is entertaining enough to stoke the interest of collectors. Hester Bateman made her reputation in the mid- to late 18th century and became a star among American silver collectors who loved the idea of a widow taking over her husband’s workshop and succeeding in a highly competitive field. But the romantic vision of Hester sitting at a bench and working with hot metal isn’t strictly accurate. Any English silversmith who gained prominence didn’t spend his or her days shaping silver. Though they might have started out as apprentices, their sterling reputations were rooted in their talents for business and brand-building. “We like the story of a female silversmith, though she was really an entrepreneur,” Gordon says. “The idea that she was a woman in a man’s world is true. Many did what she did in her situation. She was married to a silversmith and continued to run the business [after he died]. She was possibly the most successful. She is a woman in a man’s world—just not with a hammer in her hand, I can assure you of that.”

Nor was the English silver market cutting her slack for being a widow. Speaking of a 1786 Hester Bateman teapot on stand that Bonhams London sold for £5,000 ($6,546) in June 2015, Ward notes, “It’s really well made, with a beautiful surface and beautiful feel. It’s sculptural. She mastered the neo-classical form that was the fashion of her day. She went all-out for this one. She’s a really competent bright-cut engraver.”

The market for antique English silver is likely to chug along as it has been, with the most desirable pieces pulling farther and farther away from the mundane ones. But silver delivers an immediacy that other antiques cannot, and that might someday rekindle a wider interest in the material. “Silver is a great connection to the past,” Sell says. “It’s a tangible thing that you can handle. Dinner parties have been given with it for hundreds of years. You can participate in that tradition. Using the pieces lets you get involved. There’s nothing like holding a great piece of silver.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Weighty Matters Mon, 28 Aug 2017 19:56:51 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Decorative paperweights made in the 19th century not only imposed order on unruly documents, they put the world in a tiny “dome of many-coloured glass.”

Clichy piedouche paperweight with amber staves.

Clichy piedouche paperweight with amber staves.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Various paperweights New England Glass Company carpet ground paperweight Mount Washington strawberry magnum paperweight Clichy piedouche paperweight with amber staves. Clichy Pink Swirl paperweight Concentric millefiori mushroom paperweight with facets, New England Glass Company

Let’s be crystal clear up front—you don’t need an antique paperweight, but no one would blame you for falling in love with them. “If someone came in and said, ‘I want to hold down paper,’ I’d say, ‘Go around the corner to Central Park and get a rock. If that’s the sole purpose, you’d do better getting a heavy object,’” says Jack Feingold of Gem Antiques in Manhattan, adding, “I put antique paperweights in the same class as art glass.”

The finest antique paperweights, or “weights” as those in the know call them, continue to bewitch people more than a century after their golden age ended. Though the basic concept behind the paperweight wasn’t new in the 19th century, and the glass-making techniques used to make them weren’t new either, they caught the West’s cultural imagination around 1845 because the right elements happened to line up. Venetian glassmaker Pietro Bigaglia deserves credit for lighting the metaphorical match that started the fire. His display at the 1845 Vienna Industrial Exposition featured several glass paperweights that drew their visual appeal from millefiori, a technique that bunched dozens upon dozens of colorful glass rods inside a dome of clear glass. A member of the Paris Chamber of Commerce swung by his booth and saw a whole lot more than a pleasing setup.

“The French, I think, saw a marketing opportunity,” says Jan Mirenda Smith, executive director of the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah, Wis. “The French glass industry was at a lull, and they were looking to boost the market. They came out with desk accessories, and paperweights were one of the first things they manufactured, along with letter openers, inkwells, and letter seals.” Smith points out other facts that probably helped paperweights have their big moment: paper was becoming cheaper in the 1840s, and the first postage stamps appeared in 1840, trends that encouraged people to write more letters. Also, Victorian householders had to open windows to regulate the temperature, which let in breezes that could wreak havoc on a paper-laden desk. A handsome weight guarded the carefully organized stacks and maintained order.

