As the 20th century swings farther into its last quarter, museum are beginning to collect those curious artifacts of our daily life. It certainly is unsettling to walk through a museum and see a chair just like the one is your own living room, sitting there, researched, annotated, labeled: "chair, circa 1950, American." It makes you feel as though you should crawl into a Plexiglas case yourself and submit your forehead for the number stamp.
If you can overcome the aging effects to seeing your own time codified, the recent installation of 20th-Century Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York City has much to say about the design of our times.
The rival collections of 20th-century design at the Museum of Modern Art here concentrate mostly on art nouveau , Bauhaus and Italian industrial design - the taste set by Philip Johnson and Emilio Ambraz. Except for their few fine art nouveau objects, MOMA tends to like objects that are slick, plastic, chromed, hard-edged and streamlined.
The Metropolitan, with the exception of one or two Bauhaus pieces, has chosen the softer side of the 20th century: more Austrian and French than German, more Wiener Werkstatte than Bauhaus, more Scandinavian than Italian, decorative arts instead of industrial design. In many (though certainly not all) ways, it is as if the two museums lived in a diffrent 20th century. Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, curator of the show, gives what might be called the rationale of the collection: "objects pleasing to the eye and hand for use and decoration."
The Normandie still sails at the Metropolitan - in a giant glass, reverse painted, gold-and silver-leafed mural. The luxurious French liner was once the biggest, speediest and most gorgeous ship on the translantic run thanks to a subsidy from the French government whose flagship she was. On her maiden voyage in 1935, she brought French art deco to the United States, while thousands cheered.
Hunter-Stiebel says the Normandie panels were narrowly saved. She believes they were removed from the ship while it was being gutted to turn it into a troop ship during World War II. The glass mural had been the major decoration in the grand salon.During the work of conversion, they had thrown all the kapok-filled life preservers into the salon, where they were working with acetelyne torches. Of course, the salon caught on fire, and the ship capsized under the barrage of water on Feb. 10, 1942." The panels appropriately, show the history of navigation. The design was by Jean Dupas and exexuted by Champigneulle glass studios.
Armchairs - walnut, gilt, bronze and tapestry from the first class dining room of the Normandie - are well-placed in front of the mural, as well as a table of macassar ebony and ivory by Jacques-Emile Ruhlman, the master French art deco cabinetmaker of the period. Another Ruhlman group is a desk, cabinet and chair made of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] a richly patterned wood, ivory and sharkskin (circa 1919). The sinuous curved cabinets are studded with ivory nippies and an ivory ring for draver pulls. The chair has brass shoes and nailhead ornament and is upholstered in leather. You can see a thin-noeed woman with bobbed hair, a pleated dress and long necklace sitting in it, swinging her high heeled shoes. A similar piece, a dressing table and stool in tulipwood and ivory, is by Bruno Paul, a Berlin architect of the period.
The Scandinavian furniture, all of it left over from a 1960s show at the Metropolitan, shows a clear progression from Ruhlman, keeping the sensuous, curves, the deeply textured natural materials and the human scale. The Scandinavian, which Hunter-Stiebel describes as being "simple, practical and above all comfortable," includes Arne Jacobeen's "The Egg" chair of oxhide and aluminum; Hans J. Wegner's walnut, teak and cane chairs arrived from the Oriental; and a heart-shaped settee by Finn Juhl in teak and leather. Some of the furniture had been use in the Metropolitan offices up until the show, and Hunter-Stiebel has a great fondness for it.
The most fascinating objects in the show are not the ones which are most familiar, but instead the 1902-1904 walnut armchair by Antonio Gaudi, the fantastic Spanish architect, and the 1900 walnut, brass, pewter, vellum and mirror glass secretary by Carlo Bugatti, an Itallian craftsman whose sons designed the famous cars "built to go but not to stop." These wildly original pieces are not in the mainstream of design but are roaring torrents of imagination splashing away on their own. And all the more fun for it.
These two pieces rank highest in this viewer's covet test. They wouldn't go with anything else in your house - certainly not the housewifey Danish furniture. But then if you had the Bugatti and the Gaudi, as they say, who would want anything else?
The Austrian objects show the differences in Vienna of the period. Josef Hoffmann's exquisite silver bowl; his tray and three brass bowl; and especially the desk set of mother-of-pearl, ebony, silver and leather are remarkably beautiful in design and execution. Hoffman founded the Wiener Werkstatte, an organization that produced objects of all sorts, from clothes to ceramics to wallpaper to jewelry from its founding in 1903 to the German takeover in 1932. In recent years the Werkstatte has been revived. Contrary to the German sternly functional Bauhaus, the Werkstatte enjoyed ornamentation, in the great Viennese tradition of schlag mit alles - whipped cream with everything.
Sometimes it doesn't work very well, as in the rather icky glazed earthen-ware figures by Vally Wieselthier (1918). But with Dagobert Peche's silver-gilt jewel box (with of course a secret compartment), all can be forgiven. The silver and silver-gilt bowls and beakers (circa 1930) by Jean Pui-forcat of France are also very handsome.
The show concludes with some glittering pieces from the American studio craft movement by Dominich Labino, Harvey Littleton, Dale Chihuly and Tom Patti; and a cherrywood laminated two-seater by sculptor-wood-worker Wendell Castle.
The exhibit is handsomely mounted by Jeffrey A. Serwatien. And a good reminder that all of the 20th century doesn't belong to Lilly Reich and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and their American equivalents at Cranbrook Academy, Mich; Florence Knoll; Charles Eames and others.
On the other hand, all the doodads look very quaint and old-fashioned today, as if they indeed belonged in a museum, while the clean-lined designs of the opposition down the street at MOMA still remain forever modern.