‘A de­signer’s de­signer’: NY ex­hibit show­cases Chareau

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FASHION - By ASSOCIATED PRESS in New York

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.

‘Most in­vis­i­ble’

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).”

Paris love

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.”

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