But a fine paperweight was much more than a tool to anchor a sheaf of documents—it was a status symbol. “In the 19th century, it was a sign of wealth,” says Ben Clark of L.H. Selman, a gallery in Chicago. “It was like having an iPhone now. If you had a fine paperweight on a fine stack of papers, you were at another level.”

Consider also that the paperweight took off in a pre-Internet age when colorful distractions were far fewer and harder to come by. The lavishly detailed glass objects fit perfectly in the atmosphere of a world’s fair or a grand exposition—the closest thing that the 19th century had to the staggering information overload that we in the 21st deal with every day. Also consider that paperweights were probably the first objects to play an all-important role within the modern office: the role of the time-waster. Victorians didn’t have smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, television, radio, water coolers, March Madness brackets, koosh balls, or fidget spinners to distract them from the dull reality of their work, but they did have these gorgeously complex pieces of glass sitting within easy reach, tempting them like the sirens singing to Odysseus’s sailors. “Part of the charm and the intimacy was to hold them in your hand,” says Paul Dunlop of the Dunlop Collection, a gallery in Statesville, N.C. “You could look at a millefiore for hours. There are incredibly tiny details. You can put a whole world in a three-inch sphere.”

The French jumped to the front of the paperweight-making pack and stayed there until weights fell out of fashion in the 1860s. Almost two centuries onward, collectors prefer those made by the three leading classic-era manufacturers, all of which are French: Baccarat, St. Louis, and Clichy. “Good American weights sell for a lot of money, but the French produced a lot of tremendously good weights. In general, the record prices are still going to be French,” says Alan Kaplan of Leo Kaplan in Manhattan. “The most expensive American weight is five figures, but the record is a Clichy basket that sold for a quarter of a million dollars in 1990. Nothing else approaches it.”

While collectors of antique paperweights love all of the French brands, they love Clichy a little bit more. In its time, the company was an upstart that challenged the longer-established glassmakers Baccarat and St. Louis. It also had the shortest lifespan of the three, winking into being around 1840 and disappearing four decades later. “Clichy made fewer pieces, and their designs are distinctive,” says Smith. “Their colorations are probably a bit more sensitive and delicate.” Dunlop, who was an artist before he fell under the spell of paperweights, agrees. “Clichy is favored by about 90 percent of collectors. By far, they were the best colorists with glass. There’s a better sense of color, and a lot more color, and the range of color is amazing, from really soft pastels to indigos and dark purples.”

Most antique paperweights are meant to be viewed from the top down, and they are generally displayed that way. The Arthur Rubloff Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago is considered one of the best in the world. In 2012 the museum expanded the permanent exhibition by adding eight new wall cases that increased the number of weights on view from 341 to 800. Arranged in formations of diamonds and circles, each paperweight is held in place by a sturdy white bracket. “The mounts are quite strong. We’re very lucky to have a team that’s skilled at installing all different kinds of challenging works of art,” says Leslie Fitzpatrick, assistant curator of European decorative arts at the Art Institute of Chicago, adding, “The paperweights are incredibly popular and a favorite among our longtime visitors.”

Heavy glass paperweights tend to survive the centuries well, though some have suffered more punishment than others. Clark recalls a tale told to him by a collector who went to India and visited a market: “He saw someone using a weight as a hammer. He picked it up, and it was a close pack millefiore Baccarat paperweight. He polished it and sold it. It had an internal crack, but it was pretty sturdy.”

The attitude toward polishing—refurbishing an antique paperweight that has suffered nicks and dings that might cloud the creation within—has shifted over time to favor the practice. “As a general rule, no one wants a weight with a lot of flaws in it. They don’t want a weight that’s chipped or scratched. Restorers can polish a weight and have it look like new,” says Feingold. “I’ve bought weights that are so scratched up I’ve got to polish them because you can’t see what’s in there. If it detracts from the design, you’ve got to pay the price and get it fixed.”

