Monday, June 18, 2018

What Do You Think of When I Say “Porcelain”?


John Bartlam Factory (Bartlam 1735–1781, born Britain, factory 1765–1770, Cain Hoy, South Carolina), Teabowl, 1765–1770. Soft-paste porcelain with underglaze blue hand-painted (interior) and transfer-printed (exterior) decoration, width: 3" (7.6 cm) at rim. © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8202)

“American” is probably not the first word that springs to mind when paired with “porcelain.” We all know that China developed porcelain by the 600s or 700s CE and perfected it during the Song Dynasty (960–1279/1280 CE). The formula for porcelain (secret ingredient kaolin, a clay mineral derived from feldspar) was transmitted to Korea during the Goryeo Kingdom (918–1392) and then to Japan from Korea during the 1600s.

Porcelain was introduced to Europe soon after the Portuguese trading post was established in Macau in 1557. The translucent, thin-walled nature of porcelain immediately appealed to Europeans, whose earliest efforts in the medium were in the late 1500s. They did not understand that kaolin made Chinese porcelain special and tried all manner of additives to clay.

The British initially added ground bone and ground glass (frit) to produce porcelain results that they called “China.” Ultimately, European makers discovered the secret of kaolin, which was subsequently mined in Europe as “china stone” or “china clay.” Staffordshire, England became a center of porcelain production when kaolin (or “Staffordshire clay”) was discovered in the early 1700s. In the 1730s, the earliest experimentation with porcelain was begun by André Duché (dates unknown), who introduced “Cherokee clay” to Europe in his attempt to secure funding to produce his porcelain.

It’s amazing to me that there was true porcelain being produced in the US already in the mid-1700s. This shouldn’t have surprised me, though, because some of the entrepreneurs in the US were originally from Staffordshire. Many of the techniques they used, particularly for decoration, came from their experience in Britain. John Bartlam (1735–1781) and American China Manufactory (1770–1772) were the leaders in porcelain production during the pre-Revolutionary (1775–1783) period.

Bartlam settled in South Carolina in 1763 to exploit the abundant varieties of clay found in that state, extending down into Georgia. He was producing soft-paste porcelain as early as 1765 in Cain Hoy (north of Charleston) and then in Charleston until 1773. Teabowls are one of the signature forms made by Bartlam. They were a combination of painted and transfer decoration. Bartlam himself may have overseen the transfer printing of the porcelain, as he was a skilled copper engraver himself. The exterior decoration of this teabowl was laid down from a stiff tissue to which an oil-inked design had been transferred from a copper plate. Many of the artists (“transferrers”) who did this tedious work were young women. 

American China Manufactory (firm 1770–1772, Philadelphia), Pickle Stand. Soft-paste porcelain with underglaze blue decoration, 5 1/8" x 7" (13 x 17.8 cm). © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8500)

American China Manufactory was formed by Gousse Bonnin (ca. 1741–1780, France) and George Antony Morris (1742/1745–1773). They formed the company at an opportune time after the Nonimportation Act of 1760, secessionist fever leading up to the Revolution, and a newly wealthy merchant class that wanted the same luxuries as their British counterparts. The team even lured away skilled porcelain artists from the Bow factory in London. Their standout product is this pickle stand, the likes of which were sold as far north as Albany, NY and as far south as Charleston.

The great British ceramic guru Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) was sufficiently worried about the competition in the colonies that he conspired with the East India Company (a “trading” outfit) to flood the American market with cheap British porcelain in 1771. This violation of the Nonimportation Act was a catalyst for the revolution to follow. Unfortunately, it led to the demise of both Bartlam and American China Manufactory, ending a truly unique period in American ceramic history. 

Well, porcelain manufacture in the US did not just wither completely. By the 1880s, the American Art Pottery movement reinvigorated the production of native porcelain in kilns throughout the country.

Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847–1939, US), Vase, 1900–1903. Porcelain, height: 5" (12.4 cm). © 2018 Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-747)

Mary Louise McLaughlin was a pioneer in art pottery. She studied furniture carving during the late 1860s in a studio in her native Cincinnati, a class that also introduced her to pottery painting. Ceramics thereafter dominated her interest. Her book entitled China Painting: A Practical Manual for the Use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain sold 23,000 copies, indicating the growing popularity of art pottery in the US.

