Saturday, March 24, 2007

Go-Round-Merrily: A selection of design openings

New York City:

On April 20, the New Greek and Roman Galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art will reopen, concluding a 15-year project that returns thousands of works from the museum’s permanent collection to public view. The new galleries will feature objects created between circa 900 B.C. and the early fourth century A.D. Artworks on view will trace the evolution of Greek art in the Hellenistic period and the arts of southern Italy and Etruria, culminating in works from the Roman Empire.

Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design
March 29 to July 22
This month the V&A will open what it bills as the first exploration of "the influence of Surrealism on the worlds of fashion, design, theatre, interiors, film, architecture and advertising." The exhibition looks at the way Surrealist images and thought influenced design across the board. It also looks at the 3-dimensional creations of some of the movement's premiere painters. A few highlights from the exhibition:

Elsa Schiaparelli
'Tear' Evening Dress, 1938
Fabric designed by Salvador Dalí. Viscose rayon and silk blend
Dress: h. 145 cm, Veil 110.5 cm.
V&A: T.393-1974, © V&A Images

The motif of torn dress or flesh first appeared in Dalí's 1936 painting 'Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra'. Schiaparelli's interpretation of this motif combined the illusory and the real. The fabric was printed with a l'oeil pattern of torn flesh, while the tears on the mantle were appliquéd. Pale strips of fabric peel back to reveal a livid pink beneath.

Salvador Dalí
Ruby Lips Brooch, 1949
18-carat yellow gold, natural rubies, pearls
3.2 x 4.8 x 1.5 cm.
Primavera Gallery, New York
Copyright © Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, DACS, London 2007

Dalí wrote of this piece, 'Poets of all ages, of all lands, write of ruby lips and teeth like pearls. It remained for Dalí to translate this poetic cliché into a true Surrealist object'. The use of rubies for lips creates a tension between the sensuality of flesh and the hard allure of precious stones. The transposition of the lips from the mouth to the body accentuates the idea of fetishisation.


Hommage ann Charles Eames: ontwerpen uit de collectie van het
Design museum Gent

June 13 to September 30th

A centenary celebration of the work of Charles and Ray Eames from the permanent collection at Belgium's leading design museum. Small in scale, but big in spirit, the exhibition marks the 100th birthday of Charles, and the international influence of these Los Angeles designers.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Made Anew

A few years ago, Sioban Imms, an art student at the University of Brighton, had a very novel idea. Imms gathered up hodge-podge bundles of forks, knives and spoons from the local charity shop and turned them into new, complete sets by adding an element that united them: resin.

The driving concept behind Pick and Mix cutlery, as it was called, was our society's staggering divorce rate and the resulting issues of identity and abandonment. The added irony of silverware being a primary wedding gift only intensifies the meaning.

The white-resin coating on a group of mismatched spoons allows each unique shape to remain, but joins the group as a whole.

Coating the handles of the discarded flatware with resin allowed Imms to reconnect them, visually, so they looked like a complete service. The pattern variations of the handles were still visible, but only on second glance. "I use existing products that have lost value either as a result of becoming divorced from sets or rendered ‘unfashionable,’" the artist states. "In doing this I hope to set up a dialogue, which inspires us to reconsider the objects we discard or overlook."

By working with recycled materials and exploiting their imperfection, Imms' "new" sets fall right in line with her design tenets: that an object must be socially relevant, technically efficient, visually and conceptually stimulating, all the while remaining simple in form. The resin can be applied to bone, steel, plastic, glass and wood, so the options are limitless. Imms has even devised a way to make them dishwasher safe.

As a follow up to the Pick and Mix cutlery, Imms has begun coating the exteriors of charity-shop glasses (above) that have lost their sets and don't readily sell. The resin reveals any surface detail and allows the original pattern to still be visible on the interior of the glass.

Due to the very nature of the designs, neither can actually be put into production. Though Imms would probably happily accept a commission, as she's clear about tailoring the resin color and coating up to 5,000 pieces, should an offer arise.

For more information, visit

Friday, March 09, 2007

Lots of Silver

On March 28th Sotheby's Paris will be holding a major sale of European silver along with a collection of Art Nouveau belt buckles and Puiforcat drawings. Items range from the sublime to the curious, a selection of which are highlighted below:

A pair of 3-light silver-plated Neoclassical wall sconces, probably Swedish, circa 1780; estimate 6,000-8,000 euros

An unmarked silver-gilt Rococo flatware service comprising 12 forks and knives, each with porcelain handles made in Thuringen, Germany's primary ceramics center from the mid-18th century, circa 1770, and 12 unmarked silver-gilt spoons, also German, but probably later; estimate 4,500-5,500 euros

A large silver Rococo coffee pot of unusual spiraling form, attributed to Guillaume Dengis, Liège, 1768; estimate 25,000-35,000 euros

A silver writing nécessaire, designed to be used for travel and measuring only 13.5 cm (about 5 1/2 inches) when not in use, Paris hallmarks, circa 1750-56; estimate 2,000-3,000 euros

And the star of the show, a rare parcel-gilt Renaissance ewer, marked PH and probably made in Quimper (Brittany), circa 1580; estimate 50,000-80,000 euros:

For more information on the sale or to view the online catalogue, visit

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Edith Wharton - Beneath the Veneer

Having brilliantly tackled biographies of Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, Oxford University professor Hermione Lee has just published the first-ever biography of American author and taste maker, Edith Wharton.