Alan Kaplan, son of the late paperweight dealer Leo Kaplan, has handled several thousand weights in his career and refrained from polishing just two: a unique and famous mid- 19th-century St. Louis example with a difficult-to-achieve overlay that resembles the pattern of gingham cloth, and a Clichy paperweight with a moss ground. Of the latter, he says, “It was the only important Clichy paperweight that was fully signed. The idea of doing anything with it… I just didn’t.” Both now belong to the Corning Museum of Glass.

The market for antique paperweights has been steady and is likely to remain so. The dealers report that it chugged ahead largely unscathed by the 2008 financial downturn, and it has not suffered the falloffs in interest that have afflicted other categories of decorative art. But it is not immune to the stratification that appears across the realms of art, antiques, and collectibles—prices for truly exceptional weights are pulling away from those of the good and the middling. “Valuable pieces are valuable because they are rare,” Dunlop says. “I can sell a valuable piece 10 times as easily as I did 30 years ago.”

And even though they are a specific product of a specific, long-gone moment in time, 19th-century paperweights still speak to us. While our Victorian forbears craved visual excitement when they looked at a well-made weight, we enjoy the chance to sit still and contemplate a magnificent work of artistry. “It goes back to their beauty, and the ability to hold them in the hand and look at them,” says Smith. “Glass still has that magic to it. It’s cool to the touch, the roundness of the form, all the things to look at—it becomes magical to people.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Art for Art’s Sake Wed, 28 Jun 2017 22:26:33 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Art Nouveau ceramics market is ready to welcome a new collecting generation.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Cosmic Firestorm, circa 1895,

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Cosmic Firestorm, circa 1895, earthenware, 10 x 8 in.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Zsolnay vase, Tall Flowering Tree with Roots, Pécs Theodor Hermann Schmuz-Baudiss for KPM, Winter Vase, 1914 T.A.C. Colenbrander, Earthly Delights Vase Pair, 1921 Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat, La Vague, 1898–1900 Louis Majorelle, gourd vase, circa 1900 Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Cosmic Firestorm, circa 1895, Clément Massier, round ceramic decorative charger

If there’s one thing that unites Art Nouveau ceramics collectors, it’s this: They are driven by an intense love for the unique, particular beauty of these objects. Certainly, an appreciation for an art form’s beauty forms the basis of any art collection, but so often, there are other motives. There’s the drive to possess. The desire to support a museum or institution by building a collection and then giving it away. A quest for intellectual satisfaction. The hopes that certain pieces will prove to be good investments.

In Art Nouveau ceramics, these other motives generally appear to be muted. Instead, those who find themselves haunting galleries, auction houses, and antiques shows in search of pieces by greats like Louis Majorelle, Clément Massier, and Paul Dachsel are moved by a deep-seated response to the work’s exquisite beauty and the almost primal liberation of form.

Art Nouveau, as a movement, lasted just about 20 years, from 1890 to 1910. Characterized by an emphasis on natural forms, asymmetry, and curvilinearity, Art Nouveau—like the nearly contemporaneous Arts and Crafts movement in the decorative arts—challenged the idea that artwork belonged only in the salons and academies. Artists working in this style sought to bring beauty into everyday objects that people actually lived with. “Art Nouveau was the most democratic of all the previous art forms,” says Jerry Suqi, owner of Galerie Fledermaus in Chicago. “It was a revolt against industrialization, and the ugliness that ensued from it. Really it was the final rebellion against what’s happening now: an essentially disposable culture.”

Tiffany lamps, ceramic vases, and amphora, floral architectural iron and metalwork—these were all examples of Art Nouveau’s insistence that beauty belonged to the public. It was, in many ways, an art movement for the middle class, which itself was just coming into its own as a result of the Machine Age. During this time, middle-class people were earning disposable income and enjoying hours of leisure and recreation. They finally had the time and the resources to purchase art for their homes.

