Monday, August 27, 2012

Ray-Ruhlmann-van Doesburg (27 August - 2 September)

Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitsky), American modernist artist, birthday 27 August 1890
Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, French Art Deco furniture & interior designer, birthday 28 August 1879
Theo van Doesburg (Christian Emil Küpper), Dutch artist, birthday 30 August 1883

“Why?  Who cares?  Who doesn’t care?”  These are the questions Man Ray posed as the only American artist who played a prominent role in launching both the Dada and Surrealist art movements.  Raised in New York City, he was extremely influenced by the avant-garde pieces displayed at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery (see post our post from 9 July).  As one to originate the “BoHo” lifestyle, Ray shunned college and began challenging the formal constraints of the visual arts.  He taught himself photography and invented what would become known as the “rayograph” where he would take objects and expose them directly onto photosensitive paper, much like a sun print but in the studio environment.  By 1921, he left the U.S. and his first wife to settle in Paris where he became entrenched with the cultural elite residing there and documented many such as Picasso, Hemmingway, Dali, Stein and Joyce in striking photographs.  It is here where he met Kiki of Montparnasse whom would be his most famous subject.
Ray also worked closely with Marcel Duchamp where they developed Dada as an attempt to create work so absurd it confused the viewer’s sense of reality.  This eventually would lead to surrealism where the subconscious or non-rational significance of imagery was explored in more depth.  Briefly during WWII he relocated to Los Angeles but was frustrated as American audiences only considered him a fashion photographer and never took his film or other work as significantly as he desired.  Therefore, he and Kiki returned to France in 1951 for the remainder of their lives in surrealist bliss that deliberately defied reason.
When Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann inherited his father’s painting and contracting business he quickly developed it into one of the most significant furniture & design company in Europe.  He openly despised the clunkiness of the Arts & Crafts movement remarking that it was too common for the wealthy.  Essentially, according to Ruhlmann, since the movement originated from the common people that the elite, from whom all fashion derives, would have no desire to own it.  “Fashion’s real purpose is to display wealth,” and of course provencal style did just the opposite.  His designs started out in the Art Nouveau and then morphed quite well into the Art Deco period inspired by classical elements.  Ruhlmann sought out the rarest woods and inlayed his pieces with ivory.  To protect the notoriety of his design, when he discovered he was terminally ill, Ruhlmann wrote in his will that his company was to be dissolved.  Today, his pieces hold fast as the epitome of style and luxury.  

It is no surprise when looking at their work that Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian were contemporaries, friends and collaborators who developed the De Stijl movement.  However, this relationship ended due to a heated debate over, of all things, diagonal lines: van Doesburg for, Mondrian against.  As Mondrian stuck to his abstract guns, van Doesburg ventured into a variety of movements including neo-plasticism, constructivism, Dadaism and elementarism.  His work and opinions were so polarizing that his theories nearly split the newly formed Bauhaus when he started his own architecture course in his Weimar studio. 
It is unclear whether or not he actually was hired faculty but he lured students away from Gropius ultimately laying the philosophical foundations that would become the tenants of Bauhaus principles.  What is most surprising is that for all van Doesburg’s aggressiveness and polarizing opinions, it is the reclusive, bleak and one-dimensional Mondrian who is more remembered by history.  In addition to painting he also was a poet, art critic, designer, typographer, architect and performance artist.  As the polar opposite of the De Stijl austere theories was his work in Dada “performances” where dialogue was intentionally and absurdly interrupted by a planted person in the audience who would bark like a dog.  Van Doesburg was also witness to what would be called “the end of Dada” when a performance in Paris broke out into a riot where an actor’s arm was broken by a disgruntled rival and eventually the police were called to disband the melee.  
The Man Ray Trust
Man Ray's work at MoMA, NYC
A brief documentary of Man Ray by Jean-Paul Fargier
Source for Ruhlmann reproductions
Article on van Doesburg by "The Guardian"
van Doesburg work at MoMA, NYC

Monday, August 20, 2012

Saarinen-Kahlo/Rivera-Andrew (20-26 August)

Eliel Saarinen, Finnish-American architect, birthday 20 August 1873
Eero Saarinen, Finnish-American architect & industrial designer, birthday 20 August 1910
Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera, Mexican painters, anniversary of 1st marriage 21 August 1929
Hurricane Andrew, Category 5 storm, anniversary of landfall in Florida 24 August 1992

Imagine getting a telegram letting you know that you are one of five finalists in a competition for a major national monument project.  Then halt your elation to receive a second telegram two hours later notifying you that in fact it was, not you but your son who was the finalist (with whom you also share a birthday).  What would you do?  Well if you were Eliel Saarinen, open a second bottle of champagne and toast to your son’s success.  This was the scene during the competition for the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.  As testament to his talent, as magnificent as the arch is, it is only a small sampling of what Eero was able to accomplish.  It could be said that, as a juror, he returned the favor to the universe when he saved Jørn Utzon’s entry for the Sydney Opera House from the discard pile.  He captured the spirit of flight with the TWA terminal (now utilized by Jet Blue) in Los Angeles. 
His design of the “Womb Chair” provided a seat to Hugh Hefner for the momentous photo commemorating the premiere issue of Playboy.   It could be argued that with all these achievements that the most prolific are the Tulip chair and Pedestal table.  Again, for personal reasons, I long for Eero’s giant white marble topped pedestal table in my dining room as many do.  No wonder Eero’s designs are still offered in major showrooms around the world. 