Lee's book takes an unprecedented look at Wharton, by examining her lifelong connection to Europe and revealing her as an unabashedly modern woman whose acute and insiders study of New York social life became novels like The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.

Hitherto seen simply as a documentarian of Gilded Age life from within her own gilded cage, Wharton in Lee's book is presented as a rebel, a brave woman striking out at gender oppression and writing about ambition rather social graces, sex more than love, and money instead of wealth. A matter of semantics, but Lee's pulled off the blinders.

The author probes beyond the genteel gloss and discusses Wharton's travels, her homes, her writing, her work in war-torn Europe, her frustration in an unhappy and childless marriage, and a secret love affair. She, like Wharton, reveals the grain beneath the gilding.

Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee
Published by Chatto & Windus, February 2007

Monday, March 05, 2007

More for Less: Shopping at Auction

The front entrance to Dorotheum, Vienna's leading auction house.

This April, the venerable Vienna-based auction house, Dorotheum, celebrates its 300th birthday. With offices throughout Austria, as well as in Milan and Prague, it has long been a source for interesting and often unusual items.

The firm organizes over 600 sales annually, offering a vast array of material - from art and antiques, to cars, carpets and musical instruments - ranging from museum-quality objects, to more "everyday" antiques that still provide a hefty amount of decorative impact, but for a lot less dosh.

A pair of 19th century Baroque-style armchairs, new muslin upholstery
Estimate: 2400-2600 euros

The few examples shown above and below, from the upcoming Furniture & Decorative Arts sale scheduled for March 27th in Vienna, are perfect examples of beautiful, old pieces with loads of character that can be had for a reasonable price - perhaps even less than the estimate.

There's nothing wrong with a revival, or a chair that no longer has its original upholstery. Is an object any less interesting because its slightly worn or damaged? And how bad is it, really, if a piece of furniture has been modified over the centuries? Its not bad at all, if you know everything up front. Auction houses will tell you, some dealers might not. And let's face it, there's a sense of alleviation just knowing the bumps and spills of daily life won't require a visit from the insurance agent and a trip to the conservator. These are delightful objects to live with easily.

A 19th-century mirror in the 18th-century Neoclassical style, some damage to lower-right corner of frame
Estimate: 1600-2000 euros

A late 18th-early or 19th century Baroque-style chest of drawers
Estimate: 2800-3400 euros

Good-quality reproductions of historical designs are a perfectly viable, though expensive, option if its newness you're after. But if you're looking for something a bit less perfect and with a bit more history, auction houses are a fantastic resource not often used by the general public. Don't be intimidated.

Caveat Emptor, though, and do request a condition report so there aren't any surprises. You will pay shipping, but no dealer mark-up and that should assuage any doubt about the purchase and its real value. Plus, with a highly regarded firm like Dorotheum, you're virtually guaranteed a positive experience. They've been in business for 300 years for a reason.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Collective's Conscience

Named for the tiny mouse displaced by Robert Burns' plow and made famous in his poem To a Mouse, Timorous Beasties is a unique, Glasgow-based studio creating textiles and wall papers that cause us to look twice at our surroundings, too.

Thistle, black lace

Known for their provocative designs, Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons, who met while studying at the Glasgow School of Art, opened their studio in 1990 against the city's blemished backdrop of impoverishment, unemployment, rampant drug and alcohol use, and the violence that resulted from the combination. The city's Miles Better beautification campaign launched in 1983 was helping, but slow to battle the sheer magnitude of the situation. It would be another 16 years before effects were truly seen and Glasgow would win the 1999 UK City of Architecture and Design award. After a two-hundred year struggle, the city has finally rediscovered the prosperity it garnered during the 18th century, when it was a grand and worldly capital. The beauty, technical skill and sobering imagery of Timorous Beasties' award-winning designs reflect these many facets of Glaswegian history.

Glasgow Toile, red on linen

What at first looks like a cheery toile, actually reveals a city ravaged by poverty and addiction. What seems like a 19th century-inspired damask on second glance looks more like a Rorschach test and an innocent lace pattern suddenly reveals a haunting face, just as scrolling vines reveal reptiles. Instead of Robert Adam's harebell swags, thorns and thistles cut an 18th-century silhouette. They are contemporary images produced in a traditional manner, and have been succinctly described as "William Morris on acid."

Digital Iguana, light green

Damask (wallpaper), black gloss on pink

With shops in London, as well as Glasgow, the studio has become quite well known, and as much for their friendlier patterns, as well. Its not all doom and gloom. There are pretty damasks in lively colors and one particularly charming pattern of little birds. A twee London toile (the antithesis to Glasgow's toile) features the city's most recognizable monuments and was recently used by David Linley (the Queen's nephew) for his recent renovation of a suite at Claridge's in Mayfair, one of the city's most luxurious hotels. For two designers who relish the exploration of sociopolitical issues through design, the irony must be positively delightful.

Devil Damask, white lace