As Ben Macklowe, owner of Macklowe Gallery in New York and a frequent lecturer on Art Nouveau, says in his lecture Art Nouveau: A Jewel in Every Medium, “I really believe that the artists of this period made a definitive choice not to be painters, not to be sculptors of grand marble, but instead to work in the applied arts that people lived with. So that makes it a very definitive break with what came before.” Perhaps it’s this aspect of Art Nouveau ceramics—their purpose as objects for the home, to imbue one’s daily life with meaning and pleasure—that explains collectors’ enduring connection with the medium.

It’s difficult to make broad generalizations about Art Nouveau ceramics collecting, because there are many different styles within the artistic movement. However, gallery owners have their own observations on how Art Nouveau ceramics collectors tend to divide themselves. Macklowe Gallery, for instance, has been dealing in Art Nouveau ceramics and decorative arts for more than 40 years and is one of the world’s foremost dealers of museum-quality decorative artworks from the Art Nouveau period. Once you’re hooked on Art Nouveau ceramics, Macklowe says, you’ll likely find yourself drawn to one of several particular styles. One is the more traditional style of fine porcelain that mainly came out of Sèvres in France, as well as the Rorstrand Company in Sweden. These pieces are largely botanical in nature, depicting delicate flowers, vines, and other vegetation. “They’re exceptionally beautiful, and very expensive,” Macklowe says. “They’ve always attracted collectors.”

Another group of collectors is drawn to the Japonist works by great European Art Nouveau masters. The wave of interest in Asian art forms, or Japonisme, that hit Europe in the late 19th century affected ceramics artists, too, and many studied the building and glazing techniques that Japanese artists had been using for centuries. “They were very influenced by the aesthetics,” Macklowe says. “Asymmetry instead of symmetry, drip glazes, pieces that look like they’re collapsing in on themselves. For a long time these weren’t so popular in our collecting circles, but in the last 15 years they’ve come into their own.” Then there are the collectors who are drawn to amphora and the more flamboyant design elements that many of us think of when we think of Art Nouveau. “The beasts, the dragonflies, the maidens, all that stuff that you see with the amphora—that’s a different collector still.”

However, there’s another side to Art Nouveau ceramics: a more experimental, exotic side epitomized by the Zsolnay company, a Hungarian manufacturer of ceramics and stoneware. Zsolnay ceramics of the Art Nouveau period are innovative, unique, and sometimes even strange. You may find pitchers with undulating necks, amphora that look like a grove of trees, vessels covered in whiplash curves. One of Zsolnay’s most important innovations, however, was the creation of a metallic, shiny glaze called eosin. This glaze gives many Zsolnay pieces a certain otherworldliness. It’s this quality that appeals to New York-based private dealer James Infante, who specializes in French and Eastern European Art Nouveau ceramics, particularly Zsolnay.

“I fell in love with Zsolnay ceramics early on, the first few times I saw them,” Infante says. “That time period, from the 1890s to right before World War I, was so fertile. It is amazing that the factories and the artistic directors around that time gave such latitude to these wonderful ceramics artists to do their own thing. I really think these pieces are timeless.” Indeed, it’s these “timeless,” exceptionally high-quality pieces that are currently still fetching high prices at auctions, antiques shows, and galleries.

“The middle of the market is pretty weak,” says Art Nouveau authority and global dealer Jason Jacques. He’s spent years as a participant in and observer of the market in Art Nouveau ceramics, and holds one of the largest, most expansive collections of European and Japonist Art Nouveau works in the art world. While mid-range Art Nouveau ceramics have gone down in price over the past decade or so—making it ripe and ready for newer collectors to enter the market—Jacques, as well as several other gallery owners, remark that the finest pieces by the great masters are valued extremely highly. They’re also becoming more difficult to find. “There isn’t a whole lot of undiscovered material left,” Jacques says. Infante agrees. “When great pieces come up, they sell quickly for high prices. If at any given time, at any given place in the world, I wanted to buy one, it would be very, very hard to find one.”

