Monday, July 30, 2012

Colombo-Bartholdi-Gwathmey (30 July - 5 August)

Joe Colombo, Italian industrial designer, birthday 30 July 1930 & death 30 July 1971
Frédéric Bartholdi, French sculptor, birthday 2 August 1834
Charles Gwathmey, American architect, death 3 August 2009

Joe Colombo’s work can best be described as “space-y”; everything that lead to the ridiculousness of low-budget scenery of sci-fi productions from the 1960s and 70s.  However, Colombo was the original and as so often happens, the intended vision gets lost by the imitators.  After inheriting the family electronic business he expanded into a range of design that sought to challenge traditional aesthetics that no longer applied to the modern lifestyle.  He created micro-living environments in which each element was strategically placed for
efficiency and functioned like a living machine.  Many pieces were designed to be transformative and multi-dimensional such as his Boby Trolley and the Tube chair.  His own apartment was a testing lab for pieces such as the Cabriolet-Bed.  All this innovation came about in a few short years as Colombo had the inauspicious honor of passing away on his own 41st birthday.  It is amazing to think of that brief period Joe Colombo’s influence could be so far-reaching even to this day. 

Although Frédéric Bartholdi is best known for his work “Liberty Enlightening the World” (a.k.a. the Statute of Liberty), he had a career that spanned decades both in his home country and in the U.S.  After being trained in multiple disciplines in Paris he established himself as a preeminent patriotic monument sculptor, the majority of his work is in his hometown region of Alsace.  Additional work this side of the Atlantic includes a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette in Union Square, New York City and the Bartholdi Fountain at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.  But without a doubt, it is the Statue of Liberty; the new Colossus will remain his most notable commission.  Bartholdi’s knack for self-promotion was employed by gaining a patent in the U.S. for the design and reproduction of the statue in miniature.  The proceeds of the sales of these souvenirs before there was an attraction, “pre-venirs” if you will, raised the funding needed to see the statue come to life.  This tactic has been also been used by another notable French duo, Christo and Jeanne-Claude.  It is rumored that Lady Liberty’s face is modeled after his mother and the body after his wife, a subject it could be imagined would make for uncomfortable dinner table conversations at the Bartholdi residence. 

One of the New York Five who sought to elaborate on the Corbusian vision of modernism, Charles Gwathmey extensive career may be most notable for his addition to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in New York City.  Some have described it as the tank to Wright’s toilet bowl but it is in reality a perfect example of elegant high modern simplicity and was inspired by an original rendering by Wright.  The addition seamlessly integrates into the urban landscape
without detracting from the original structure; a method of design that lead him to become the president of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies.  In addition to this and numerous public buildings including the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Gwathmey and his firm were sought after by many wealthy clients for private residences.  These works were so successful that many became repeat customers.   

The Joe Colombo Studio website
The Tube Chair at the Design Museum, London
Joe Colombo pieces at MoMA, New York City
The Statue of Liberty webpage at the National Park Service 
"The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus
Make your own Statue of Liberty souvenir!
Bartholdi Park at the United States Botanic Garded, Washington, D.C.
Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman & Associates website
The Guggenheim Museum, New York City
The Institute for Architecture & Urban Studies website
Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami
Charles Gwathmey's obituary in the New York Times

Monday, July 23, 2012

Rogers-van Gogh-Moses (23-29 July)

Richard Rogers, British architect, birthday 23 July 1933
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch post-impressionist painter, death 29 July 1890
Robert Moses, American urban planner, death 29 July 1981

Although Richard Rogers is most known for his winning collaboration with Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini for the controversial and ground-breaking Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, his career is far more expansive and netted him not only awards and recognition within his own country but also on the world stage with a Pritzker Prize in 2007.  At first glance one may look at the Pompidou Center and believe it is under construction or in a constant state of repair with the scaffold-like grid encasing the public library and modern art museum inside.  However, this experiment with what would
become “high-tech architecture” merely puts on display all the mechanical, plumbing and support systems which make the building function. Even today, designers still seek to bury the guts of a building within the walls which in effect make it more difficult to detect and access problems. Rogers wanted these pieces to be exposed as a primer of how a building functions.  His intricate understanding of urbanism and more importantly the causes of its decline was recognized by the British government which appointed him several essential positions within planning and development organizations.  Rogers was also the mastermind behind London’s Millennium Dome and Lloyd’s building and continues to innovate and illuminate in the built form and in writing.     

