“Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design,” which opened Friday at the Jewish Museum in New York, is the rare double show, as compelling for the installation, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), as for the displays of furniture and interiors by the French cult figure who practiced in Paris from the end of World War I to the Depression. The exhibition is the first devoted solely to Chareau (1883-1950) in the United States, where he is known primarily for designing the legendary Masion de Verre on the Left Bank. The show and very readable catalog flesh out the legend, documenting the design career of a successful architecte manqué who failed the exams to get into the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
First the fun part, by DS+R.
The museum-tested, time-honored way that furniture is displayed is the period-room approach, with furniture carefully arranged in studied vignettes that approximate or duplicate original rooms. DS+R changes all that starting in the show’s entry, where visitors step into a theater of floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall screens. Full-size silhouettes of people are projected onto the screens, and those individuals move among Chareau’s furniture, also silhouetted, which is actually staged just on the other side of the fabric.
In this hypothetical vestibule, actors pick a coat off a silhouetted skeletal steel rack by Chareau, sit on a silhouetted Chareau chair, and then pull out a cigarette and puff silhouetted smoke rings. A half dozen of these screens are arranged within the floor plan of a hypothetical apartment in the museum’s ground floor galleries, each screen featuring vignettes of daily life—someone scribbling at a desk, dressing at a vanity, setting the table. The architects manage to animate the kind of design show that is usually DOA. The curator, Esther da Costa Meyer, an architectural historian and professor at Princeton University, and the architects do collect and display Chareau’s pieces in appropriate groupings, but the animations bring the settings to life.
From the beginning, then, the architects manage to deliver delight, awakening visitors’ senses and imagination and conditioning them for experiences to come. The rest of the exhibit doesn’t disappoint. In a smart critique of the gallery as a white cube, the architects organized four furniture groupings in the quadrants of a room-size cube, and they sliced into the four walls at a diagonal to create a horizontal, top-lit shelf that displays photographs of Chareau’s interiors and other small artifacts. Inside visitors sit among each of the four furniture groupings and wear virtual reality goggles that expand each furniture vignette into a 3D experience, in color, of the original room from which the pieces came.
In a last display, DS+R, which has long experimented with fusing the virtual and digital into the physical world, hybridize sectional wire-frame drawings of the Maison de Verre with actual photographs of its spaces, and add sectional views to form a composite vivisection on screen, a 3D slideshow that advances toward the viewer on rails, like a visual bellows. The visitor who sits through a couple of cycles understands this complex house in incremental detail.
DS+R’s installation may be the tease that propels visitors through the show, but the core of the exhibition is, of course, Chareau’s work. At last people who might have only a vague notion of his oeuvre beyond the House of Glass are able to gain a better appreciation of just what the celebrated designer did (and what he didn’t). Chareau had only a 13-year career, supported by commissions from a small, affluent Parisian clientele, and his tenure in Paris effectively ended with the Depression. The designer, whose mother was Jewish, fled France in 1940 to escape the Nazis, and was followed a year later by his wife, who was Jewish. He spent the rest of his life in the United States.
Though Chareau is known for the Maison de Verre, a ballet mécanique of architecture that celebrates mechanism and movement in industrial materials, he was a society designer who did precious and beautiful one-off Art Deco pieces—chairs, daybeds, desks—in chiseled geometries crafted in rare and exotic woods. Paris, of course, was the epicenter of French decorative arts and Art Deco itself, culminating in 1925 with the Exposition Internationale des Arts Déoratifs et Industriels Modernes.
Chareau’s design drawings, from which the furniture was presumably built, are simple renderings, few with dimensions or notations about construction. To the extent that Chareau received any training at all, it was from 1899 as a draftsman at a British manufacturing firm, Waring and Gillow, which did furniture for those Belle Epoque precincts of luxury: ocean liners and hotels. His deft and succinct renderings imply that Chareau knew just when to hand off a design, and that he profited from the skills of French craftsmen with centuries of tradition in their hands. The sketches seem under-specified given the sophistication of the results, but they were clearly adequate for the craft ecosystem in which he was working.
Chareau, who aspired to be an architect despite his lack of training, practiced primarily as an interior designer, and photographs of the swank interiors he did for Paris’s haute bourgeoisie show the impeccable taste of an “ensemblier”— an artiste décorateur who, like a set designer, brought together paintings, carpets, colors, wallpaper, and furniture, not all his own, in fully coordinated interiors. He would have done well doing movie sets in Hollywood.
There is, however, a subtext in the designs of this transitional figure, an interest in metals and in mechanisms that allowed pieces to slide and swivel. In the interiors of his own Paris apartment, for example, photographs show floor-to-ceiling metal scaffolds placed just off the wall, acting as easels for paintings. It’s the dawn of the machine age, and Chareau develops industrial responses outside the traditional palette of materials. There is still, however, the sense that he is using metals and machinery decoratively and not designing for mass production. He regularly worked not with a factory but with a master craftsman in ironwork, Louis Dalbet.
Still, as with other designers in his avant-garde milieu, there is clearly the start of an exploration of modernity and an investigation into the potential of the machine (the Bauhaus at the same time was evolving its approach to what the machine would mean for design and the built environment).
But Chareau’s discreet and limited exercises in metal furniture and armatures hardly prepares us for the Maison de Verre, a full-stop masterpiece of machinery and industrial culture, designed between 1928 and 1932 for a doctor and his family. In the context of the designer's work, the house emerges as something of a surprise, full-blown and mature. It is clearly an inventive, original monument of modernity.
We learn in the show and in the accompanying catalogue that Chareau collaborated on the house and several other buildings with a trained Dutch architect, Bernard Bijvoet. The shear between what Chareau produced before the glass house and the sudden advent of this radically complete vision gives a visitor pause. Did Chareau really design the house himself, did his architectural partner, or was it the result of equal, integral collaborations (including the one-off work by Dalbet)? It would be helpful to see examples of other buildings done by Bijvoet, to understand what the apparently self-effacing Dutch architect brought to the project.
The catalog itself asks “Who actually designed the project?” and answers: “information is relatively scarce. The young Dutch engineer and architect Bernard Bijvoet must have had a significant role.”
The Maison de Verre seems to result from a one-time-only convergence of circumstance, happening under Chareau’s aegis as an ensemblier of talents. Given the impact of European events on Chareau’s life and career in the 1930s, the house stands alone, without convincing sequel. After his move to the United States, where he and his wife lived off proceeds from their sale of paintings and artworks from their collection, including Picasso drawings, Chareau built the famous Quonset hut home for the painter Robert Motherwell in 1947 in East Hampton (it was sadly demolished in 1985). There were only intimations of the ballet mécanique in the structure.
The show beautifully collects and displays Chareau’s work as physical facts, leaving no doubt that the Glass House is both a masterpiece and a paradigm shift. But visitors are also left wonder to what extent Chareau must share credit for his masterpiece. Much as the house remains a secret of its courtyard, out of sight from the street, so, too do its origins remain cloaked in uncertainty.