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Monday, January 31, 2011

Objects of Desire

Sometimes when I have trouble sleeping I furnish an Imaginary house with some of my favorite pieces of furniture, decorative items and art. Ever since I first saw it years ago in a magazine, I have coveted a Carlo Mollino Tavolo a Vertebra. The chances for me getting one are pretty slim as the last one sold for in excess of $1 million and a less, to my eye, beautiful Reale table by Mollino sold last year for $3.8 million. Still, it's in the dining room of my fantasy house. I've always loved Klismos chairs but I'm not sure if they would just be a little be de trop and detract from the pure simplicity of the table. I'd have to see them side by side to make the call.

I recently saw another dining room table that is a close second to Mollino's. It was designed by Noguchi for Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden for their stunning Wallace Harrison-designed house in Northeast Harbor, Maine. I'm one of those people who has never really liked round tables--I know they're supposed to be more conducive to conversation, but I guess because I grew up sitting at a rectangular one, I feel more comfortable at that kind of table. What's so brilliant about the Noguchi table is its amorphous shape is both circular and rectangular so you get the best of both worlds. The one thing that needles me is the extra spindly support at one end--I wish the table was able to stand on the wasp nest like central pedestal without it, or at least have a support that was less obtrusive.

Though very different the Mollino and Noguchi tables have a wonderful organic quality, evoking bone and shell that really appeals to me. I also covet a Curtis Jere's Raindrops mirror. I love mirrors for how they play with space and add light and interest to a room. This 1970s Jere one is gorgeous.

A new addition to my fantasy house would definitely be the felt Cappellini Peacock Chair, which I came across flipping through an old Vanity Fair. I love it; it's fun referencing the creature that inspired it without being cutsey. It also looks comfortable.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Maison de Verre

Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre is a revelation. A ‘High Tech” design, completed in 1932, decades before such a term was coined, the house was built for Annie Dalsace and her husband, Jean. The Dalsaces were close friends and patrons of Chareau’s and he built for them an abode perfectly tailored to their interests, habits and demands.

In reality, construction of the house was a collaboration between Chareau and Dutch architect, Bernard Bijvoët, although it is Chareau’s vision behind the innovative design. The house, which took four years to complete, was built on the site of (and partially under) an 18th century hôtel particulier on the rue Saint Guillaume on Paris's Left Bank. The original building, which was enclosed on all sides and included a forecourt and rear garden was purchased by Mme Dalsace’s father in 1928 with the intention of tearing it down and replacing it with an entirely new structure. But the building also contained an elderly, legally protected tenant on the top floor. So the plan of razing the structure and starting anew was scratched. Instead Chareau and Bijvoët embarked on a highly unusual approach. They placed steel supports under the top floor apartment, demolished the building underneath, and inserted the new house in the void. The Maison de Verre took four years to complete.

The new house, encased in a translucent skin of glass block, contains three levels: Dr. Dalsace’s office on the first floor, the living area with a dramatic grand salon on the second and sleeping quarters on the third. The glass blocks allow for diffused light to fill the house with select expanses of clear glazing that provide views of the garden. The effect is clean and spare, evoking the astringent beauty of Japanese design. At night the house glows and seems disembodied, hovering ethereally above the courtyard.

The aesthetic of the Maison de Verre is decidedly industrial. There are exposed steel beams, perforated metal sheeting, industrial light fixtures. A "well oiled machine," the house boasts numerous mechanical elements: sliding, folding or rotating screens in glass or metal that define and make adaptable the internal space, an overhead trolley dumb waiter running from kitchen to dining room, a retractable stair from the blue salon to Mme Dalsace's bedroom and a weight activated lighting system in the floor of Dr. Dalsace’s telephone booth. The Mason de Verre is an homage to function, but also to industrial form: Perelli rubber floor tiles—their circular blisters, intended to cushion feet on factory floors nicely echo the circular motif found in the ubiquitous glass blocks—are used on the stairs and in the grand salon. (Silly me, before seeing the Maison de Verre, I thought the use of this particular industrial flooring was a specifically 1980s innovation).

