Monday, May 28, 2012

Voysey-Nelson-Hagia Sophia (28 May - 3 June)

Charles Voysey, English architect and furniture & textile designer, birthday 28 May 1857
George Nelson, American industrial designer, birthday 29 May 1908
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey, religious building, converted to mosque 29 May 1453

Charles Voysey is another extremely influential individual in the Arts & Crafts era leading to modern architecture and design.  There are clear influences of the Charles Rene Mackintosh and William Morris in his rejection of academic tradition and relying on the vernacular to influence design instead.  Therefore, his designs were a comfortable transition for the nouveau-riche emerging middle class as a result of the industrial revolution, a group for which his designs were highly sought after.  Before becoming the “superstar” designer of his time, he wasn’t exactly the star pupil in college and so he went to work with the architect George Dewey but when business slowed, Voysey opened his own firm.  A.H. Mackmurdo suggested he experiment with domestic goods design of wallpaper and fabrics to supplement his income.  A smart idea as it wasn’t until ten years later that he found success as an architect with the completion of the tower house at Bedford Park.           

After serendipitously ducking into the architecture building on the Yale campus during a rainstorm, George Nelson’s career as an architect and icon of modernist furniture began.  As a writer for the magazine “Pencil Points”, Nelson interviewed and was introduced to the work of the most prolific architects of the time which formulated his passion for modernist design and became one of the movement’s ardent defenders.  When the chairman of Herman Miller Furniture read Nelson and Henry Wright’s book Tomorrow’s House he offered Nelson a job as director of design despite having no experience designing furniture.  In the book, the revolutionary concepts of the “family room” and “storage wall” were introduced; two ideas that are commonplace in this day. 
In his time at Herman Miller he fostered some of the most iconic furniture designers of the 20th century including the Eames’, Harry Bertoia and Isamu Noguchi.  Unfortunately, both Bertoia and Noguchi expressed regret for their time at Herman Miller and it has come to light that some of the pieces for which he is most known were in fact designed by others employed at his studio.  Regardless of the controversies, Nelson created an environment that pushed the boundaries of what modern life was evolving into and nurtured those around him to adapt with it as well.  This is the quintessential tenant of modern architecture and design.      

The history of Hagia Sophia (Greek for “Holy Wisdom”) is complicated: it started off as the Greek Patriarchal Cathedral of Constantinople and has been converted to a Roman Catholic Church, Imperial Mosque and today it has been secularize as a museum.  To make matters even more complicated, this building is actually the third building on the site, two others had been destroyed by rioters.  As an excellent example of Byzantine architecture commissioned by Emperor Justinian it then became the model for many other Ottoman mosques under Sultan Mehmed II when he ordered it to be converted into a mosque in an act to establish domination over the vanquished population, a common practice for any invading conqueror.  Due to Islamic traditions on art, most of the mosaics were plastered over but are today in the process of being restored.  This is a fine example of a building’s ability to survive centuries by adaptive reuse.          

Monday, May 21, 2012

Breuer-Knoll-Kravitz (21-27 May)

Marcel Breuer, Hungarian-born modernist architect, furniture designer & educator, birthday 22 May 1902
Florence Knoll, American architect and furniture designer, birthday 24 May 1917
Lenny Kravitz, American musician & designer, birthday 26 May 1964

Marcel Breuer was one for the first students from the Bauhaus and eventually was appointed head of the school’s carpentry department.  While there, he designed several tubular steel pieces of furniture including his most famous the Wassili chair inspired by the handlebars on his bicycle and later named after his roommate, Wassili Kandinsky.  As Walter Gropius’ protégé he was also influenced by Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van de Rohe.  After immigrating to the US he was hired to design the headquarters for the Departments of HUD & HEW in Washington DC for which he finally felt like an American.  Other architectural works include the entire ski town of Flaine in the French Alps, several buildings at St. John’s Abby, the Whitney Museum and IBM’s La Gaude Laboratory (his personal favorite).  Breuer was the first architect to be given a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.       

To keep up the Bauhaus connections for a moment longer, Florence Knoll was a protégé of Eero Saarinen and worked briefly for Gropius & Breuer before marrying Hans Knoll founder of the Knoll Furniture Company.   Together they formed Knoll Associates where she revolutionized interior space planning, translating the principle of Gesamthkunstwerk (“total work of art”) from the Vienna Secession into the modern work environment.  She not only was an important contributor to but also an influential champion of modern design.  Think the offices of "Mad Men" and you'll know how influential her designs are.         