And yet it’s these fine pieces that people want. Suqi says that Art Nouveau ceramics collectors today are looking for pieces that are both of their period and transcend the period. “The hyper-Art Nouveau pottery has fallen out of favor. The ones that have more purity are the ones that still have a lot of appeal.” That purity he describes is really a kind of integrity of form, even if that form is unusual or innovative. “You look at the pots that are really pure and the glaze highlights the form, and form highlights the glaze. It’s a real relationship.”

Most often, this relationship is best expressed in works that we don’t immediately think of as Art Nouveau. “A lot of pottery—the amphora, these female forms, the ones that are very much in the Art Nouveau style—although beautiful, they don’t really sustain you. They’re lovely at first. But they’re not challenging,” Suqi says. “There are more of the French studio ceramics, the German studio ceramics that do hold your interest for much longer. Sure, there are some really beautiful pots that unfurl themselves in their totality all at once. But the really sophisticated stuff takes a long-term relationship.”

Depending on whom you ask, you’ll get different answers as to which artists are most worthy of that kind of long-term relationship. For Infante, the Austrian Paul Dachsel is a favorite. “He executed such incredible designs, futuristic designs,” Infante says. “His pieces sometimes look like they come from some alien world. I think he’s so underrated.”

Speaking of underrated, there’s another type of Art Nouveau ceramics that is not nearly as celebrated as the French, Hungarian, and other European works: American pottery of the same time period. American ceramics from this era are generally not referred to as Art Nouveau—according to Jacques, American Art Nouveau does not exist—but American artists were responding to many of the same outside forces that European artists were. The Americans were also heavily influenced by many of the great European Art Nouveau masters and incorporated some of that aesthetic, as well as many of the techniques, into their own work.

David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions in Lambertville, N.J., is one dealer who especially appreciates American ceramics from the early 20th century. Most of his collectors collect American works, and he sees a strong Art Nouveau influence in the American ceramics, as well as interesting adaptations. “To me, in many ways the Americans adapted Art Nouveau, blended it with Arts and Crafts, and came up with a relatively staid, restrained response to the Art Nouveau movement,” he says. “The American works from this time are less curvilinear and, I think, of higher quality at their pinnacle.”

Whether your tastes lean toward American or European, classic Art Nouveau or the more experimental, one thing is for certain. Upon entering into this world, you’ll find a great deal of passion for the art itself. “Art Nouveau is not a trend,” Jacques says. “Nobody’s following anyone else into this rabbit hole because it’s in vogue, or in the magazines. People who love Art Nouveau are obsessed.”

By Elizabeth Pandolfi

Jean Schlumberger: Out of the Box Fri, 28 Apr 2017 19:01:55 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A collection of Jean Schlumberger’s avant-garde jewelry designs goes on view in Virginia.

Jean Schlumberger, Leaves (Necklace)

Jean Schlumberger, Leaves (Necklace), 1956, platinum, 18-karat gold, turquoise and diamond

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Jean Schlumberger, Mermaid Jean Schlumberger, Obelisk Jean Schlumberger, Blue Shell Jean Schlumberger and Tiffany and Company, Pisces Jean Schlumberger, Leaves (Necklace) Jean Schlumberger and Tiffany and Company, Jellyfish

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ current exhibition “The Rachel Lambert Mellon Collection of Jean Schlumberger” (through June 18) gives viewers a peek inside a fashionable 20th-century jewelry collection. Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon, the second wife of Paul Mellon, collected jewelry and objects by Jean Schlumberger while the French designer had his own salon at Tiffany & Co.’s Fifth Avenue headquarters. Schlumberger, who began his career in France, became a darling of the postwar American fashion and society set, counting Jacqueline Kennedy, Diana Vreeland, and Elizabeth Taylor as friends and patrons. The exhibition at the VMFA, which is located in Richmond, features 142 bracelets, earrings, rings, clips, and accessories designed by Schlumberger during the 1950s and ’60s, the bulk of which are from a 2015 gift of 113 pieces of jewelry from the Mellon collection (the rest is from prior gifts of hers). However, rather than depict Mellon’s trove as a treasure chest lined with glitzy accessories or Schlumberger’s work as the bejeweled, wearable candy of ladies who lunch, the show rightfully positions Mellon’s cache as an ambitious art collection and Schlumberger’s innovative pieces as Modernist design objects.

