Spring cleaning isn’t just for attics—the Museum’s Design Galleries were recently refreshed with a new coat of paint and numerous recent acquisitions. From turn-of-the-century silver to twenty-first-century furniture, these objects demonstrate the wide range of what we mean by “design” at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Though world-renowned (and Wisconsin-born) architect Frank Lloyd Wright is perhaps best remembered for his work in the Prairie Style, this portion of his career was only the first chapter of a much longer story. And so, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Wright’s birth, the Milwaukee Art Museum is pleased to commemorate multiple aspects of his career—both early and late.
The exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright: Buildings for the Prairie, on-view in the Bradley Family Galleries through October 15, 2017, explores work from the first part of his career, while his later achievements are represented by the acquisition of a Usonian Exhibition House Dining Chair—one of only two such objects that are still extant. The Milwaukee Art Museum is fortunate to have added this rare object to our permanent collection through the support of the Demmer Charitable Trust, Jody Brindis Goisman & Dick Goisman, Dr. Charles Brindis & Debra L. Brindis, and Wayne & Kristine Lueders, who have supported this acquisition in memory of Evelyn Brindis Demmer.
This simple plywood chair was produced for an exhibition held at the Guggenheim museum in New York in 1953, when Wright was 84 years old. Titled The Usonian House: Sixty Years of Living Architecture, the exhibition explored the architect’s efforts in the latter part of his life to produce housing that was affordable, yet still adhered to the high standards of beauty dictated by his philosophy of organic architecture. In fact, the catalog that accompanied the Guggenheim exhibition opened with a forceful statement written by Wright: “I believe a house is more a home by being a work of Art.” In this same publication, Wright even asserted that his approach to architecture aligned, fundamentally, with the principles of American democracy.
Based on my title for this blog post you might expect this to be about music boxes, or perhaps creative studio art pieces that sing when you sit on them, or even some sort of game derived from musical chairs. As interesting as any of those possibilities may sound, I’m going to discuss not an object, but an intriguing practice: that of using music to aide in the viewing and interpretation of furniture.
In 2008, Chipstone curator Ethan Lasser met with Dr. Christian Elser, a composer, in the furniture gallery on the Lower Level of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Ethan noticed that the vocabulary he used when describing furniture was very similar to the terms Dr. Elser used when descrbing music–for example, they both used words such as “baroque” or “gothic.” This spurred Ethan to ask Dr. Elser: “If you could pair each piece in this gallery with one piece of music, what would that be?”
In 2006, when the Milwaukee Art Museum organized the exhibition Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity, it established itself as a center of study for the Beidermeier style that was popular in Central and Northern Europe from about 1815 to 1835.
Building upon the Museum’s strength in German and Austrian art—partly due to the ethnic background of Milwaukee—the exhibition brought to the spotlight to Biedermeier art. This period of art and design history was not only little-known in the United States, but the exhibition also proposed a whole new interpretation of the style that changed scholarship in Europe as well. You can read more about Biedermeier here in this review from the New York Times.
Or better yet, read the exhibition catalogue, available for purchase on the Museum Store site.
But all my normal predilections aside, I do love this sofa in the Museum’s collection. It is positively dripping with flowers and leaves and fruit, puffed up with ornament and upholstery stuffing, and tufted on every square inch of its way-too-high-to-be-practical back.
This sofa is exactly the type of “disingenuous” factory-produced Victorian-era object that the reforming Modern designers of the early 20th century–heck, many stylish designers of today–decried as soulless.
So in the spirit of Valentine’s Day–a holiday that is also decried by cynics (me included) as soulless, mass-produced, and disingenuous–I thought I’d ignore all the star-crossed and wanton lovers in Museum paintings to point out this great red sofa that seems to embody all the over-the-top love and lust and chocolate truffles of this greeting card holiday.
This is the Valentine’s Day of furniture. A guilty pleasure we love.