Monday, June 25, 2012

Venturi-Klee-Fuller (25 June - 1 July)

Robert Venturi, American architect, birthday 25 June 1925
Paul Klee, Swiss-German painter, death 29 June 1940
Buckminster Fuller, American systems theorist, architect, engineer & inventor, death 1 July 1983

If it were not for Vincent Scully, Robert Venturi might never have been as prolific and post-modernist architecture might not have developed as fully as it needed to.  Scully almost single handedly championed Venturi theories to an unsympathetic functionalist architectural community.  With his manifesto “Complexity & Contradiction in Architecture” Venturi established theories which drew from both the vernacular and high-style resulting in “the difficult whole” (illustrating the richness of architectural composition) unlike what modernism had grown into at the time which was singularly stylistic.  In “Learning from Las Vegas”, he along with Steven Izenour, Denise Scott Brown and their students from Yale in the 1960s, took yet another biting jab at the elitist modernist movement quoining the term “decorated shed”; a notion which compressed the complexity of architectural design practically into two dimensions adorning a simple structure.  In 1991, Robert Venturi finally received the recognition he deserved when he was awarded the Pritzker Prize (the equivalent to the Nobel Prize in architecture) and is credited with saving modernism from itself.  The lesson here, stick to your guns and don’t be afraid to go against grain in order for your voice to be heard.       

Paul Klee was an artist who was encouraged by the multitude of conflicting theories which were circulating at the Bauhaus during the time he taught here.  As a result, his work was influenced by multiple movements such as expressionism, surrealism and cubism after greatly admiring the work of Picasso.  His dry wit and humor is illustrated in much of work yet toward the end of his life as he suffered from a painful and long illness.  That, too, was reflected in the paintings of this time.  This connection between the work and mood in conjunction with responding application methods and mediums makes Klee’s work hard to categorize but his influence is widespread.  I don’t believe the work of future abstract artists such as Jackson Pollock would have been as embraced if it were not for Klee leading the way.   

To go against social convention most of the time would have one considered a bit odd.  Buckminster Fuller would speak and write in his own unique style using long run-on sentences and terminology he would invent.  He would wear three different watches and for a time only sleep two hours a day which he believed was more efficient.  But for Buckminster Fuller this eccentricity is far more reaching than these quirks and the geodesic dome for which is most known.  Bucky was an early forerunner of the environmental movement and it is toward that goal of efficiency, to “do more with less” so people could have more was what his work was to accomplish.  He was devoted to “applying the principles of science to solving the problems of humanity.”  These principles lead to the Dymaxion House which he determined to be energy efficient and inexpensive but a complete failure commercially.  One term he’s credited with inventing is synergetics which is the empirical study of systems in transformation with an emphasis on total system behavior.  For a guy that was expelled from Harvard twice, he received 47 honorary degrees for his contribution to and influence on design.  It says something to his character that Harvard would allow him back after kicking him out the first time.     

Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates
The Pritsker Prize website
The Paul Klee Museum, Bern, Switzerland
Paul Klee work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Paul Klee work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York
Paul Klee work at the Guggenheim, New York
The Buckminster Fuller Institute
The R. Buckminster Fuller Archive at Stanford University
to learn more about the images shown here 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hepplewhite-Ferris-Rietveld (18-24 June)

George Hepplewhite, British furniture maker, death 21 June 1786
Ferris Wheel, opens at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, anniversary 21 June 1893
Gerrit Rietveld, Dutch architect & furniture designer, birthday 24 June 1888

After our introduction to Chippendale last week let us continue discussing the “Big Three” of English cabinet makers: George Hepplewhite.  Again, although no known pieces actually made buy him or his firm are in existence, he took the inspiration of Chippendale to write his own design book, The Cabinet Maker & Upholsterers Guide.  Where Chippendale sought to create a guide that was all-encompassing for the designs of the age, Hepplewhite developed a singular style which was characterized by light, curved pieces and the distinctive shield back.  What is even more amazing is that these constructions were all achieved without carving; everything was pieced together and then painted and/or inlayed.  With all this innovation, if it were not for his book published by his widow after his death and death certificate there would be no evidence that he existed at all. 