Mellon, who died in 2014 at the age of 103, was one of the last members of the American aristocracy that Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about. She was an heiress to the Listerine fortune, a philanthropist, and an avid and skillful horticulturalist who often created gardens for high-profile friends and donated commissions to charity. While First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy asked Mellon to redesign the White House Rose Garden (which Mellon crafted in the French style using American botanical varieties), for which she was given the Conservation Service Award in 1966. In 1948, her fortune grew substantially when she married Paul Mellon, her second husband and the only son of Andrew W. Mellon, one of the wealthiest financiers in the world.

Together, the Mellons created a distinctive art collection. Though it was decidedly out of fashion in mid-20th-century American collections, the couple pursued French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. A special wing of the VMFA, for which Mr. Mellon served as a long-time board member, was built in 1985 to house the couple’s gift of important works by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre Bonnard, and nearly every other big name of the era, as well as Mr. Mellon’s collection of British sporting art and American art. Mrs. Mellon was an early champion of Mark Rothko (she first purchased his canvases off his studio floor), and the 2014 sale of her art collection at Sotheby’s included Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955) and Untitled (1970). The sale, which also included several works by Richard Diebenkorn, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Edward Hopper, as well as Old Master paintings, realized $158.7 million (against a presale estimate of $121 million), with all 43 works selling. In a New York Times article about Sotheby’s subsequent auction of 2,000 of Mrs. Mellon’s personal and decorative items, her friend the writer Marina Rust is quoted as saying, “[Mellon] could have had anything she wanted, but she surrounded herself with just what she loved.”

Mrs. Mellon gave the VMFA pieces of tableware and decorative art objects from her Schlumberger collection in 1985, 1999, and 2006. The 2015 gift, a bequest of over 100 pieces of jewelry, which made the VMFA the largest and most comprehensive public collection of Schlumberger jewelry and art objects in the world, was a surprise. “We were not advised to expect anything further and we were quite happy with what we had,” says Mitchell Merling, the VMFA’s Paul Mellon Curator and Head of the Department of European Art as well as the curator of the exhibition, “so when we were notified of Mrs. Mellon’s bequest after she died, we were surprised and delighted to receive a collection of her jewelry.”

Mellon and Schlumberger moved in somewhat similar circles. The collector counted many artists and designers as friends, notably Cristóbal Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy, who designed Mellon’s wardrobe, including her gardening smocks. “It’s well known that she surrounded herself with creative people,” says Merling. Schlumberger, who was born in Mulhouse, France and came from a long line of prosperous textile manufacturers, was a member of the European avant-garde. His early jewelry pieces, which were made of found porcelain flowers, attracted the attention of Surrealist fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, and he fell in with the Surrealist crowd in the 1930s, which included Picasso and Stravinsky. He created buttons and jewelry for Schiaparelli, often from found materials like feathers, chains, wood, and plastic. In 1939, Léonor Fini painted his portrait. In New York, his circle expanded. In 1941, he created his Trophée de Vaillaince broach for Diana Vreeland, then a columnist for Harper’s Bazaar. Vreeland, who would become perhaps the most influential fashion editor in history, described the diamond, amethyst, ruby, and enamel brooch, which featured several martial accoutrements, by saying, “It’s exciting. A Schlumberger lights up the whole room!” From there, his clientele and friends grew to include Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark (later the Duchess of Kent), Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Babe Paley, and Gloria Vanderbilt.