Porcelain is not going anywhere in the 21st century either, with many contemporary artists working in the medium in both utilitarian and non-utilitarian forms.

Robert Lazzarini (born 1965, US), Teacup, 2003. Gilt porcelain, stainless steel spoon, assembled: 3 1/2" x 6 1/4” x 7" (8.9 x 15.9 x 17.8 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Robert Lazzarini. (PMA-8709)

Robert Lazzarini is primarily a sculptor. He achieved a BA from the School of the Visual Arts in New York in 1990. One of the main focuses of his art is the disruption of the viewer’s normal perception of everyday objects. He does not always do this with unusual materials foreign to the subject. In Teacup, Lazzarini has exploited the normal material used in tea cups to create an uncomfortably distorted, yet fascinating play on a common object. Take that Andy Warhol (1928–1987), it’s more interesting.

Monday, June 11, 2018

American Impressionists You Probably Don’t Know

The joy of approaching summer always makes me think of color, and color makes me think of Impressionism—American Impressionism in this case. The Ten American Painters group was formed in 1898 by American artists who had adapted the Impressionist style. At the time, it was not well received in the realism-obsessed “official” American art academies: the National Academy of Design (founded 1825) and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (founded 1805, Philadelphia). These academies were oriented on the European model of Neoclassicism-based art education.

Naturally, when the Ten American Painters group formed in opposition to the academies’ rejection of Impression—much in the same vain that the original Impressionists formed the Salon des Refusés—they did not invite any women, such as Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). Cassatt was back and forth between Paris and Philadelphia at the time and her work was featured in the Women’s Pavilion of the 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition in Chicago, surprise, surprise.

Many American women artists adapted the Impressionist style aside from Cassatt, and I am presenting three of these artists to you. Although Impressionism had run its course as a “revolutionary” style by the first decade of the 1900s, many artists persisted in this style. It gradually spread to the West Coast in the late 1910s after the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco introduced French and American Impressionists’ works. The California Impressionism painting movement, often called the Plein Air Movement, developed, although many of the artists were not native to the state.

Fern Isabel Coppedge (1883–1951, US), Drying Sails, Gloucester. Oil on canvas, 20" x 24" (50.8 x 61 cm). Image © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Estate of Fern Isabel Coppedge. (PMA-4552)
Fern Coppedge (1883–1951) was born and raised in Decatur, Illinois. At thirteen she moved to California with a sister and became interested in painting for the first time. She studied watercolor and, even though the California Impressionist movement had yet to coalesce, she became interested in reflections of sunlight on snow and water. Returning to the Midwest, she studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She also studied under American Impressionist William Merritt Chase (1849–1916) at the Art Students League in New York.

Key to her development as an Impressionist was her move to Philadelphia in 1917 to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where her mentor was the American Impressionist Daniel Garber (1880–1953). By that time, the Pennsylvania Impressionist movement had become a phenomenon. Coppedge was active summers at the New Hope art colony, which was home to many Impressionists. She was a member of the influential women’s art group The Philadelphia Ten from 1922 to 1935. Many of the members of that group also painted in an Impressionist style.

Coppedge is most famous for her snow scenes in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which she always painted outdoors, often with her canvas lashed to a tree or from the back seat of her car. This painting of Gloucester comes from summers spent at the Rocky Neck Art Colony there, the oldest art colony in the US. Rocky Neck was a haven for many American Impressionists, including Childe Hassam (1859–1935), Celia Beaux (1855–1942), and Frank Duveneck (1848–1919). 

Harriet Lumis (1870–1953, US), Pasture Brook, Berkshire, ca. 1928. Oil on canvas, 24" x 28" (61 x 71 cm). Photo courtesy of R.H. Love Gallery, Chicago. © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-27160)
Harriet Lumis (1870–1953), born in Connecticut, was initially discouraged from painting by her parents. After marriage in 1892, she began formal painting lessons under Willis Adams (1848–1921), a landscape painter in the Barbizon-Realism style. Her first landscapes were in the Tonalist tradition, which means an interest in light and atmosphere within the traditional academic landscape palette of greens, yellows, and browns.

