Monday, December 17, 2012

Chauvet-De Wolfe-Olbrich (17-23 December)

on this date in Design…

Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, Ardèche, France, discovered 18 December 1994
Elsie De Wolfe, American actress & interior decorator, birthday 20 December 1865
Joseph Olbrich, Austrian architect and co-founder of the Vienna Secession, birthday 22 December 1867

With as small as the world seems today, it may be unbelievable that in the modern era there are still prehistoric discoveries which amaze and challenge the collective knowledge.  As recently as 1994, the immense cave of Chauvet with its perfectly preserved paintings dating over 30,000 years was discovered, isolated by an ancient landslide. 
What makes these images different than those found at Lascaux?  Not only are these images over twice as old, but they show similar and in some cases more advanced techniques.  The artist(s) prepared the surfaces by scraping away debris and sometimes older paintings.  There are images that have been carved into the surface not just applied with paint.  There are full “scenes” of action, not just encyclopedic representations of animals.  In one scene there is a dominance struggle between two rhinoceroses.  Of course there are rudimentary acknowledgments of perspective and action as with Lascaux    
However, the level of shading detail here evoke a sense of three-dimensionality.  With every new discovery the understanding of the prehistoric human mind becomes richer.  The more complex these findings are offers the opportunity to re-examine what it truly means to be human and the need to express one’s self artistically. 
Most people will tell you that Elsie De Wolfe is “The First Lady of Interior Decoration”.  However, that moniker barely begins to describe what a force she was.  De Wolfe almost single-handedly created the separate and distinct profession of the interior decorator.  After a career on the stage, at the age of 40, she was commissioned to complete the interiors of the Colony Club, one of the first women’s clubs in New York.  De Wolfe figuratively “threw open” the dark velvet drapery of the Victorian era and using inspiration from 18th century France created light, bright and airy feminine spaces.  It could be said that her design sensibilities manifested themselves as a child when she threw a kicking and screaming temper tantrum in response to her parents redecorating the drawing room. 
Even in her acting career she was more known for her creative costuming (which she designed) than her thespian abilities.  De Wolfe’s design successes should be credited to her knack for self-promotion and connections as a socialite in both the American and European circles.  Her business was bolstered by such clientele as Morgan, Astor & Whitney in addition to inviting Vogue to cover her parties.  The descriptions of her hostess abilities in the magazine brought her name and style to housewives around the country and perhaps even influenced the likes of Martha Stewart.  De Wolfe’s book “The House in Good Taste” became equally an influential beginning the trend of faux finishes and animal print upholstery; only in Elsie’s case, the animal print was more likely to be real.   

Joseph Olbrich along with Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann & Koloman Moser established the Vienna Secession movement in 1897 but Olbrich gave the group what would become its figurehead: the Secession Hall.  The movement sought to break from the prevailing traditional conservatism of the Vienna Künstlerhaus which focused on historicism.  Instead, Olbrich wanted to bring “purer” geometric forms to buildings.  This can be seen in the Secession Hall with the iconic orb atop the structure contained by four rectangular pillars.  The building surface is then decorated with linear ornament which would come to be called “whiplash” or “eel” style. 
These ideas would give way to the Art Nouveau movement which eventually formed a theoretical break in the Secession members.  However, Olbrich maintained the original ideal of the group and found extended success in the States.  After participating in the Louisiana Exhibition in St. Louis, he was appointed corresponding member of the AIA, most likely at the behest of Frank Lloyd Wright.  It is a small wonder as the two shared similar theories on architecture and ornamentation.

The Chauvet Cave, Ardèche, France
"Cave of Forgotten Dreams", flim by Werner Herzog
The Bradshaw Foundation for ancient rock art

article on Elsie De Wolfe, Architectural Digest
"The House in Good Taste", by Elsie De Wolfe, University of Wisconsin Digital Collections

The Secession Hall, Vienna, Austria
archINFORM for the Secession Hall
archINFORM for Hochzeitsturm, Darmstadt, Germany

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