‘A designer’s designer’: NY exhibit showcases Chareau
More than a decade before Philip Johnson designed his iconic Glass House, French designer and architect Pierre Chareau designed the Maison de Verre in 1932 in Paris. It featured one of the world’s first glass-brick exterior walls — three stories high.
Chareau’s work straddles industrial aesthetics and traditional fine craftsmanship, clean spare lines and playful 1920s whimsy. He made futuristic gadgets like folding staircases, a pivoting bidet and sliding walls. His furniture, with elegant woods and hand-wrought iron, was made for the few and the wealthy. Many pieces fold or have multiple uses, designed for small but chic Paris apartments.
It was a gemlike world soon to be violently dismantled with the start of World War II, and Chareau, despite moving to New York to flee the war, has remained little known in the United States.
An exhibit, Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design, billed as the first in the US to focus on him, is on view at The Jewish Museum in Manhattan through March 26. It was organized by guest curator Esther da Costa Meyer, professor of the history of modern architecture at Princeton University, in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It will not travel beyond New York.
The show is accompanied by a hefty and richly illustrated book with essays by a half-dozen leading scholars. Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design, was pub-
lished in 2016 by The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press.
“Chareau is the most invisible of the great designers, because outside of France, there are less than a dozen pieces by him on view in museums anywhere in the world. It’s all in private collections,” says da Costa Meyer. “And the most famous masterpiece he did, the Maison de Verre, has always been in private hands and is not visible from the street. He is really known by designers.”
Chareau worked in “the golden age of French design before the Depression, and he was trained in that grand tradition,” she says. “He was one of the leaders of the early trend to modernize. He was also known in his day as a patron of the arts, so we reunited here some of his (collection).”
Through over 180 rarely seen works from public and private collections in the US and Europe, the exhibit brings Chareau’s world of Paris luxe to life. Furniture displays are enhanced by an enormous white screen behind them on which shad-
ow-like silhouettes of imagined residents come and go, complete with shadow cigarette smoke and the enthusiastic tail wags of a passing shadow dog.
In another gallery, rustling leaves and glinting sunlight, visible through virtual reality goggles, bring visitors into Chareau’s Paris study, an apartment he designed, and a salon and courtyard of the elegant Maison de Verre, designed with Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoet. Those elements add context and movement to the furniture.
The exhibit employs a large-scale digital installation that lets you experience different sections of the Maison de Verre as if moving through it. Film footage of actors strolling through the house using Chareau-designed gadgets adds to the experience. Floor plans are projected onto walls, making the space appear continually spliced, deconstructed, revealed and then reconstructed.
“Chareau has almost no surviving interiors, since most of them were destroyed. And the furniture feels a bit orphaned in and of itself,”
explains Liz Diller, founding partner of Diller Scofidio and Renfro, the firm that designed the exhibit. “So we brought back the domestic life and the feel of the furniture in situ ..”
When the Maison de Verre was built, she says, “it was very radical. ... The exposed steel columns could be a beautiful contemporary loft.”
Artisan at work
Chareau rose to prominence in early 1920s Paris with interior designs that were both elegant and functional. The pieces featured rare woods, alabaster (for lamps), and exotic elements like touches of ivory or sharkskin. Many of his designs featured leopard-skin rugs, with expanses of silk or velvet curtains as wall coverings.
Chareau’s works were custommade, not mass-produced, and made use of France’s artisanal traditions of metal, woodwork and tapestry-making.
He designed for a cultured urban elite, and many of his clients, including painters, sculptors and composers, were Jewish. Although Chareau was raised Catholic, his mother
came from a Sephardic Jewish family and his wife Dollie, also a designer, was Jewish. With the German occupation of Paris in 1940, the couple, like many of their clients, fled to the United States.
The show explores the enduring consequences of that flight from persecution, including the dispersal of many of his works during the war; his own collection of art, including works by Mondrian and Modigliani; and his attempts to rebuild his career in New York in the 1940s.
By then, the world of European luxe to which he catered had vanished. In New York, he lacked the pool of skilled French artisans with whom he was used to working. And aside from an East Hampton, Long Island, house that he designed for artist Robert Motherwell in 1947 — and which was later destroyed — he obtained few commissions here.
“He basically did odd jobs, and he and his wife had no children, so once they had died, everything was gone. We have tried to put some of it together again here,” da Costa Meyer says. “He was truly a designer’s designer.”