Category Archives: Design

Patched with Plastic

I was planning a post on tax collectors for this Tax Day, but it got too overwhelming and too depressing: as one of Lucifer’s Four Evangelists (with the usurer, the banker, and the miller (???), the tax man has been reviled for centuries, and depicted in images and prose in all sorts of unflattering ways. I don’t think anyone wants to see paintings of tax collectors on the day their returns are due, even if they are the creations of Renaissance artists (who seem to have a singular obsessions with tax farmers). So instead, I’m offering LEGO art!

T, The New York Times Style Magazine has some interesting features in its latest edition, despite a thematic focus on minimalism (not my favorite style). There is a lot of texture in the magazine, and one particular photograph stopped me in my tracks: an ancient, crumbling wall, patched with plastic. The close proximity of very new and very old is my favorite aesthetic, so I had to see more of the work of artist Jan Vormann.

Lego

Jan Vormann/© 2014 ARS, New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

At first glance, I thought the above image was photoshopped but no, as his website and this Daily Telegraph article make clear, Vormann travels the real world and places bright LEGO blocks in the midst of conspicuous decay, drawing attention to buildings and places as part of a “Repair Manifesto”. He wants onlookers to see the holes, question why they are there, and seek their repair–except perhaps where they serve as constant reminders, as in the case of the bullet and shrapnel destruction of Berlin. How I wish he would come to Salem! We need the colorful and constant reminders of our past, and the manifesto to repair.

Vormann Berlin-001

Vorrman NYC Bryant Park NYC-001

Vormann Venice

Vorrmann Bamberg

Lego “repairs” in Berlin, New York City, Venice and Vormann’s hometown of Bamberg, Germany: JAN VORMANN / BARCROFT USA and Dispatchwork.

 

 


The Prince of Chintz under Pressure

The very first old house which enchanted me–and still does–is the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vermont, where I lived as a child. It’s a pink Gothic Revival confection, perfect in every way, and perfectly preserved. Here in Salem, we have several notable Gothic Revival houses, including conspicuous examples that were captured by Walker Evans when he passed through town and an Andrew Jackson Downing design that I walk by every day on the way to work. And then of course there is the gothicized Pickering House. All of these houses are very well-maintained: people who buy Gothic Revival houses really have to make a commitment to their preservation because the style is characterized by intricate exterior and interior detail and for the most part they do make this commitment, with the very notable apparent exception of Mario Buatta, the famous New York interior designer nicknamed the “Prince of Chintz”. In 1992, Mr Buatta purchased a very prominent Gothic Revival house located in a very prominent historic district:  the William H. Mason House (1845) in the midst of the Thompson Hill Historic District in Thompson, Connecticut. After some initial renovations he abandoned the project and the house, and its very prominent deterioration ensued. The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation placed the property on its Most Endangered list in 2004, and last summer an online petition was launched. Things heated up last month: with the cancellation of a scheduled appearance by Buatta on March 6 by Historic New England and an article in the New York Times in which one Thompson neighbor called the designer a “New York interior desecrater” and Buatta threatened to sell the house to a funeral parlor if the complaints don’t cease and desist. Closer to the scenethe Hartford Courant has published an article today which discusses the legal remedies open to preservationists (very interesting–involving environmental laws). “Demolition by neglect” has always been incomprehensible to me, except in situations of hardship–which clearly this is not. This particular case is even more difficult to understand: surely this notoriety is bad for Mr. Buatta’s business as well as his reputation. And this is a man who has served, or continues to serve for all I know, on the board of New York City’s Historic House Trust. Let’s hope that he comes to the decision to sell or save the Mason house soon.

Demolition by Neglect

Demolition by Neglect 1986-001

Demolition by Neglect Buatta

The William H. Mason House today and in 1986 (Hartford Courant and Gregory Andrews for the National Registry of Historic Places, 1986; a watercolor sketch of Mr. Buatta lounging in a Gothic-esque bed, Konstantin Kakanias for the New York Times (pinched from this great post at the Down East Dilettante).


A New Storefront in Salem

If you’ve read this blog for any time at all you know that I am a traditionalist when it comes to architecture, and a committed preservationist, but there’s a new storefront on Essex Street, Salem’s main thoroughfare since its foundation, which has definitely caught my eye–and it is very sleek and very modern. As a main street, for nearly four centuries, Essex Street has had to change with the times, and this particular block lost its really old structures long ago–in the past century it was home to two adjacent movie theaters, one which looks like it was a real palace (the Empire), and another which was a more modest mid-century construction (the Salem). The building with the bold new storefront was built in 1929 in a Colonial Revival style, complete with urns on top–like a McIntire fence! Its shiny new facade actually  has a bit more integrity, I think, and hopefully draws a great new tenant.