Although there is much debate over who actually invented what has become known as the Farris Wheel, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. designed his record breaking wheel for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  This tipped off yet another race for the tallest and largest contraption spawned by the Industrial Revolution.  These types of amusement constructions have been in existence since the 17th century and were made out of wood, reaching only a few stories high. 

Subsequent giant wheels were completed in London, Paris and Japan.  Today the tallest resides in Singapore at an amazing 541 feet high.  As exciting as open air wheels are to reach into the sky I’m happy that these new monsters are fully enclosed and much safer that Mr. Farris’. 

As a member of the De Stijl movement, Gerrit Rietveld was essential to the establishment of the modern design movement.  His famous wooden Red & Blue Chair was originally designed to be mass produced but with the embrace of new material technologies, the movement leaned more toward tubular steel and plastic constructions.  The goal was to simplify construction to base form and today it can still be referenced for this achievement; the ideal angle of the back to the seat and the comfortable height of the arms can be seen in many pieces since. 
With Piet Mondrian as inspiration, Rietveld created a three dimensional version of a Mondrian painting with the Reitveld Schroder House.  What was so innovative about this house wasn’t the concept of bringing a painting to life, it was the advent of moveable sliding walls that could be rearranged or removed completely to serve the changing functionality of the space.  This served the inhabitant as needs throughout the day changed from sleeping to cooking to working.  As a result, Rietveld broke with the De Stijl and explored more functionalist styles in architecture and design.    


Monday, June 11, 2012

Chippendale-Escher-Eames (11-17 June)

Thomas Chippendale, British cabinet-maker & furniture designer, baptism 16 June 1718
M.C. Escher, Dutch graphic artist, birthday 17 June 1898
Charles Eames, Jr., American designer, birthday 17 June 1907

In connection with the opening of NeoCon World’s Trade Fair opening this week in Chicago it seems almost fitting that Thomas Chippendale is highlighted.  Today it is seemingly child’s play to get one’s goods to market compared to two hundred or even one hundred years ago.  In this day and age a simple internet connection can have one distributing one’s designs worldwide.  And yet, events like NeoCon are still essential to the design market by not just bringing all these innovative items together into one space for comparison and collaboration but also for offering an opportunity to figuratively take the temperature of the design waters to gain a perspective of where the industry is going as only seeing these items all together in person could offer.  In the time of Thomas Chippendale, things were a bit more complicated.  It could be said that Chippendale is the inventor of the design book with the publication of The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. 

When one sees what would be described as a “Chippendale” chair, it does not mean that he actually built it, was built in his factory or even really designed it.  It just means that the furniture maker used his catalogue of design as a guide with the customer to create the piece; it is “in the style of” Chippendale.  It was a brilliant communication method between craftsman and customer.  That’s right, hard to believe but most furniture pieces before the Industrial Revolution were made to order and the genius of Chippendale was that he didn't even need to be present when it happened for his influence to be.  This lead to other designers like Hepplewhite and Sheraton to publish their own books.  Today the concept that you could have an item designed by someone in Italy, manufactured in China and then delivered to the US within a matter of weeks is commonplace.  For Thomas Chippendale, it was more lucrative to sell his book which was easier to ship and established himself as the style of the era.   

It would make sense when looking at his work that Maurits Cornelis Escher started out studying architecture.  Soon, due to poor grades and an inclination for drawing rather than building he switched his study to the decorative arts.  After marveling at the intricate tessellation patterns that adorned the Alhambra he settled in Italy for a time and eventually the back in the Netherlands.  The fascination of the impossibility of Escher’s images is what attracts most to his work.  Staircases go in circles, inhabitants defy gravity, inanimate drawings become alive and then back again.  His engineer father may have been disappointed he was not successful in architecture but today his work does more to influence not just architecture but mathematics and science than if he had.   

