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

Monday, December 3, 2012

Folding Chair-Royal Opera House-Freud (3-9 December)

on this date in Design…

Folding Theater Chair, American inventor Aaron Allen, patented 5 December 1854
Royal Opera House, London, United Kingdom, opens 7 December 1732
Lucian Freud, German-born British painter, birthday 8 December 1922


A folding chair seems like such a simple concept and in fact it is.  After all there have been multiple versions of portable chairs dating back from nomadic tribes.  However, it appears as though it took millennia to reach the theater.  In Shakespearean times, those in the audience stood for the duration of the performance.  It is no wonder they might turn into harsh critics if the play not worth their tired feet.  Only those privileged enough to afford a balcony might find a space on a wooden bench.  Finally, in the mid-19th century Aaron Allen found a solution where a theater owner might appease the masses and retain maximum profits. 
With the folding theater seat, precious space was used efficiently as the aisle between rows could be narrowed.  The seats were still wooden but at least they were seats.  Today, theater owners continue to cater to their patrons as their seats have become larger, sumptuously upholstered and come with a cup holder (just like your car).  They know that if they keep the rabble happy they will be less likely to throw their popcorn at the screen.  But in reality, as “home theaters” become more and more sumptuous as well, the likelihood one might venture out to a theater has declined.  It is unlikely theater will die out completely which makes the overall viewer experience all the more important. 


By the time the first Royal Opera House at Covent Garden was built, Allen’s invention was more than a century away.  As can be seen in the image here, those on the floor are standing.  There have been a total of three theaters built on this site, the first being destroyed by fire in 1808.  That building designed by Edward Shepherd added to the religious complex begun by who can be described as the first significant British architect of the modern era: Inigo Jones. 
Interestingly, Jones started out as a theatrical designer before he reached notoriety as an architect.  The Royal Opera not only housed the company managed by John Rich, it also was the venue by which George Frideric Handel became one of the most significant composers of the era as musical director.  A large portion of his work was composed specifically for the venue. Unfortunately, Handel’s “Messiah” which debuted in Dublin in 1742 to great applause and adulation was harshly criticized when it was presented at the Royal Opera a year later.
The critics thought it too exalted a piece to be performed in a theater by singers in secular garb rather than in a cathedral.  It has of course become his most celebrated and most performed work of all time.  It is assured it will be heard at least once this Christmas season at some point. 


If Sigmund Freud made you uncomfortable with the subconscious thoughts you might be harboring about your mother, then his grandson Lucian makes you even more so as you are compelled to stare into the exposed souls of his subjects.  Among those who have willingly and wholeheartedly bore their souls to him include a pregnant Kate Moss and the Queen of England. 
The nudes who sat for Lucian Freud are not only free of clothes but seem to let lose all their emotions and thoughts to the canvas.  Flesh tones highlight what appear to be the most unattractive portions of the figure which in turn make them compelling, captivating and beautiful.  A few years ago, a U.S. television show did a piece on an exposition of his only to receive a mountain of angry letters from viewers. 
The most upsetting thing to them was producers had chosen to film the work with strategically placed visitors in front what might be argued as offensive anatomy to act as natural censor bars.  It appears that even over the television screen, Lucian Freud’s work begs to be seen completely exposed. 


Globe Theater, London, U.K. 
iPic Movie Theaters 
IMAX Movie Theaters 

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, U.K.
Annotated full façade of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera House Collections online
Biography of Inigo Jones from the Royal Insitute of British Architects
Handel House, London, U.K.
Handel's Messiah Hallelujah Chorus

Article on Lucian Freud, CBS Sunday Morning
Slideshow of Lucian Freud work, CBS Sunday Morning
Lucian Freud work on artnet
Lucian Freud work at MoMA, NYC
Interview with Lucian Freud, 1988 
Obituary for Lucian Freud, the Daily Mail