Behind the Velvet Rope
Curators have rediscovered the art of showing objects in context
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 6/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Peter Marino believes that "pieces of furniture were not designed to be looked at with a magnifying glass, all by themselves. It's not very nice to the objects." A growing number of curators apparently agree. Major shows have begun to incorporate three-dimensional settings that put historic materials in context, rather than lining them up as if for a firing squad. When objects are sympathetically framed, the Interior Design Hall of Fame member argues, "You get a fuller emotional response."
Last year, he put his money where his mouth is, footing the bill for a permanent Pierre Chareau installation at the newly reopened Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Dismantled for decades, the hypothetical ambassador's office-library was designed in 1925 for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Curved bookshelves hug the perimeter of the virtually round room as they roll around on tracks and ball bearings. Overhead, a skylight's fanlike shutter blades crank open to let sun shine onto the central desk.
Marino pronounces the effect—luxuriously rendered in palm wood—to be "very sportif," and he should know. When he slips behind the velvet rope to play with the shutters' crank or shove the shelves around, no one complains. As he points out, "My name is in giant letters outside."
Unfortunately, relatively few worthy rooms find their Marino in time. Maybe furniture is too portable—easily pitched into the trash, sold when an owner dies or a company fails. Furthermore, with auction prices stratospheric, historic interiors can be worth more money broken up.
"Le Corbusier: Art and Architecture—A Life of Creativity," now at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, was assembled from both public and corporate collections, under the guidance of such superstar Corb fans as Tadao Ando, Arata Isozaki, and Fumihiko Maki. Advertised under the banner of "Experience Le Corbusier Firsthand in His 120th Year," the show greets visitors with a walk-in model of the master's Paris atelier. Farther on, to contextualize a Charlotte Perriand kitchen from his Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, France, the Mori has constructed a two-story replica of one of the building's apartments, right down to the Jean Prouvé stair.
Sometimes, "context" can be more theoretical. For the recent Salone Internazionale del Mobile, fair organizer Cosmit and Milan's cultural-affairs commission asked curators to celebrate the past 100 years of Italian heritage by staging vignettes keyed to the major aesthetic and cultural movements of the 20th century. The result, "Room With a View," brings together a veritable who's who of furniture and art at the 18th-century Palazzo Reale.
Even with insufficient space and resources to create complete "rooms," the experiment bears witness to the power of carefully edited groupings. A fanciful majolica masterpiece of a vase by painter and ceramist Galileo Chini helps visitors get their heads around the layered, decadent fantasy of Carlo Bugatti's Orientalist confections. At the same time, a Bugatti suite of furniture detailed with painted parchment—so far from the functionalist ideals worshipped later in the century—brings Chini's brand of exoticism into focus. "Who contextualizes whom?" planning curator Manolo de Giorgi asks rhetorically.
Tate Modern chief curator Sheena Wagstaff recalls the decades when period rooms were being ripped out. Thankfully, that mania never did serious damage at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, an early adopter of showing modern design—not just antiques—in context. Since 1982, you've been able to walk into Frank Lloyd Wright's earthy, organic living room from the Little House, built in 1914 in Minnesota.
The Met won't let you sit in thewhite-oak armchairs or tweak the arrangements of artificial foliage—but the city's Bard Graduate Center recently took an unusually hands-on approach for "Bruno Mathsson: Designer and Architect." In addition to displaying objects conventionally, on pedestals with labels, exhibition designers Anna von Schewen and Bjorn Dahlström reimagined the lanai of Mathsson's own summerhouse from 1960. Many of the designs were current production pieces, and small signs read, "Visitors are welcome to sit in the furniture."
Mathsson's lounge chairs were pulled up to a surprisingly low square table; only once you'd sat down did you understand that it was for relaxed dining. There was no summer breeze, of course, but his ergonomic forms proved deliciously comfortable, especially a curvy bentwood chaise smothered in sheepskin.
Surrounding the summerhouse installation, Bard's gallery walls remained white. Not so at the Neue Galerie New York during "Josef Hoffmann: Interiors, 1902-1913." To present virtually complete historical rooms from Vienna, Berlin, and Geneva, curator Christian Witt-Dörring augmented the museum's typical display technique—and took out the paintbrushes and stencils. A 1905 dining room's elaborate checkered border, near the ceiling, lowered its apparent height and lent intimacy to the strictly geometric ebonized-oak furniture.
One 1902 bedroom vignette combined yellow-painted walls with maple-veneered furniture, stained brown. The pieces were borrowed for a spell from a family whose grandchildren are still sleeping in those beds a century later. Talk about a passion for period rooms.