Monday, July 2, 2012

Thonet-Jefferson-Johnson (2-8 July)

Michael Thonet, German-Austrian cabinet maker, birthday 2 July 1796
Thomas Jefferson, Third U.S. president & architect, death 4 July 1826
Philip Johnson, American architect, birthday 8 July 1906

The proliferation and simplicity of Michael Thonet’s bent wood furniture construction overshadow what a remarkable achievement he developed.  The No.14 Vienna Chair and its compatriots are so commonplace that are often discredited as being cheap or insignificant.  One can find a cast-off copy in any thrift store for under $5.  However, before the Austrian court granted him “permission” to bend wood exclusively, Thonet painstakingly carved his furniture pieces.  Through experimentation with a variety of woods and chemical steaming processes he impressed Prince Metternich who wanted to use Thonet’s achievement to promote Austrian ingenuity and industrialization.  So, before you think to yourself how tacky your grandmother’s bentwood cane rocker is, take a moment to marvel at the innovation it represents.    

When most people think of the 3rd President of the United States one thinks of the Declaration of Independence or the complication of Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemings.  Not to mention the coincidence of dying on this nation’s Independence Day is to forever seal his name to the most significant document he wrote.  However, let us not forget that as he was the architect of the principles of what has become arguably the center of the “free world”, he also was an architect of buildings as well.  Never formally trained, Jefferson’s studies of European buildings is evident in the Palladian quality to his designs.  He believed the buildings that housed the nation should be a metaphor for American ideology: the desire to break culturally and politically with Europe.  Classical styles of ancient Greece, France and China influence are present in his work.   In addition to the campus of the University of Virginia, his other famous construction was Monticello.  The efficient functional location of the bed saddled between the bedroom and the private study speaks to that American ideal where advancement was always at hand.  It could also give a new meaning to the phrase “woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”         

My own personal opinion of Philip Johnson has dramatically shifted over the years from annoyance to fascination.  My first introduction was the AT&T Building which I think looks like a silly giant armoire in the middle of New York City.  It appeared that Johnson had been too easily influenced by the Memphis School of the 1980s which I blame for all the terrible jarring neon colors, spatter painted walls, and ridiculously over-sized shoulder pads.  However, on further inspection, Johnson was a conundrum; simultaneously straddling the stark simplicity of the Minimalist movement and the vibrancy of Avant-Garde & Pop Art.  His early achievement of the Glass House influenced by his friendship with Mies van der Rohe was a completely transparent box with virtually no walls.  The intention was to put guest on display adding to discomfort so as to keep visits to a minimum.  

To make up for the AT&T fiasco, Johnson completed the Lipstick Building around the corner, one I find entirely more interesting.  On the art front, Johnson was a highly influential board member of and contributor to MoMA.  His 1988 donation of the painting No. 10, the museum’s first Rothko (another personal favorite), was so radically controversial that it prompted another member to quit.  My hat is officially off to you, Mr. Johnson.  I’m sorry I ever doubted you.      

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