The starving, misunderstood, tortured artist; this is what most people believe about Vincent van Gogh and for the most part it is correct.  Since his passing psychiatrists have hotly debated from what of over 30 possible diagnoses he actually suffered.  Most likely it was a combination of multiple issues exacerbated by malnutrition, insomnia and alcohol.  The result of these problems is most infamously the “ear” episode.  In reality, van Gogh didn’t actually cut off his entire ear (images of Reservoir Dogs dancing in my head); it was only (and I say this with a bit of ironic sarcasm) a portion in a manic fit after an argument with Gauguin, whom his doting brother sent to look after him.  Even the manner of his death has been recently debated (and this new theory has yet to be accepted by the van Gogh estate) as the iconography of the van Gogh enigma is both revered and pitied.  The offical story remains: after van Gogh shot himself in the chest in a field, stumbled home and died two days later after somewhat lack-luster medical care came the majority of his fame posthumously. Colleagues and collectors
began to hold multiple memorial exhibitions of the thousands of paintings he completed in his short career of about ten years.  And yes, only one painting sold during his lifetime but currently his work is among the most expensive ever sold.  Whatever one believes about van Gogh, either romantic genius or mentally ill psychotic or both, the work speaks for itself.  It is vibrant, emotional and moving; the true nature and purpose of art.    

“Those who can, build.  Those who can’t, criticize.” was what Robert Moses once said in response to those who questioned his vision.  And build is just what he did, forever sculpting the landscape of not only New York City but the art of urban planning.  Often vilified for his heavy-handed ambitious building and highway projects, his unintentional legacy was to make people stand up, take notice of their surroundings and ultimately care about the urban fabric in which they live.  Most notably, Moses’ plan for the Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway in New Orleans lead the citizenry to fight for the designation of the French Quarter as a historic district halting the project.  Imagine NOLA without those 14 by 7 blocks of history if Moses had his way.  Like most New Yorkers, he never held a driver’s license but the driving force behind much of what he was able to build was to accommodate the automobile which also fostered the growth of suburban sprawl.  As chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority he had massive amounts of funding for his projects which he could spend freely without oversight.  Among his mishaps include a development scheme which allowed Penn Station to be destroyed; he fought against the Shakespeare in the Park as a free festival; essentially ran the Dodgers out of New York
and was responsible for the fiasco of the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  However, for all the bad there is plenty of good.  Moses not only was instrumental to making New York more accessible by car but he built multiple public pools during the Depression through the WPA, wooed the United Nations away from Philadelphia and built tens of thousands of apartments within the city (forget he destroyed almost as many as he constructed).                 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Disneyland-Hejduk-de la Renta (16-22 July)

Disneyland, theme park, anniversary of opening 18 July 1955
John Hejduk, American architect, artist & educator, birthday 19 July 1929
Oscar de la Renta, Dominican-born fashion designer, birthday 22 July 1932

Hooray!  Disneyland!  This may seem a trite addition this week but it is without question that Walt Disney was a pioneer in the family entertainment industry.  With the opening of Disneyland in California he transformed the amusement park from a low-brow experience to a childhood staple while simultaneously promoting the brand of Disney.  I know of no child in the U.S. that does not want to visit a Disney park nor one that has never heard of Mickey Mouse.  Say what you will about the over commercialization of childhood or the total dominance of Disney in the industry that boarders on monopoly or the insidious nature of the company’s lobbyists who viciously pursue legislation to expand copyright laws which highjack our collective culture.  Ultimately, Walt Disney saw the opportunity that a park of this nature could provide for cross-promotion and it is a formula that has been and will continue to be mimicked in perpetuity. 

Perhaps the least known of the New York Five, John Hejduk did more for the educational community than the others.  His work was heavily theoretical which lent itself very well to studio instruction.  Hejduk developed exercises which explored shapes, both rigid and freeform within the confines of a grid.  What made it so attractive to the educational community was that the almost elementary correlation between cause and effect: if an object is of this shape and is placed here, what are the repercussions to the environment and its inhabitants?  Furthermore, what determines that shape?  This is something that linked him figuratively to the other four but ultimately set him apart as his work grew more and more theoretical.  As the dean of the Cooper Union’s School of Architecture for nearly 30 years Hejduk looked after and help launch multitudes of architects and theoreticians into the design world.  I personally recall very well studying Wall House #2 which, although was designed for Connecticut, was not built until after his death in homage in the Netherlands.       

