The bed is as much invitation as art. Its sinuous burl Amboina wood and tulipwood veneered curves beg to be fondled. You want to lavish rich oils on it for the pleasure of stroking its seductive sides. To lie across it would be bliss. But who could you find who would be wonderful enough to share its heaven with you?
"Carole Lombard?" suggested Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The bed is a part of a 1928 suite by Emile Jacques Ruhlmann, the premier furniture designer of the French Arts De'coratifs period. It is also a part of a twin set of marvelous exhibits of 20th-century furniture and other pieces, presented in Baltimore jointly by the Walters Art Gallery and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The suite and 70-odd pieces of extraordinary furniture and 150 pieces of decorative glass, jewelry and clocks are in "Art Deco From the Collection of Ileana and Michael Sonnabend" at the Baltimore Museum through April 14.
Over at the Walters, a desk and chair crouch, awaiting the miniature magician who will soon come to total his accounts of frolics and frights. The pair look as though they grew like toadstools in the depth of some enchanted forest and were embellished by a gnarled gnome with walnut, copper, brass, pewter and vellum, tortured into scrolls and rolls and convoluted whirls.
The 1882-1902 set by Carlo Bugatti (the father of the automobile designers) is part of the diverse 83 pieces of furniture, glass and metalwork in "Design 1900-1940: Selections From the Collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art."
"I'm a medievalist," said Robert Bergman, director of the Walters. "We believe that art begins with objects -- embedded in our culture. We take the humanistic approach."
In contrast to the Baltimore Museum show, which is strictly limited to one collector's choice of a single style from a particular place and a short time -- Ileana Sonnabend's choices of Art Deco from Paris between the World Wars -- the Walters exhibit encompasses the great styles of the century.
The survey begins in 1900 with the Arts and Crafts movement from England, Scotland and the United States; goes on to the Secession style in Austria, the Jungenstile in Germany and Art Nouveau in France, ending with Art Deco, Moderne, Modernist and Scandinavian Modern and the beginning of World War II.
Appropriately, Frank Lloyd Wright, the one designer who was all of those things -- first an Arts and Crafts practitioner and finally a modern architect -- begins and ends the show with his high-back oak chair and his china for the Imperial Hotel.
Baltimore, with its fine early 20th-century buildings and art dealers specializing in this period, is fortunate to have two such remarkable shows.
"It was possible for us to borrow these artworks for two reasons," Bergman says. "The Metropolitan is remodeling its 20th-century galleries and this is the Walters' 50th anniversary."
The Baltimore collection -- never shown together before -- is a coup for Lehman, who "was constantly frustrated by the 'Sold to Madame Sonnabend' stickers when I was trying to buy Art Deco in Paris. Most of it has been in storage in New York for 20-odd years. Even the Sonnabends haven't seen it since then. Michael uses the bedroom suite by Pierre Chareau and they use one of the small tables."
The term "Art Deco" is a bastardization of the name of the 1925 Paris L'Exposition Internationale des Arts De'coratifs et Industriels Modernes. The Scandinavians, Germans and Austrians were moving toward modern, a stripped-down, streamlined machine look. The French -- except for Le Corbusier, who was relegated to the back of the exposition -- made a last gasp effort for a neoclassicism with fine craftsmanship and exquisite design.
Ruhlmann (1879-1933) was the great master of the period, as Nick Monjardo and David Patson say in the current issue of Fine Woodworking:
Ruhlmann worked and reworked the same shapes, perhaps none so frequently as a stretched ogee or French curve, seen repeatedly in the legs and carcase curves. Ruhlmann takes this curve to the extreme; stretch it another fraction and you lose it. To carry off such designs, Ruhlmann demanded and got meticulous execution. There are no ripples under the veneers of even the most tightly curved doors or carcases; though handshaped, the delicate curves of legs in the same piece are strikingly uniform . . . And Ruhlmann's furniture works -- we've yet to find a drawer that didn't open . . . Ruhlmann wanted to build the best furniture in the world. As far as we're concerned, he did.
Besides the 1928 bedroom suite (called "Corbeille" or basket form), the Baltimore has several other great Ruhlmann pieces. The coiffeuse or dressing table -- snakeskin overlays, torpedo legs, nickel-chrome banding on the feet, ivory pulls -- no one would believe it no matter how long they stared at it.
The Walters, not to be outdone, has what many consider the ultimate Ruhlmann, the great cabinet from his exposition pavilion "Hotel d'un Riche Collectionneur."
"Joseph Breck, the Met's curator of that period, saw the prototype in the pavilion and commissioned this replica," Bergman says. The cabinet has an ivory stylized basket of flowers set in Macassar ebony and rosewood, with edges polka-dotted in ivory.
But there are other beautiful pieces, not by Ruhlmann, in both shows.
At the Baltimore Museum: a bedroom suite by Pierre Chareau (1883-1950) is no less sensuous than the Ruhlmann. Edgar William Brandt's (1880-1950) entrance gates and his amazing cobra lamp with its crystallerie Daum shade. A pair of magnificent cabinets of lacquered and patinated by Eugene Printz (1889-1948) are "only big enough to keep martini glasses in," as Lehman says. Actually, they function as screens. A cabinet by Atelier Soubrier of zebrawood looks like an African votive sculpture. Limoges enamel vases by Camille Faure' and glass vases and other pieces by Rene' Lalique would make a show on their own. A casserole by Jean Puiforcat is echoed in the Walters.
In the Walters: a 1900 birch, rosewood hanging cabinet surmounted with wood carved to look like cow parsnips, not to mention butterflies and other bugs, which could be by no other than Emile Galle'; a 1896 card table by Charles Rennie Mackintosh with his characteristic circular cutout; Jean Dunand's 1928-1930 lacquer and copper panel of a seated black woman; the Walters' snakeskin entry, a 1899 table and chair by Edward Colonna; and a 1925-50 skyscraper bookcase by Paul T. Frankl.
William R. Johnston, the Walters' associate director, was curator of its show; Lehman and Brenda Richardson arranged the Baltimore Museum exhibit.
Those who have not seen the like before -- who know 20th-century functional arts only from the neon and plastic extravaganzas that clutter up today's antique shops -- should begin with the Walters and go on to the Baltimore Museum.
As the end of the century and indeed the millennium approaches, the 20th century becomes history. Today, so much painting and sculpture seem to be made by the trash compactor to be collected by the garbage man. These objects of high art were made when artists/craftsmen had the skill -- and rich collectors had the taste.