It turns out Chareau was an admirer of Cubism (the subject of my Master’s thesis). He amassed quite an impressive collection of “horrible paintings” (as some of his friends were wont to call them) by Picasso, Braque and Gris. They proved to be his salvation from financial ruin when he sold them in the late ‘30s. What interested me was to note the style’s unmistakable influence on his work. His layering of planes and textures seems so distinctly Cubist to me. I see it at the Grand Hotel in Tours, in the folding fan screens and the tessellating designs he used in fabric, mosaic tile and wall treatments; and it’s also prevalent in many of his table and desk designs, which feature dramatic Cubist-like shelving options.

At the Maison de Verre, Chareau explores all aspects of the Cubist aesthetic. I have not seen the house in person and perhaps the effect is more pronounced when looking at photographs, which are two-dimensional. But I was stuck, for what I took to be, Chareau’s constant toying with spatial perception. In the grand salon the vertical steel beams and the horizontal staircase treads slash across the space, calling into question our sense of it. In certain directions we’re not sure which way things are heading. Are they coming towards us, or moving away; this concurrent sense of depth, flatness and protuberance apes the spatial dynamism of Analytic Cubism. Textural layering of different elements—the Jean Lurçat needlepoint, enormous wall of books, and paintings—all set against the industrial backdrop is a complex Cubist collage, and Lurçat’s designs themselves (of which I’m sure Chareau had some hand in) with their bright colors, overlapping abstract and representational shapes and sprinkled with Pointillist confetti are Synthetic Cubist confections.

While I love the Lurçat tapestries that cover the chairs and sofa, I’m not completely swayed by Chareau’s furniture designs. He did produce interesting tables, desks and lighting, but with the exception of his folding garden version, I find his chairs clunky and uncomfortable-looking. They’re heavy on the art deco and too closely aligned with what you’d see in some proper bourgeois home. While Chareau’s architecture is audacious, when it came to furniture, it’s as if he couldn’t quite let go of his preconceived ideas about what constitutes acceptable design.

Chareau's architectural output was fairly small, but after he moved to the States during WWII, he designed a house-studio for Robert Motherwell in East Hampton. This structure really speaks to me as Chareau incorporated a Quonset hut into the design. I have always harbored notions about living in a Quonset hut—I know, I know: freezing in the winter, broiling in the summer. How about as a summer retreat situated on a northern lake somewhere? I love the simplicity of design and quasi-mobility. The graceful arching shape is reminiscent of the asphalt plant hard by Carl Schurz Park in New York, which Khrushchev famously admired when he visited New York. (The lowly industrial structure was the only building he admired, so the story goes, and I have to say Khrushchev was onto something.)

A masterpiece of Modernism, the Maison de Verre is unquestionably a bold design. Though constructed from “cold” industrial materials, there’s a definite warmth about the house. To a large degree this has to do with the appointments that create an inviting and gemütlich atmosphere. But the architectural design is the soul of the house and it imparts an irrefutable sense of harmony and joy. Three generations of Dalsaces ended up happily living there, a testament to its comfort, allure and staying power. Lovingly restored bt its current owner AMerican , Robert Rubin, the Maison de Verre is open for limited tours.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Little Late to the Party

Just heard Reggie Watts (on Studio 360) for the first time. Wow.

Though he’s referred to as a comedian and musician, I would call him a performance artist. He uses improvisation, stream of consciousness and a rotating cast of personae—he has a great ear for accents—mixed with a cappella compositions and a sound mixing control board.

Born in Germany, the only child of a French mother and an African-American father, Watts was raised in Great Falls, Montana. From the time he was five until he was 16, Watts studied piano and violin. He attended the Art Institute of Seattle before eventually studying jazz at Cornish College of the Arts. Along the way, he played in a number of Seattle bands of wildly varying styles/genres.

Watts reminds me of a funky Laurie Anderson, taking big ideas—Watts has a serious interest in theoretical physics—combining them with music and voice filters. Anderson’s music has classical origins; Watts’s is rooted in jazz and soul. His complex musical compositions also remind me of another favorite, The Orb.

Here's a taste:



Friday, January 14, 2011

True Blue

My mother’s younger sister, Dorothy Chilcott Jackson, lived in New York in the 1950s and ‘60s working in publishing for one of the photography journals, either Modern Photography or Popular Photography and running with the hip, intellectual crowd in the Village. I don’t know much about that aspect of her life, having been so young, but I wanted to convey what a remarkable person she was. When I was little I called her Aunt Dottie. At about 13 she insisted I switch to “DJ,” her initials, which is what my older siblings had taken to calling her. She loathed the dotty-sounding Dottie; to me, DJ sounded cool, and it made me feel very grown up to call her that.

