Hi everyone! I hope you all had delicious Thanksgiving weekends. I ate a full plate of stuffing at 3 o’clock this morning so that’s where I’m currently at. But I’ve also had a really fun weekend of museum-hopping. It’s been a very busy semester (thesis! teaching a class! curating collective!) so I haven’t been able to go to many museums this fall. Having a couple days off gave me time to re-immerse myself in the art world. One of my favorite exhibits that I saw was the Pierre Chareau exhibit at the Jewish Museum.
Pierre Chareau was a prominent French interior and furniture designer in the years between the world wars. His elite and influential patrons commissioned him to design their homes because they were drawn to his innovative designs. He mixed high-end and low-end materials to create striking spaces. His approach to space was marked by an attention to openness; he was forever searching for ways in which material could, paradoxically, make a room feel lighter and wider.
Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design is fabulous not just for its fascinating subject. The curation of the exhibit embodies Chareau’s principles of design, and allows the viewer to experience interior design, rather than stare at it. Esther da Costa Meyer, professor of architectural history at Princeton University, worked closely with architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro to curate this exhibit. Chareau’s innovative designs set the bar high for curators to display his work, and this curatorial team rises to the occasion.
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The first category that the exhibit encounters is furniture. Several different tableaus feature innovative pieces. This one in particular stood out to me. The table can be swung back underneath the semicircular shelf when it is not in use. I found this to be very efficient. However, the form here does more than follow function. The sleek blend of the bookshelf mirrors the slight curve to the bench, and the roundness of the table. Curving lines make the efficiency of this arrangement feel incidental- I noticed the rich wood and sleek design before I processed its innovativeness.
White screens separate the tableaus from one another. Projected on these white screens are moving silhouettes of people living and working in Chareau’s spaces. They sit on his chairs and rise from them, hanging their coats on his coat racks and bending over his desks. Here are some stills from these projections:
And here is a contextual view of my father admiring a tableau of furniture with the shadows of moving bodies projected on nearby screens. (Note the yellowish triangular formation on top of the stacking desk- that’s made from alabaster)
What I really appreciate about these projections is that they allow the viewer to imagine the furniture in use. While paintings (after the medieval period) serve mainly as decoration, furniture exists to be used. Sometimes I have difficulty enjoying a furniture exhibit if the works are simply placed on a platform and admired. I want to get a sense of what it felt like for someone to sit in a chair- did it make them sit up straight? Did they recline? How did the upholstery feel under their arms? The artist takes all these sensations into consideration in his design, and if we don’t consider them, then how can we truly understand their art? Of course, we can’t sit down on Louis XIV’s bed, but we can sit on a replica. We can watch the human body relax or stiffen in a digital recreation. Here, we watch shadows of real people interact with the furniture in front of us. It allows us to transitively absorb the sensations of interacting with this furniture, and experience it more fully.
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The second section of the exhibit I’d like to examine is Chareau’s personal art collection. I think that looking at an artist’s inspirations can really inform one’s understanding of the artist’s work. After all, the images that I choose to surround myself with inevitably find their way into my thoughts, my art, and my writing. Chareau had quite the art collection- here are some standouts!
Many of these works feature a strong emphasis on line. The Mondrian in the top left corner plays with color blocking and straight lines. The works beside it introduce bent and curving lines, and the relationship between the two. The work on the far right seems to be composed almost entirely of lines- all of differing widths and lengths.
I particularly like this work, Max Ernst’s The Interior of Sight (1922). It isn’t hard to imagine this uncanny still life inside one of Chareau’s interiors. Its self-conscious perspective is both a celebration and mockery of traditional means of representing space.
I really enjoyed how the Jewish Museum embodied Chareau’s notion of expanding space through materiality. In the following picture, you can see how a glass display of Chareau’s collaborations with other artists and designers extends through two gallery rooms. The wall separating the two rooms abruptly ends about six inches above the display table. Look closely- you can see through to the other room, where a person in red and two people in black are looking at the display case from the other room. The cut-out in the wall creates a dynamic flow between the spaces, and creates a feeling of airiness.
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I’ll now turn to the section of Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design that is devoted to interior design. The first thing the viewer sees when he walks into this area is a large white cube within the gallery space. The cube has cut-outs a few inches below eye-level in which photographs of Chareau’s interiors are displayed.
One circumnavigates the giant cube, following the trail of photographs. This was one of my favorites:
The interior is the dining room of the Grand Hôtel de Tours in 1927. Notice how the ceiling is never flush with the walls. There are multiple platforms extending from the ceiling, connecting to pillars and making contact with each other. I enjoy how this treatment of wall and ceiling adds visual interest to the space without making it feel cramped. Perhaps the cut-out in the wall on the viewer’s right compensates for the thick pillar and busy ceiling design.
After walking around the large cube, one walks through a slight opening on one of its sides into a virtual reality wonderland. There are four stools and four virtual reality glasses situated at the four cardinal points. When you sit down and puts on these glasses, you are immediately transported to one of Chareau’s interiors. Here I am immersed in one of these rooms.
I explored every single one, tilting my head up to see the ceiling, and down to see the chair that I was sitting on. All around me, steel and wood mixed to create a visually arresting space. In one of my favorite interiors, a steel bookcase took up the entirety of a two-story wall. A diagonal steel ladder allowed its inhabitants to reach all of the shelves while perching precariously in mid-air. The ground floor was wooden, and featured innovative furniture like the table and bookshelf set examined in the first section. The incorporation of virtual reality into this exhibition allowed me to imagine myself moving through one of Chareau’s spaces, while the photographs showed me real snapshots of what these spaces looked like almost a hundred years ago. The exhibit works so well because it includes both forms of representation.
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In the last room, there is a screen that moves forward and backwards, projecting a changing image. Maison de Verre (The Glass House), is the subject of this projection. The house was designed by Chareau in 1932 and built in Paris. It is wedged between other buildings and actually cannot be seen from the street. It is an architectural marvel. Made from glass, steel, and glass brick, Maison de Verre makes no effort to cover up its structural elements; they are an essential part of the decorative scheme. As the viewer watches the screen move, the projection drifts through the house, from the outside to the inside, following the steel beams as they protrude through different rooms and stretch down to different levels. Here are some stills of the projection in motion:
Every once in a while the screen and the projection pause. A section of the building is colored in red. Then, a separate projection shows up on the side of the room, showing a close-up view of someone interacting with that highlighted part of the building.
The exhibit is constantly contextualizing itself, allowing the visitor to feel every single space that is introduced, either by becoming a body within the space, or watching another body move within it.
That was my main takeaway from Pierre Chareua: Modern Architecture and Design. I was utterly fascinated by Chareau’s shifting, open spaces, and his juxtaposition of steel, wood, and more precious materials. Yet the way the exhibit was designed truly took my breath away. I just finished reading “Eleven Museums, Eleven Museum Directors,” by Michael Shapiro, and one of the major themes discussed in the book is the role of the museum. Many of these American directors agree that their main concern is serving the public. How can they make the museum accessible to people? How does the museum fit within the fabric of the city? The Jewish Museum is constantly asking these questions, and coming up with new and exciting answers. Here, the curatorial team took a selection of photographs and a collection of furniture that visitors are obviously not allowed to sit on, but managed to make the exhibit extremely immersive. I came away with a much deeper appreciation for and understanding of Pierre Chareau’s work.
The Jewish Museum is at the forefront of innovative and thrilling exhibition design. Please make your way over to the Jewish Museum to see this incredible show. You have until March 26th!
Until next time-