Storefront 008

Storefront 009

Storefront 012

Storefront Essex

Storefront MACRIS 299

Storefront Empire

The 390s block of Essex Street, present and past.

 


Decorative Directions

Samuel Emery (1787-1882) made compasses and other nautical and mathematical instruments here in Salem for more than half a century–both during and after the city’s great age of sail. His work can still be seen today, at auctions and in museums, but most often in museum shops. Recently I stumbled across one, and then another and another, reproduced and transformed into pendants and pins. What made Emery’s compasses so decorative? It’s not the fleur-de-lis marking north–that is traditional from the fourteenth century when French makers used a fancy “T”, resembling a flower, to mark the north wind or Tramontana. The two surveyors’ compasses below are nearly identical and were both made by Salem craftsman: the one on the left by John Jayne and the smaller one on the right by Emery, both sold at Skinner auctions.

Emery label Harvard-001

PicMonkey Collage

Samuel Emery Box Label, Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University.

I’m sure Emery’s instruments were well-made or he wouldn’t have been in business for as long as he was, but his designs look pretty conventional for their time. I suspect that the reason Emery’s compasses are still for sale is the original copper plate in the possession of the Peabody Essex Museum, enabling fresh and adapted impressions and models to be made, as well as the traditional appeal of the compass rose (first in maritime communities, then more broadly), which has emblazoned textiles, pottery, and other decorative accessories for centuries, so why not jewelry–among other things–now?

Compass Rose Brooch PEMCompass Rosette Brooch Morgan

Compass Quilt NE Auctions

Compass Bowl Sunderland V and A

Compass Fabric Better than Jam

Compass Rose brooches from the PEM and Morgan shops (just click on the picture and you’ll get there); Early Connecticut pieced quilt with Mariner’s Compass, Northeast Auctions; Sunderland Pink Lustre bowl, c. 1820-1830, Victoria & Albert Museum; Better than Jam fabric.


Alice for the Ages

I’m a devoted aficionado of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which means I’m a fan not only of Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), but also of the illustrator John Tenniel, whose Alice is Alice: we cannot think of the story apart from his images–the words and the pictures are an inseparable whole. Tenniel produced illustrations for many, many more publications besides Alice and Through the Looking Glass during his long life (1820-1914), but his illustrations for Carroll are the ultimate examples of what book illustration should accomplish: the creation of a tangible world in which the text’s characters dwell. And don’t we all want to live in Wonderland, at least for a little while? As today marks Tenniel’s birthday, I thought I’d share some of his beautiful hand-colored proofs from the collection of the Morgan Library & Museum. These are for the 1889 abridged “Nursery Edition” of Alice, which, ironically, has a cover illustration by a different artist: Emily Gertrude Thomson. As you can see, Thomson’s Alice looks very much like Tenniel’s: she is Alice, after all.

Tenniel Nursery Alice

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tenniel_2005.197

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Sir John Tenniel’s hand-colored proofs for the “Nursery” edition of Alice, c. 1889; Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., 1987.


Double Faux

For some time I’ve been captivated by a covered cup and saucer in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: the pieces were made by the Niderviller Manufactory in France just before the Revolution but somehow the combination of two illusory design motifs–faux bois and trompe l’oeil–make them seem very modern to me. I love everything about them and want to learn more and see more.

Faux Bois MFA

It was relatively easy to find more faience from the Niderviller Manufactory: below are a plate dated 1774 in a French private collection and another at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, along with a tray and teapot dated the very same year in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Look at the little nail on the teapot, “tacking” the print to its surface–amazing! The Niderviller Factory was a rare pre-revolutionary aristocratic-owned operation situated in the Duchy of Lorraine where it was exempt from French laws protecting the royal monopoly of the Sèvres porcelain factory. Production at Niderviller commenced by 1750, but I seem to like the more whimsical creations of the 1773-93 period when the factory was owned by the Count de Custine. The Minneapolis plate below is signed by “J. Deutsch” which is a rather imprecise name–I wonder if this almost-anonymous artist was responsible for the other trompe l’oeil pieces? The signatures look similar on the Victoria & Albert tray and teapot. Despite the Count de Custine’s sympathy for both the American and French Revolutions, he was guillotined in 1793, but the Niderville Factory survived both the Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars and continues to operate today. Trompe l’oeil decoration was wildly popular in the eighteenth century, but the combination of “wood” and “paper” and ceramics is a little more unusual–though I did find a few more examples beyond Niderviller: an early nineteenth-century plate produced at the Imperial Vienna Porcelain Factory and a very rare “solitaire” set, also made in Vienna. I’m not as taken with these Vienna pieces: they lack the whimsy and detail (folded edges) of the Niderviller pieces.