DJ was wonderful. She was funny and fun to be with. She possessed such a quick wit and zest for life; I loved being around her. Everyone did. In addition to being my aunt, DJ was also my godmother. I always felt we had a special bond on account of this. But one of the great things about DJ was she was able to convey this to me without diminishing her love for her other nieces and nephews. She adored us all.

DJ was, I realized much later in life, a lesbian. It was never an issue—even with my very prim and proper grandmother who I’m sure was much less naïve than one would think—and was never discussed openly, but it seemed entirely normal. I think the way the adults handled it with acceptance and lack of interference is responsible for how tolerant I and my siblings have always been about homosexuality. DJ had had beaux in New York when she was a gamine twenty-something and I’m not sure when she made the switch. As long as I can remember, Jane was there. I wouldn’t call DJ butch, though she preferred jeans and kept her hair cut short, she wore dresses and lipstick, heels and jewelry when situations called for them, but when I think about it, her energy was male. She was a lifelong tomboy and did things men (back then at least) did: sailing, fishing, constructing things. I don’t believe she ever hunted; she was a gentle soul and most likely it wouldn’t have appealed to her, but I’m sure she would have been a crack shot (like her maternal grandfather) and could have done it if push came to shove. She was sporty and loved physical activity, especially alpine skiing. She liked fast cars, Labrador Retrievers, Maine Coon cats and most especially young people for whom she had a special affinity.

She was multi-talented: an astute writer, terrific photographer, talented graphic designer, excellent and adventurous cook. She had a natural élan and great taste both in her environment and clothes (something she and her sisters inherited from their inherently stylish mother) with a tendency toward ethnic touches. She was independent, self-sufficient and brave, building her delightful cabin in Vermont herself. It was a simple, yet handsome structure, vaguely Scandinavian that could easily grace the pages of one of the hipper shelter magazines today. She was a consummate New Englander. She knew how to live off the land, digging for clams, fishing for flounder and picking berries in her beloved Maine. She would take us all along on foraging adventures, teaching us these skills. Some of my favorite memories center around her wonderful shack in Birch Harbor. Others are from Silvermine, Connecticut in her cozy house that always smelled like wood smoke, where we celebrated the most wonderful Thanksgivings and I played office in her home office and swung in the exhilarating hilltop swing. Later in palatial New Canaan, twirling around in her Arne Jacobson egg chair by the slate hearth, swimming with the dogs in the beautiful grotto-like indoor pool, changing in the hysterical, orange carpeted (floor, walls and ceiling) changing room, lying on her bed watching movies on TV with her and Jane.

When things got tough, after the devastating break up with Jane and she was strapped financially, she worked in a sardine factory in Maine making fast friends with the locals. They loved her, loved her authenticity, her warmth, her integrity, her particular charm. For her it was an adventure and a means to perfect her already spot on Down East accent and collect Maineisms.

Since her death in 1984, I’ve wondered so many times what she would have thought of this and that. She suffered through Nixon and Reagan and Vietnam. I remember her derision at certain jargon—she hated “the bottom line,” for instance. There have been so many choice examples since then that she would have enjoyed raking over the coals—what she would have made of Dubya-speak, I can only wonder at and regret not knowing. But I see so well her delight with the good that has transpired (the Internet, the end of apartheid, Obama), I feel her absent comfort during the hard times (9/11, the deaths of my parents) and hear her scorn expressed through a wicked sense of humor (the Bush years, Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney).

I think part of the reason she died when she did was she’d had so many disappointments, both professional and personal and was just exhausted by the struggle and gave up, allowing the cancer in her gut nurtured by worry to carry her away. It is one of the great sadnesses of my life that she died so early on. I miss her very much.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Working on two very different articles. A profile of photographer, William Albert Allard and a feature on the extraordinary artist, writer and style maven, Beatrix Ost. The Ost piece is basically finished, just waiting to see if the final edits made it through. It was fun to write. As part of my research, I read her memoir, My Father's House, which was very well written. And of course it is a treat to be in her presence soaking up her chicness and élan.