This changed after she studied under the Impressionist Leonard Ochtman (1854–1934), who was one of the founders of the Cos Cob art colony in Connecticut, a hotbed of American Impressionism. Ochtman had studied with Dutch Tonalists Anton Mauve (1838–1888) and Jacob Maris (1837–1899), and then in Paris where his work was influenced by the airy, lyrical landscapes of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875). After studying with Ochtman, Lumis’s palette lightened and she changed her approach to landscape from broad vistas to more intimate snapshots of nature.

Lumis was one of the founding members of the Springfield (MA) Art League in 1919. This work from the 1920s demonstrates how, as time went on, her approach became looser in brush work, yet still firmly rooted in sound composition. 

Helen Hamilton (1889–1970, US), The Old Dock. Oil on canvas, 25 3/16" x 29 15/16” (64 x 76 cm). Photo courtesy of R.H. Love Gallery, Chicago. © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-26991)
Helen Hamilton (1889–1970), the daughter of academic painter Hamilton Hamilton (1846–1928), showed artistic talent at a young age. Like Coppedge, the California Impressionism movement was in a nascent period when she moved there in 1908. She received training from her father there and early on was interested in landscape, practicing in the Sierra Madre Mountains. She gradually became interested in Impressionism. In 1910, she moved to New York where she took lessons at the National Academy.

Hamilton’s family also had a house in Silvermine, Connecticut, home to a thriving art colony since 1908. Hamilton spent much time there, where, among the many styles explored, Impressionism was coming to the fore. Silvermine artists (although not including Hamilton or her father) exhibited in the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York, where Helen saw thirteen of Vincent van Gogh’s (1853–1890) works. Judging by this work, van Gogh had a lasting influence on her painting.

As Hamilton’s style evolved after World War I (1914–1918), color became more important to her than subject matter. That is obvious in this luscious painting where she has delighted in laying down thick layers of pure color, probably with a palette knife. Hamilton was renowned for her works involving reflections in water and her loosely painted snow scenes.

Monday, June 4, 2018

An Illustrator (Who Happens to be a Woman)

Barbara Shermund (1899–1978, US), Saleswoman: “This is a bath salt one may sit on.” Original drawing for a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine, 1938. Ink and wash on paper, sheet: 19" x 14 ¾" (48.3 x 37.5 cm). Image © 2018 Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 Estate of Barbara Shermund/The New Yorker. (AK-4368)

As we know, women have been artists since the beginning of recorded time. The dawn of women artists as a significant part of magazine, book, and newspaper illustration, however, came at the end of the 1800s. Ironically, women artists were able to enter the world of illustration because all “proper young ladies” were trained in the art of sketching and watercolors from the Renaissance (1400–1600) on. Like “art pottery” and photography of the late 1800s, women were able to study illustration at home (“propriety”: no dirty art schools with their nude drawing classes!). 

At the turn of the 1900s, the demand for illustration in printed matter was high, due in large part to the printing advances of the late 1800s that allowed for easier reproduction of illustrations—photolithography, chromolithography, and photography. In a field crowded with male artists, women illustrators had to be self-motivated and determined. Barbara Shermund (1899–1978) is an artist I just learned about, so I’m now letting you know about her.

Shermund was born in San Francisco to an artistic family: an architect father and sculptor mother. She started drawing as a child and studied at the California School of Arts, where she received an academic training in the basics. She subsequently moved to New York. Shermund started working for The New Yorker magazine four months after it was founded in February 1925. Almost at once (13 June, 1925), she had designed her first New Yorker cover, featuring a young woman with bobbed hair, very much in an Art Deco aesthetic.

Shermund’s cartoons mostly revolved around the so-called New Woman, a term that referred to women who had joined the work force beginning in the late 1800s. This term was particularly appropriate to address the state of women after World War I (1914–1918), when even more women were pushing the boundaries of what society deemed was “proper” for women. Shermund received inspiration for many of her gags from the social network in which she lived in New York. She depicted a broad range of women, from independent to traditional, set against the latest nuances of American society. 

The artist was so driven by the subject matter for her cartoons that she reportedly slept with a pencil and pad under her pillow in case she came up with an idea in the middle of the night. She once admitted that she would work and rework a drawing twenty times so that it had the appearance of being spontaneous. She often worked only with a brush, employing dramatic, decorative washes to establish volume or depth. There is a description of her technique in the book by Liza Donnelly Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons (Prometheus Books, 2005).