If we will entertain the imagination a moment longer, let’s envision being mentored by a well-respected and renowned artist of the 20th century.  Then have that relationship blossom into mutual respect and admiration leading to a matrimonial union which promises to elevate your work.  Thus is what would evolve into the first marriage between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.  It was actually Diego’s third marriage and their subsequent years together would degrade into a tempestuous relationship rife with extramarital affairs on both sides and eventually lead to divorce.  Later the two will remarry each other once more which would thrive due to the fact that they lived in a house where they didn’t actually have to live under the same roof.  Their notorious home connected by an open-air bridge between the wings never overshadowed their separate and extreme talent.  Frida’s work was equally grounded in traditional Mesoamerican themes and deep  
intrapersonal struggles.  Diego’s work was socio-political banners for revolutionary causes.  Both were geniuses in technique and product which established themselves independently as essential artist of the era.  It is simply natural that two great contributors to modern art would be drawn both intellectually and romantically together as their passion for the work was reflective of their passion for life. 

A unique and seemingly counterintuitive feature of modern South Florida homes is the out-swing front door.  Nothing can be more unwelcoming than hitting your guests in the face when you answer the doorbell.  When Hurricane Andrew made landfall in south Florida twenty years ago this week, the storm forever changed the architectural landscape including this annoying feature to keep the door from blowing in.  Largely to blame for the extensive devastation were greedy developers who took dangerous short cuts in speedy home construction that lead to the near complete leveling of Homestead.  Since then, Miami-Dade County was successful for once and got something right: creating stricter building codes to protect the public which have become the model for multiple municipalities along the east coast.  As an architect I enjoy the opportunity to rebuild every few years but, I don’t want to give the impression that my eyes light up at the thought of mass destruction.  On the contrary, a native Floridian like myself understands how to prepare for the occasional “hurrication” the same way
someone in the north knows how to prepare for a blizzard or a Californian knows how to duck into a doorway when the walls sway.  It is a part of life and provides the opportunity to reflect on the glory of electricity while grilling everything perishable from the refrigerator on the back porch with your neighbors.  It also makes for a tougher licensing process for architects in Florida and for that I am even more grateful.

The Gateway Arch Memorial in St. Louis, MO
Images of The Gateway Arch during construction 
Eero Saarinen pieces at Knoll 
Eero Saarinen pieces at Design Within Reach 
Eero Saarinen pieces at MoMA, New York City 
PBS documentary of Frida Kahlo 
PBS documentary of Diego Rivera 
The Complete Works of Frida Kahlo 
The complete works of Diego Rivera  
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration 
Miami-Dade Product Contol main page  
Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Cologne-Mendini-Mathsson (13-19 August)

Cologne Cathedral, Germany, construction begins 14 August 1248, foundation stone laid 15 August 1248, construction ends 14 August 1880
Alessandro Mendini, Italian designer & architect, birthday 16 August 1931
Bruno Mathsson, Swedish furniture designer & architect, death 17 August 1988

In medieval times it was not unusual for the architect of a great cathedral never to see the completion of his masterpiece due to the fact these enormous structures would decades if not over a century to complete.  However, in the case of the Cologne Cathedral, the construction time went way over schedule.  When work halted in the 15th century, a crane remained in place atop one of the half complete towers for nearly 400 years.  The building of a Cathedral was an enormous construction project which employed not only the architect with a lifetime of work but also the multitude of highly secretive guilds which protected the skills of their respective professions such as stone masons, glazers, sculptors, tile setters, etc.  In the pre-internet era, education and knowledge were highly prized and passed on only to carefully selected apprentices.  The socio-political implications of this particular project extend beyond this.  Cathedrals were meant to awe the naïve and mostly illiterate population and this particular cathedral was going to be impressive with what would eventually be the largest façade of any church in the world.  It was also to be a tourist attraction for religious pilgrims to come adore the relics of the Three Kings.  Later during the Protestant Prussian rule, construction commenced in the early 19th century to appease the newly acquired Catholic population spurred on by renewed revival interest in Gothic architecture.