Mellon and Schlumberger first met in 1954, in the Upper East Side townhouse the designer turned into a shop. Schlumberger and his business partner Nicolas Bongard, a childhood friend and the nephew of pioneering French fashion designer Paul Poiret, had opened a jewelry workshop on Fifth Avenue (near 57th Street) before World War II, and reestablished their New York store on East 63rd Street after the war. Two years after meeting Mellon, Schlumberger was made a signature designer at Tiffany’s & Co., and he and Bongard were appointed vice presidents of an independent department inside the Fifth Avenue flagship store. Schlumberger would work with the company for 30 years.

Schlumberger and Mellon forged an affectionate relationship and partnership. “There was a great deal of collaboration,” says Merling, “but we don’t know exactly how that worked and who suggested what to whom.” It is known that for the most part, the decorative objects in Mellon’s collection were made on her commission, while the jewelry was largely prêt-à-porter, with certain details or stones being customized to her specifications. The VMFA has a collection of sketches of the objects, which were kept by Mellon (the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Oak Spring Garden Library, on Mellon’s former estate in Virginia, have the rest of Schlumberger’s sketches).

The sketches reveal just how intuitive art making was to Schlumberger. One graphite and watercolor sketch—the study for the rock crystal Obelisk (1970–71), a one-of-a-kind object and a standout of the show—manages to blend Chrysler Building-esque Art Deco with the mechanical minimalism of Dan Flavin’s preparatory sketches. Schlumberger, who was an adept draftsman, was never formally trained in art or design. Yet, his designs, though replete with organic forms, bear a technical precision. “He has a sort of inventor’s way of thinking,” says Merling, “and he was experimenting with that in a way other jewelers were not.” This can be seen in Schlumberger’s Sautoir necklace (late 1960s), a coral bead, diamond, and enamel piece that has detachable segments. Another innovation, the Jellyfish (La Méduse) brooch—an 18-karat gold, platinum, moonstone, diamond, and sapphire piece made in 1967—has tentacles that move as if the brooch were floating in the ocean.

It stands to reason that one of the strongest links between the artist and his patron was a shared love of nature. Mellon turned her main residence, Oak Spring Farms in Upperville, Va., into a nearly encyclopedic horticultural and botanical archive and sanctuary. Schlumberger was particularly inspired by a 1954 trip to Bali and spent time in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines sketching his tropical surroundings. Flora, fauna, and sea life around his home in Bisdary, Guadeloupe, a French island territory in the Caribbean, often found their way into designs. Countless pieces in the collection exemplify this shared interest. Butterflies (1956), a bracelet fashioned in amethyst, sapphires, turquoise, peridot, yellow diamonds, diamonds, colored stones, 18-karat gold and platinum, was designed with Mellon’s input. The bracelet employs en tremblant setting, which uses small hidden springs to attach the butterflies (each designed differently and made of different materials) to the openwork band, so that the butterflies appear to be fluttering when the wearer moves. Mellon had two of these specially designed bracelets, which can join by their clasps to form a choker. The Jasmine (Breath of Spring) necklace (1966)—a confection of colored sapphires, diamonds, 18-karat gold, and platinum—was not designed specifically for Mellon, though the example in this collection, which has 211 carats of gemstones, was made for her. The incredibly intricate piece features a gold vine, heavy with bejeweled blossoms, wrapping around ribbons of diamonds. Flower Pot (1960), features an extremely rare 94-karat Kashmir sapphire (from the deposits of northern India and Pakistan) as the center of a gold flower planted in a terracotta seedling pot from Mellon’s Virginia garden. Mellon ordered a detachable diamond clip mounting for the object so it could be worn as a brooch.

“Schlumberger was always thought of as a second Fabergé,” says Merling, “but one of the points of this exhibition is to caution that reading. Fabergé was looking to the past, whereas Schlumberger was not.” The curator considers Schlumberger “high modernist” for his lack of references and his innovative use of materials: “He was making modern jewelry for modern life.” Perhaps Schlumberger described his work best. He said, “For me, the art of the jewel is above all a means of expression with possibilities of pure and durable beauty, which go beyond the usual framework of Fashion.”

By Sarah E. Fensom