faience-de-nidervillerDSC08907_medium

Faux Bois Minneapolis 1774

Faux Bois Tray V and A

Faux Bois Teapot V and A

Faux Bois Teapot V and A focus

Faux Bois Vienna Plate c. 1810 Victoria and Albert Museum

Faux Bois Trompe

This faux bois/faux papier decoration doesn’t have to be confined to ceramics, of course: we can and should go back–and forward. Both the faux bois and trompe l’oeil techniques seem to have been perfected in the seventeenth-century paintings of still-life artists like Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (c. 1630-after 1683) and Edwaert Colyer (or Collier, 1642-1708), which must have influenced the ceramic artists of the next century. The “wooden” background and affixed objects certainly seem very real in the former’s Trompe l’Oeil with Riding Whip and Letter Bag (1872), one of many “paneled” and “cabinet” paintings at the National Gallery of Denmark, and Colyer’s letter racks and “portraits” often have faux bois backgrounds (and folded corners).

Faux Bois Gijsbrechts Riding Whip 1872

Trompe l'Oeil Portrait of a Lady (oil on canvas)

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil with Riding Whip and Letter Barg, National Gallery of Denmark; Edwaert Colyer, Trompe l’Oeil Portrait of a Lady, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery.

Both faux bois and trompe l’oeil techniques continue to be expressed and adapted up to the present day, with varying degrees of detail and in various mediums–but combinations are a bit more rare. In the realm of ceramics, I have yet to see anything as appealing as the Niderviller pieces, but I’m always looking. ….so far the closest I’ve come–not too close at all, really—are plates in the “Texquite” pattern from Bongenre, made in that most modern of materials: melanine.

The One Key to It All

Faux Bois Texquite

Otis Kaye (1885-1974), The One Key to It All, 20th Century, Private Collection, photo © Christie’s Images / The Bridgeman Art Library; Melanine plate in the “Texquite” pattern, Bongenre.


Sun and Ice in Salem

A beautiful winter weekend for the 12th annual Salem’s So Sweet Chocolate & Ice Sculpture Festival.

There were lots of people downtown: I have no doubt that this Salem Main Streets event helps the restaurants at a quiet time of year (although Salem’s restaurant scene seems to be flourishing anyway); I really hope that it helps the shops too. The wine and chocolate tasting that kicks off the weekend is always such a crush that I skip it, but I would never miss the ice sculptures.

Ice 013

Ice 017

Ice 045

Seeing yellow:  this tree was full of fat yellow-breasted birds–finches? Mr. and Mrs. Pac-man; the Miles Ward looked especially lovely to me today.

Ice 023

Ice 019

Ice 026

Ice 034

Ice 038

Ice 048

It’s rather difficult to photograph ice, especially if there’s no background….my favorite sculpture is definitely that of the Salem Diner, acquired by Salem State University last summer and newly-reopened. On the way back home, I noticed that the Joshua Ward house is for sale: this is where George Washington slept when he visited Salem in 1789.

Ice 049


Emulating Salem

I’ve been trying for quite some time, in several posts, to place Salem squarely in the center of the Colonial Revival design movement of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries–and not just the artistic and academic movement, but also its more popular expressions. This is a continuing exploration, and as I am trained not as an art historian, or even an American historian, but a plain old English historian, I’m not sure that I’m searching in the right places or looking at the right sources. Right now I’m particularly interested in the broader impact of the period rooms installed in several major American museums after George Sheldon (at Deerfield in the 1880s) and George Francis Dow (at Salem’s Essex Institute in 1907) created the first period-room displays. By the 1920s and 1930s period rooms seem to have been assembled in most of the major American art museums, among them distinct Salem rooms such as that established by architectural historian Fiske Kimball at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1923 and the South Bedroom/later “McIntire Room” at Winterthur.

Salem Room Philadelphia MA

Salem Room Winterthur McIntire Room

The Salem and McIntire Rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Winterthur Museum.