As a musician Lenny Kravitz may seem like the odd man out here but what may be unknown to many is that a lifelong passion for design lead him to form Kravitz Design in 2003.  He assembled a team of interior designers, architects & product designers to work in both Residential and Commercial arenas around the world.  In Miami Beach the firm completed “The Florida Room” in the Delano Hotel; a soothing lounge that references classic Florida motifs without kitsch or sacrificing contemporary flavor. 

Let this be a lesson that just because you find success in one career doesn’t mean you have to give up on your other passions.      


Monday, May 14, 2012

Zanuso-Gropius-Chrysler (14 - 20 May)

Marco Zanuso, Italian architect, designer & educator, birthday 14 May 1916
Walter Gropius, German architect & founder of the Bauhaus, birthday 18 May 1833
Chrysler Building, New York, Art Deco sky scraper, spire installed 20 May 1930

Although Marco Zanuso was trained as an architect he is most notable and influential in the Industrial Design profession.  His experiments with bent metal and sleek plastic help bring design to the masses with low cost items.  Work with Arflex (a division of Pirelli, yes that Pirelli, manufacturer of tires and the coveted Pirelli calendar) lead to the award winning design “Lady” armchair in 1951.  As a founding member of the Italian industrial design organization Associazione per il Desegno Industriale in 1956, Zanuso was instrumental in establishing the modern profession.  The ADI actively works to protect the copyright of design.  This is a gentle reminder not to purchase knock-offs and go directly to the source or officially licensed retailers.   As an educator Zanuso helped form young designers at the Polytechnic of Milan for over forty years.    

For another influential educator Walter Gropius, architecture was a family business.  However, his mark on the discipline had a far reaching impact.  When he was appointed to master of the German Grand-Ducal Saxon School of the Arts and Crafts in 1919 he transformed it into the Bauhaus, a collective of educators and students that defined the foundation of modern design.  New technologies in building materials begged for new translations into modern life and subsequently the buildings in which it is housed.  This approach crossed platforms so much so that in 1963 when hair stylist Vidal Sassoon, who passed away last week, introduced his groundbreaking "bob" cut it was described as “Bauhaus” inspired.  In homage to this great movement, an English band named themselves “Bauhaus 1919” (later dropping the date to simply be called “Bauhaus”) and lead what came to be known as the gothic rock movement of the late 1970s early ‘80s.     

With the excitement of new building technologies man was able to build bigger and higher.  After the invention of the elevator, the race to build the tallest building was on.  The first building to reach 1000 feet was the Chrysler Building in New York when the spire was installed, a title it held for all of eleven months before the Empire State building claimed it.  As the epitome of the Art Deco building it is my personal favorite.  Architect William Van Alen superbly translated the iconography of the automobile company in image and material by cladding the nesting tire motif in stainless steel.  This building boom soon fizzled as the Great Depression continued but the torch was picked up in the late 1990s with the advent of new computer technologies allowing for more complex and safer designs.  Man inched higher and higher until the Burj Khalifa in Dubai put the proverbial nail in the coffin to the race yet again when it opened at an astonishing  2717 feet, 1050 feet higher than the previous winner.  That means at 1046 feet high, the entire Chrysler Building can fit within the space between the top and the next highest. 


Associazione per il Desegno Industriale website
Arflex, Milan website, where you can purchase the Lady Chair and other Zanuso designs 
The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation website
Bauhaus (the band) website
List of the world's tallest buildings
to learn more about the images shown here

Monday, May 7, 2012

Hoffman-Aalto-Dali (7-13 May)

Josef Hoffmann, Austrian Architect & Consumer Goods Designer, death 7 May 1956
Alvar Aalto, Finnish Architect & Designer, death 11 May 1976
Salvador Dali, Spanish Surrealist Painter, birthday 11 May 1904

Josef Hoffmann was a cofounder of the Vienna Secession movement with Joseph Olbrich, Gustav Klimt & Koloman Moser as a reaction to the prevailing Historicism movement.  Hoffmann and his compatriots believed "Der Zeit ihre Kunst.  Der Kunst ihre Freiheit." ("To every age its art.  To art its freedom.")  Meaning, they wanted to explore every possibility of art outside the academic tradition which relied on historical examples for influence.  As a result, unlike most other movements, there was no prevailing style associated with it.  He left the group in 1905 due conflicts with other members over the premise of Gesamthkunstwerk (“total work of art”) where a space is simultaneously envisioned in every dimension.  Hoffmann’s best example of this is the Stoclet House in which the interior & exterior architecture, decoration, furniture, functional objects & gardens are all intimately related.   This was a turning point from Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts Movements which set the stage for Modern Architecture.  Later, with banker Fritz Warndorfer & artist Koloman Moser he established the Wiener Werkstatte where he designed most of his household products.

