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.
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.
On Tuesday, November 22, 2011 a chair was born in the most unlikely of places, Sweet Water Organics.
It’s a big open warehouse with rows of fish tanks. There are beds of lettuce and other vegetables growing above the water tanks, being fed by the tanks below. In Sweet Water’s sustainable system, the plants act as a water filter for the fish and the fish waste acts as natural fertilizer for the plants.
The Sweet Water Foundation uses a wide-open space in the building as an area for performances, artist collaborations, and educational programming. Their mission is to develop inter-generational and interdisciplinary educational programming for sustainability with a focus on the potential of urban agriculture and aquaculture in the 21st century setting.
Conversations between Jesse Blom of Sweet Water Foundation and Michael Carriere of the Milwaukee School of Engineering led to the idea of having artist Hongtao Zhou create a wax chair at the urban farm.
One of my favorite decorative art objects in the Museum’s permanent collection is actually a rather bewildering piece.
It’s an enormous Parlor Cabinet, designed and produced sometime between 1860-1870 by Alexandre Roux (1813-1866), a French-born cabinetmaker who moved to New York to open a successful furniture business.
At first glance, this is a monumental and pretty confusing object.
It has columns and pilasters, just like a building. Its top is a stepped pagoda, which gives it the effect of an Asian temple. And it’s big: five feet tall, over six feet wide and nearly two feet deep. The cabinet part, in the central portion is actually pretty small in comparison to the rest of the piece (look for the key hole in the door to find it).
So is it architecture or furniture? The answer is: both.
Late in 2010 I advocated that the Museum accept a Ray and Charles Eames DCW (“Dining Chair Wood”) into the Permanent Collection.
No big surprise there, as this bent plywood chair is the iconic work of two of the most influential 20th-century furniture designers. It is a must-have for any design collection!
However, this chair wasn’t the Museum’s first Eames object. The Collection already included one DCW chair (pictured at left), a 1946 folding plywood screen, and several examples of the World War II U.S. Navy leg splint that bolstered Ray and Charles’ experiments in complex two-way bent molded plywood.
So why an additional example of the DCW? And, why this one?
Well, to tell the truth, I put in to motion the Museum’s acceptance of the DCW based on a hunch…and I just might be wrong.
If you need an excuse for cake, Thomas Chippendale would have celebrated his 293rd birthday today. Indulge and then come to the Museum’s American Collections Galleries on the Lower Level and appreciate several sumptuous forms of “Chippendale” style furniture.
Chippendale was born in England on June 5, 1718. He became a London cabinetmaker in the 1750s, and though his furniture appears in many grand 18th-century English homes, he is more widely known for publishing books on trendy furniture design. His publication was so influential that the name “Chippendale” stuck as shorthand for a wildly popular style of ornament.
As an example, you can stand in front of the Museum’s High Chest and refer to it as either “Rococo” or “Chippendale” in style. You’d be looking at an American object that Mr. Chippendale didn’t know about or help make, but your term would still be apt because its American craftsman knew about Chippendale’s ideas of good taste when he put together the exquisite carved ornament on this monumental object.
This chair is one of my favorite designs of the 20th century. Period.
So sleek, yet soft! So comfortable, yet efficient!
When contemplating a move to Milwaukee to accept my current position, I made a short list of things I loved: “Lake Michigan. Calatrava-designed building. Beer culture. Kem Weber’s Airline chair.”
And now here I am, lucky enough to work every day in a building with “Airline” chair, the perfect type of museum object that looks stunning and can tell stories about its time and place. The Milwaukee Art Museum purchased the chair in 2001, and it is currently on view in the 20th-century Design Gallery (Gallery #30) on the Museum’s main level.