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that you see advertisements for reproductions and adaptations of “Salem” furniture from this very same era, though the inspiration could be traced to many sources. Several major American furniture manufacturers, including Karpen Furniture and the Erskine-Danforth Corporation, produced entire lines of “Early American” reproductions. The latter’s Danersk line, advertised with accompanying Salem ships, seems like the very epitome of the popular Colonial Revival.

Salem Room

Salem Room 1928

The “Salem Room”: 1928 vignette by Edgar W. Jenney, who specialized in the depiction and reproduction of historical interiors and worked to preserved them–most notably on Nantucket.

Salem Room 1926p

Salem bed with border

1926 advertisements for Danersk Early American furniture, Erskine-Danforth Corporation.

It’s not really Salem-specific, but I can’t resist referencing the great 1948 Cary Grant/Myrna Loy film Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House here, because it both exemplifies and mocks the longstanding influence of the Colonial Revival in America. After an interior decorator (named Bunny Funkhouser!) sketches an over-the-top “Colonial” living-room redesign for the Blandings’ NYC apartment featuring a cobbler’s bench, pie safe, and spinning wheel, they decide to decamp for the real thing in Connecticut. When their authentic colonial is deemed unsound, they level it and build a neo-Colonial, a bit more refined than Funkhouser’s sketch certainly, but most definitely Colonial in inspiration and design. I can’t find a still of the Funkhouser room, but you’ve got to see it to believe it.

Blandings


In the Bleak Midwinter

Its title does not really conjure up Christmas cheer, but In the Bleak Midwinter is one of my favorite carols. I heard its melody repeatedly over the holidays and made a mental note to look into it a bit. And now that we are in the post-Christmas bleak not-quite-midwinter it seems like an appropriate time to do that. Surprisingly it is a creation of the Victorian era and after: I thought it was much older. Two early nineteenth-century composers set Christina Rossetti’s 1872 poem (first published in Scribner’s magazine) to music, creating an almost-instant classic: In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, In the bleak midwinter, long ago. 

While the rest of Rossetti’s poem is Christocentric, this opening stanza, setting the scene, is universal. Combined with the melodies of Gustav Holst and Harold Darke, the song seems ageless, which is why I thought it was older than it actually is. Darke’s version (a nice version of which is here) won “best Christmas Carol” in a poll of the world’s leading choirmasters in 2008. Besides the beautiful melodies assigned to Rossetti’s words, I’m interested in the use of the word “bleak” here: usually this term connotes a definite pessimism, despair, even hopelessness; but I think the combination of words and music creates a feeling of comfort and hopefulness, to get everyone through the bleak midwinter. My own understanding of bleakness comes more from images than sounds, and I think midwinter can be beautiful, both as a barren landscape and as a setting for all the little details within.

Midwinter Pickering House 1900

Midwinter Boston Common 1904

Midwinter A Wolf Had Not Been Seen at Salem for Thirty Years Pyle

Midwinter Museums Karolik Collection MFA

Midwinter Tile Kate Greenaway

Favorite midwinter images, not so “bleak”:  the Pickering House, Salem, c. 1900 from a private family collection; Boston Common, c. 1904, E. Chickering & Co., Library of Congress, Howard Pyle, “A Wolf Had not Been Seen in Salem for Thirty Years”, illustration for his 1909 Harper’s Monthly story, “The Salem Wolf”, Delaware Art Museum; Anonymous American painting, 19th century, Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Kate Greenaway wall tile for Burslem, c. 1881-1885, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


What I want for Christmas

Well, it’s a bit too late to put in this request, but if I had been able to make a Christmas list of wants rather than chores and things to buy at the grocery store, these amazing “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious would be on the top. I’ve never really appreciated either holiday china or twentieth-century china, but these dishes are just so striking, as are most of the pieces made by Ravilious in his short life (1903-1942). My favorite is the first plate with what looks like a flaming (steaming) Christmas pudding, which was accentuated by the Victoria & Albert Museum in the form of a Christmas card. I was looking for a traditional Christmas pudding recipe when I found this plate, and then my search was over–I put in an order with our new bakery because I was so distracted by these decidedly cooler (in more ways than one) versions. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Christmas Pudding Plate

Christmas Pudding Plate Card

Christmas Pudding Plate 2

Christmas Pudding Sauce

Christmas pudding Bowl

Wedgwood “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious, 1938, collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


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