An essential member of the Radical Design movement which emerged during Postmodernism is Alessandro Mendini.  His tongue-in-cheek design of the Lassú chair in 1974 challenged designers to face the ridiculousness of into what the profession was evolving.  By placing it atop a pyramid he farcically elevated the simple chair design onto an altar and then subsequently ritualistically burned another for the cover of Casabella magazine in 1975.  In addition to working for that magazine Mendini also contributed to Modo and Domus.  In 1979 he partnered with Ettore Sottsass and Michele De Lucchi in Studio Alchimia where they disputed what was considered “good taste” and laid the foundation for what would eventually become the Memphis Group. 
Mendini examined the banal and everyday object which then could be decorated not necessarily by the elegant convention of the day.  In addition to numerous projects around the world he was influential in the founding of Domus Academy in Milan which, Italy’s first postgraduate design school.        

As the medieval guilds passed down knowledge through the centuries, Bruno Mathsson was born into four generations of cabinet makers.  This family tradition soon evolved into experimentation with form and emerging technologies which lead to his first success of the Grasshopper Chair in 1931 designed for the Värnamo Hospital.  Unfortunately for the staff and patrons of the hospital, the design was so controversial that it was banished to the attic until Mathsson and his designs became more famous.  Never receiving a formal design education, Mathsson poured over archives from the Arts & Crafts movement which helped him emerge as a highly influential contributor to the Functionalist movement of modern design on the international stage.  Other successes in seating include the Mimat Chair, Eva Chair and Swivel Chair 


Monday, August 6, 2012

Gray-Adler-Nouvel (6-12 August)

Eileen Gray, Irish furniture designer & architect, birthday 9 August 1878
Jonathan Adler, American potter & designer, birthday 11 August 1966
Jean Nouvel, French architect, birthday 12 August 1945

This week we discuss three individuals whose tenacity for design was a hard-fought battle at times. 

The first is Eileen Gray.  As a woman in a male-dominated medium of architecture in the turn of the 20th century it was a struggle to be recognized as the legitimate formidable force she was without the benefit of support networks or a powerful mentor.  To add to the up-hill battle for Gray was where she was working.  Paris at the time was alive with the Art Nouveau and her geometric forms were more in line with the International Style. 
However, it is to that style put in motion by the Bauhaus that Gray provided opulent luxury to the mostly cold industrially produced materials.  Some of these successes were the Bibedum Chair and the E-1027 table designed to indulge her sister’s love of eating breakfast in bed (who doesn’t).  Originally a lacquer artist she was lauded outside of Paris for the interior design for an apartment on Rue de Lota.  Unfortunately, as time wore on and the French critics were relentless she became increasingly reclusive.  Gray isolated herself at the house she designed for her and lover to share on the French Rivera.  
There they were constantly harassed by le Corbusier who would “vandalize” the house with murals he would paint uninvited and in the buff.  Nearly 30 years later there was a resurgence of interest in her work that included some of her pieces being brought back into production.  It is said that Joe Colombo’s Boby Trolley (see last week’s entry) was inspired by a double sided chest she designed for the house. 

Jonathan Adler’s exuberance for design was evident at an early age.  As a teenager he begged his parents for a potter’s wheel where spent most of his time.  Dejected by criticism from a college professor, he gets a “real job” in New York but after three years of misery and having being fired from every job he ever held Adler ventures again into his passion, much to the chagrin of his parents.  Fortunately, buyers for the department store Barney’s recognized the same whimsical optimism Adler professes in persona translated directly into his work and gave him his first large commission.  Since then his empire has expanded into all realms of home furnishings including a commission from Mattel for Barbie’s “real” Dream House in honor of her 50th anniversary.  In addition to inspiring people to unabashedly embrace the smile within he is an advocate for artisans around the world extoling the belief “If your heirs won’t fight over it, we won’t make it.” 

To say that architecture was always a struggle for Jean Nouvel would be untrue.  However, like Jonathan Adler his parents weren’t convinced that a career in art would be a reliable occupation.  They originally urged him to become a teacher like themselves or to go into engineering.  The compromise was architecture and Nouvel has been teaching the world about site-based responsive design ever since. 

The ground-breaking introduction for Nouvel onto the world stage was his commission for the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.  On the south side of the building are thousands of mechanical lenses that contract and expand automatically by photoelectric cells for the regulation of light within the building.  The building is alive and breathing.  This not only alleviates the mechanical systems but it also is reminiscent of Arabic latticework which in of itself is a passive cooling system in an arid climate.  This is the perfect adaptation of one culture’s vernacular transformed into a foreign local.  A second success in Paris is the Foundation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain which is a nearly invisible glass structure that hovers among the trees and between buildings; an unusual sight in the middle of the city.  More examples of Nouvel’s work are scattered around the globe and earned him a Pritzker Prize in 2008.