Another famous furniture maker was Charles Eames.  Along with his wife Ray and their highly influential studio they essentially defined what mid-century modern design is.  It must be said, with all the wonderful designs produced by this team, and most of which I would like to own, there is just one that I never want to see in my house.  That is the infamous lounge.  I know most people disagree with me on this but I just can’t stand the sight of the thing.  What is strange is that I don’t have this reaction to any other piece of furniture.  I marvel at the complexity of their plywood manipulation.  I adore the Eiffel tower base.  Who doesn’t want a chair from the aluminum group in their office?  And the walnut stools…yes, I’ll take three.  Not to mention, as a couple, they look like they would be a hoot to hang with, just don’t ever ask me to sit in that awful chair. 
Charles was smart enough to employ a great team of designers whose mark on design is far reaching, not just in furniture design.  They conceptualized the pre-fab house and examined scale on a universal and microscopic level in film.  The manner in which the office operated was groundbreaking as well.  Unlike most design firms of the time, gone were the straight rows of drafting tables.  It looked more like controlled chaos with large worktables which encouraged collaboration among the team.  The clear genius of Charles is evident to this day.  So, I guess I can forgive one small chair.


Monday, June 4, 2012

Mackintosh-Wright-Gaudi (4-10 June)

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Scottish architect & furniture designer, birthday 7 June 1868
Frank Lloyd Wright, American architect & educator, birthday 8 June 1867
Antoni Gaudí, Spanish Catalan architect, death 10 June 1926

The most notable Scottish architect is without question Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  The springboard of his career was when he won the competition to design the new building for the Glasgow School of Art. With his future wife Margaret Macdonald collaborating on the interiors, the result was a blend of clean rectangular shapes with languid and delicate curves sourced from Art Nouveau.  In the years that followed he designed a chain of tea rooms for Kate Cranston.  For each he designed not only the walls and furniture but in the case of the Willow’s Room de Luxe he went so far as to design the teaspoons and the waitresses’ uniforms.  At the Sauchiehall Street Tearoom he developed his signature “light feminine” and “dark masculine” color schemes; something that seems commonplace today.  One could say that Mackintosh originated the concept of “brand identity” not just for himself as a designer but for his clients. 
His innovative rectilinear chairs had far reaching influence as later seen in the dining set of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House.  Later Mackintosh along with his wife, her sister and Herbert McNair would become known as “The Four” and developed The Spook School.   The group was one of the first to exhibit at the Vienna Secession as examples of the Gesamthkunstwerk (“total work of art”) premise.    

I again beg for forgiveness as I indulge in childhood heroes this week.  When it comes to Frank Lloyd Wright deciding what to highlight is a virtual impossibility.  As a child interested in architecture I was naturally drawn to Wright not just for his genius but on a subconscious level as so much of how our modern lives are arranged can be linked to his innovation.  Wright emerged from the Arts and Crafts tradition to define American architectural style.  The concept of the Usonian House set the stage for suburban development after World War II.  The Prairie School of thought brought us the “Ranch”-style house and his earlier work with concrete formwork is still emulated today.  As I visit New York this weekend, the only thing that is holding me back from sneaking a pair of rollerblades onto the ramp of the Guggenheim is the fact it is currently closed for an installation. 
But I think one of the most humanizing characteristic of Wright’s illustrious career is the fact that when his clients called to inquire to the progress of the design for their vacation home, he lied and told them preliminary drawings are ready for review.  Wright proceeded to quickly draft up a few elevations and a plan in the three hours it took them to drive to his office.  The result was Fallingwater.  See, we all procrastinate and fib every once in a while. 

Allow me to indulge just a moment longer…the second most influential architect of my own personal career is Antoni Gaudí.  His striking and distinct style is nothing more than captivating.  One feels as though sucked into a surrealistic fantasy as Gaudí elaborated on Art Nouveau concepts incorporating native Catalan techniques of tile work called trencadís as well as wrought iron and stained glass.  This favored son of Barcelona enriched the city with such works as Sagrada Família, Casa Milà and Park Güell to name a few.  His work however was widely dismissed after his death due to several factors including the proliferation of the modernist design movement, the Spanish Civil War and the fact that he left behind no written documents. 
Before the advent of modern engineering let alone computer drafting Gaudí used weighted string models upside down to design the complex arch forces and weight distribution.   His work may not have been as prolific as Wright’s by comparison but it is ingenious none the less.  After all, we would not have the term “gaudy” if it were not for Gaudí.  And as I always like to say: “Gaudiness is next to Godliness”; fitting for the man sometimes referred to as “God’s Architect.”