Oh (sigh) Oscar.  One cannot help but have a wispy contented smile when uttering the name de la Renta.  When he came to Spain from the Dominican Republic it was to study painting but he soon discovered a passion for not just art but Spanish culture from bullfighting, music, flamenco and fashion.  Of course the influence of his Balenciaga training is plainly evident but de la Renta was able to then to develop his own distinct and iconic style. His ground-breaking entrance into French haute-couture helped elevate  
an already phenomenal designer.  But then he bravely ventured into the ready-to-wear market and other fashion houses soon followed his lead.  Even his everyday pieces exude glamour and elegance which epitomizes the belief that one should start at the top and then scale down.  Everyone could use a bright spot in one’s day and Oscar is able to deliver it in fashion.  No wonder Jackie Kennedy-Onassis was one of the first that gravitated to his studio.    

Monday, July 9, 2012

Graves-Stieglitz-Loewy (9-15 July)

Michael Graves, American architect, birthday 9 July 1934
Alfred Stieglitz, American photographer & modern art promoter, death 13 July 1946
Raymond Loewy, American industrial designer, death 14 July 1986

Long before Graves set the standard for the retail giant Target’s mantra for affordable great design, Michael Graves was making significant waves in the architecture and design industry.  First, as one of the New York Five and secondly, as a founding member of the ground-breaking (and controversial) Memphis Group, he helped establish the postmodern flair that erupted in the 1980s.  As discussed last week, it is no secret this has to be my least favorite of design movements.  Bertrand Pellegrin of the San Francisco Chronicle once called it “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price.”  It continues to be so polarizing that Graves’ Portland Building was recently listed by a survey of architects as the #1 building that should be demolished.  Although I’m not in love with it I can think of a hundred other more offensive buildings that should be removed from the landscape before that one. 

With this being said, I actually do like a lot of what Mr. Graves has offered to the world.  The teakettle he designed for Alessi is simple, sweet and straightforward.  It is even color-coded: red for hot and blue for cool.  The majority of his products are not only ingeniously ergonomic but they are universally designed as well so those with limited mobility and functionality can utilize them…and in style.  This must be personally important to Graves as in 2003, an infection left him paralyzed from the waist down.  In 2010 his firm was commissioned to design single family prototype homes that address the special needs of wounded soldiers.  These homes are bright, comfortable and most importantly effective. 

I can’t think of a more appropriate or empathetic designer for this project. 

Alfred Stieglitz’s single-handed decades-long promotion of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work and significance might have appeared to be a philanderer’s attempt to legitimize his affair.  However, if he had not forced the public to take notice of her and brought to America for the first time such greats as Rodin, Matisse, Cezanne & Picasso in addition to being a brilliant artist himself, how dismal would the art scene would be.  For his own work, Stieglitz rallied to have the entire medium of photography recognized in the fine art market.  The common thought of the time was it was low-brow and circumstantial.  However, Stieglitz pressed on by being an active and influential member of several photography groups including the Photo-Secession and published the photography journal Camera Work. 
To answer antagonistic critics, he would leave the rough edges of his photographs to demonstrate he had in fact framed the image in the camera on scene and not cropped it later; he had composed the shot intentionally.  Stieglitz had several galleries over the years but it was what was to be known as “291” that was the most influential and the center of the avant-garde culture in the U.S.  It was in this gallery that he first showed O’Keeffe’s work without her knowledge or permission.  Subsequently, this was the catalyst of their eventual meeting and life-long love affair. 

Yet another ground-breaker to his field, Raymond Loewy is considered to be the “Father of Industrial Design”.  His succinct understanding between design and economy was what dictated the development of American capitalistic culture following the end of WWII and what landed him on the cover of Time magazine.  He was quoted as stating the truism “between two products equal in price, function & quality, the better looking will outsell the other.”  For someone who was born a foreigner, he not only lived the American dream (leaving France with only $50 in his pocket) he shaped how the country looked.  First by creating the streamlined passenger locomotives for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and then by designing for and branding such American icons as Lucky Strike, Greyhound Bus, Shell Oil and Studebaker.  To continue this legacy and in his honor, his daughter established a foundation which continues to promote and encourage the further development of the discipline internationally.

Michael Graves & Associates/Design Group
Michael Graves' products for Target
10 Buildings That Should Be Demolished (article)
Bertrand Pellegrin's article for the San Francisco Chronical on 1980s Postmodernism
Michael Graves Products for Alessi
Wounded Warrior Home Project, Fort Belvoir, VA
The Alfred Stieglitz & Georgia O'Keeffe Archive
Alfred Stieglitz work at MoMA, New York City
The Raymond Loewy website
The Raymond Loewy Foundation
to learn more about the images shown here

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.