Inspired by the Gesamtkunstwerk ideal, Alvar Aalto perfected the International Style and led the Scandinavian domination of the modern design movement.  Not only did this create exciting examples of modern architecture but also fantastically seemingly simple furniture pieces.  He emphasized organic geometry stating that “Architecture must have charm; it is a factor of beauty in society.”  Two charming pieces are the Paimio chair and three-legged stacking Stool 60.  In conjunction with the design of the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium, Aalto completed a chair that epitomized his theories and showcased his experimentation with wood.  It allowed patients to sit for long hours each day.  According to Aalto, the angle of the back was perfect to allow the patient to breathe the easiest and the slits cut at the neck would allow air to cool naturally.  The looped ends provide springiness and conform to the curve of the knee and neck.  Stool 60 is the finest example of basic utilitarian functionalism; a goal that has been imitated incessantly but never perfected as neatly as this.  An auditorium can be filled and emptied quickly.  The stacking feature keeps storage at an efficient minimum.   

With all the attention paid to the sale of Finland’s Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” last week, the fact that it was only one item in a collection of pieces that were sold that day and the auction total itself also set another record seemed to be overlooked.  One of those pieces was “Printemps Necrophilique” by Salvador Dali.  Translation: “necrophilic spring”.  Disturbing? Yes, without a doubt.  Unexpected?  From this artist, not even close.  Dali is most notable as the “melting clock guy” but there is so much more of his work that is what can only be described as bizarre yet intriguing.  Dali was so prolific that when one hears the word “surrealistic” an image of Dali’s most likely enters the mind.    

Dali’s personal story is equally disturbing as his work.  He was born nine months after the death of his older brother for whom he is named.  Often Dali would refer to himself as the reincarnation of his parent’s first born.  Talk about a confusing childhood.  If I lost a child, my first thought would not be to immediately “make another one just like him”. 

My personal favorite: “Atomicus”, a collaboration with photographer Philippe Halsman in 1948.  It took several attempts for them to be satisfied with the result.  Each time they would chase down the three angry wet cats, dry them and the floor and then refill the bucket of water to try again.  They did this 28 times.  This is perfectionism to the extreme. 


Stoclet House UNESCO World Heritage page
To purchase Hoffmann pieces
To see Hoffmann pieces at MoMA
Aalto's Artek furniture & design company
Alvar Aalto Museum, Jyvaskyla, Finland
Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida
to learn more about the images shown here

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Munch (2 May)

Edvard Munch, Nowegian Impressionist Painter, "The Scream" auctioned, 2 May 2012

With events of today combining, I have to break my personal rule of one post per week. One of the four iconic "Scream"s of the Norwegian Impressionist Edvard Munch will go on the auction block today at Sotheby's New York and expects to set records. This only seems either ironic and/or tragic when set against the shockingly horrible events of last June in Norway for which Anders Behring Breivik is now on trial.

"The Scream" is a pictorial political commentary of the effect of the modern industrial world on the human psyche. It appears almost ironic that in Norway, a psychotic individual thought it appropriate to murder nearly dozens of people to stop what he thought was a Muslim take over of the country.  Most of his victims were young people at a leadership camp aimed at encouraging inclusion and diversity.

As someone who relishes cultural diversity, I cannot be anything otherwise but horrified and confused by Breivik's actions. I grew up in an incredibly diverse atmosphere and specifically chose my own child's school for its cultural diversity.

I can understand the fear Brevick faced as he imagined his culture was vanishing under an open-arms immigration policy but I see it only as an opportunity to grow. Here in South Florida the environment has changed dramatically within the past ten years. However, if we examine the past when Flagler's railroad hastened the erosion of the Seminole culture that existed here which only developed once US expansion forced them into Miccosukee territory not to mention the thousands of cultures that have been assimilated, decimated and forgotten over the millennia of human existence. Most of these occurred in horrific war-time events. But, we are "civilized", now. We are educated. We are more accepting of our differences....aren't we?

We should take pride in our history, our heritage. Love it, embrace it, share it. But, please, never allow it isolate you and more importantly, never allow it to be a force for hate to grow.