The Allard is coming together. Right now I am reading his book, Five Decades. Allard, who has worked for nearly half a century for National Geographic as a photojournalist is a consummate storyteller both with the camera and the pen. This neatly sums up his approach: "I think the best pictures are often on the edges of any situation, I don’t find photographing the situation nearly as interesting as photographing the edges.” His writing is a joy to read, but I am eager to finish the book so I can start the writing!

Now for the tenuous link connecting the two, when I first saw Allard's photograph of actress, Benedetta Buccellato, I thought it was Ost.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Nameless Hour

One of my favorite things to do is to go to the thermal baths in Warm Springs, Virginia. The area was sacred to the Indians who regularly soaked in the waters for spiritual and salubrious reasons. For me, it is indeed a spiritual experience floating in the waters: a letting go, a return to the womb, an elemental connection with nature. I always leave feeling refreshed, renewed and on some level, healed.

I had a similar experience watching Sigalit Landau’s hypnotic DeadSee which is part of the exhibition The Nameless Hour: Places of Reverie, Paths of Reflection at VCU’s Anderson Gallery. It has all the characteristics of a good art video, beautiful to look at and curious with an element of suspense, qualities that draw you in, making it impossible to look away. Landau is Israeli and uses the Dead Sea with its historical significance and high saline content repeatedly in her work. DeadSee begins with the camera hovering over watermelons bobbing in water. As it pulls back, we see they are strung together forming a ball. Most are intact but a few have been cut to expose their red flesh. As the camera continues moving away we see the artist, nude and floating within the ball which is slowly uncoiling, the long line of watermelons, like a string of pearls moving off to the right. More than anything it looks strangely molecular. It’s so odd and mysterious and visually appealing, one is riveted. We want to see what happens to Landau’s body when her section uncoils, what the bits of red from the cut watermelons will look like as they move in the green line across the screen, most of all we just want to make sense of it, if only in a nebulous, metaphorical way. Nothing all that surprising happens and yet the whole thing is a surprise.

There is a second Landau video in the show. In it she stands on a watermelon floating in the Dead Sea. Shot underwater and looking up, the top quarter of the video is a fish eye view of the alien world above, a blurry swirl of bright sunlight, blue sky and movement. Below, one senses the quiet and calm and the eternal constancy of the turquoise depths of that storied body of water. Landau had a major installation at MoMA a few years back. I am sorry I missed it; it won’t happen again.

My visual water cure continued with Janine Antoni’s life size video Touch in which she crosses a tightrope set up on a beach. As she steps on the rope it aligns briefly with the horizon and her feet appear to be stepping directly on the ocean. It’s a nice metaphor for an island girl (Antoni grew up in the Bahamas) whose existence would have spanned sea and land and for whom the horizon would have represented (for better or worse) the larger world. When Antoni steps out of the field of vision, the rope hovers there and then fades away so that we see a pristine view of the ocean. It happened so subtly, at first I thought I’d imagined it.

I first became aware of Pipilotti Rist years ago when the video of herself walking along a street gaily smashing car windows with a red hot poker went viral, or as viral as things did back in 2000. Gravity, Be my Friend her installation here is simply extraordinary. One is directed to enter the room, remove one’s shoes and sit (I ended up lying down) on an amoeba shaped pile of carpet layered in such a way to recall a topographical map. The aesthetic is decidedly groovy ‘70s. On the ceiling, within a mirror image amoeba shaped frame, an ecstatic (and downright trippy) video of figures frolicking in water, amidst flowers and weeds is projected. It’s a kaleidoscope of color and images. Joyful, fresh and just plain fun. A cool soundtrack adds aural balance to this visual feast. I really could have spent the entire afternoon there.

Stephen Cartwright’s work explores landscapes that have been altered by man. Fort Peck recreates the topography of a valley flooded to form a reservoir. A graceful hanging sculpture of translucent laser cut plastic suspended by fine wire, it’s hung at waist height so that you look down on it. The piece steps beyond its footprint, casting filmy shadows about the room.

To create his immersive soundscapes, The Sound of the Red Earth and Water Stephen Vitiello made extensive recordings in the Australian Outback. For this installation, he collaborated with Jeremy Choate using neon tubes of light to complement the sounds. I love me some neon and standing within the glowing light with the sounds washing over me was intense.

So I left the gallery after being taken on various journeys by different artists. They took me places I didn’t expect and provided me with an hour of reverie and reflection that left me inspired, uplifted and renewed.