The astonishing career of women like Barbara Shermund (597 cartoons and eight covers) is in a stark contrast to many women illustrators of the late 1800s who often worked in virtual anonymity for male publishers. This was particularly true for the women who worked on the illustrations for Currier and Ives, with the exception of Flora Frances Palmer (1813–1876), who produced dozens of prints for that publisher. Shermund worked for The New Yorker until 1944 and was featured in a 1947 photograph by Irving Penn (1917–2009) of New Yorker illustrators. Shermund is the one in the broad-brimmed black hat.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 2E Grade 6: 3.1, 3.2

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

National Textiles Month

Ghana, Sisala Woman from Techiman, 1975. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-11085)

Although I’m an art historian, sometimes I feel that art should just be looked at rather than analyzed to death. When I read somewhere that May is National Textiles Month (May 3rd was National Textiles Day), I just felt like showing you some particularly interesting examples from the Davis digital collection. 

Chimú Culture, Peru, Tapestry panel, 1100–1470. Cotton and camelid fibers, 26" x 43" (66 x 109.2 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1288)

If I ever teach again (not likely), I would teach a course on the history of abstraction. Believe me, it doesn’t start in the 20th century!  One of the reasons I love ancient Andean textiles so much is the abstract quality of the decoration. Come on, this pre-dates Picasso’s (1881–1973) fractured figures! This panel represents an anthropomorphic mythological being or deity. 

The Chimú (ca. 900
–1470) were the successors of the Wari Culture (declined around 700 CE) and Tiwanaku Culture (declined around 1100 CE). The Chimú kingdom, centered in Chan Chan (near contemporary Trujillo, Peru), was a highly organized society where textile artists worked in royal compounds. Unlike other Andean cultures, the Chimú developed highly refined textile arts before ceramics. 

Textiles were the most highly prized objects in Andean cultures after gold. Chimú weavings were often used as money, so highly were they valued. Chimú textiles were predominantly produced by male artists, using combinations of cotton and alpaca (camelid) fibers. Cotton had been cultivated in Peru since the 3000s BCE. 

Navajo Culture, Transitional Blanket, 1885–1895. Wool, tapestry weave, 79 3/4" x 47 1/4" (202.5 x 120 cm). © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-576)

Navajo blankets were originally used mainly for clothing (“wearing blankets”). They were also used as covers over doors and room dividers. “Transitional” refers to blankets produced during the period 1880–1895, when the blankets became trade items with whites as rugs. Before the 1880s, red in Navajo weaving was sourced from bayeta, a type of imported red flannel that would be unraveled and respun for use in blankets. Aniline dyes, chemical dyes derived from coal tar, were introduced by the 1880s. 

The symmetry and geometric straightness of Navajo designs represents the limitations of the upright loom, which does not accommodate rounded patterns. The jagged edges on the bands came from a cloud pattern, an element of nature that symbolizes change. 

The Navajo, an Athabascan-speaking people who occupy New Mexico and Arizona, were once nomadic and are thought to have northwestern origins, migrating from the interior of Alaska between the 1200s and 1400s CE. In successive migrations they settled in the Southwest and adapted elements of Pueblo culture—including weaving—making them uniquely their own. 

While men are traditionally the textile artists in Pueblo cultures, it was the women who tended and sheared the sheep and became the weavers in Navajo culture. They learned weaving from Pueblo men who had been raising cotton and weaving blankets since about 700 CE. Pueblo weavers were introduced to sheep wool by the Spanish in the 1600s. The Navajo acquired the churro sheep from the Pueblo weavers and developed it into their own unique breed. 

Galya Rosenfeld (designer, born 1977, Israel) and Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Industrial Design Department (manufacturer, found 1906, Jerusalem), Headscarf (hijab), 2003–2005. Staineless steel, 33 7/26" x 19 11/16" x 1 3/16" (85 x 50 x 3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2018 Galya Rosenfeld. (MOMA-D1234)

This last example is not, strictly speaking, a textile, but it is such an interesting piece that I had to include it! It is a headscarf that was featured in the 2005–2006 Safe: Design Takes on Risk exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit hightlighted more than 300 objects that were meant to protect people from a wide variety of contemporary anxieties and dangerous situations. I can only assume that this headscarf, similar to the hijab worn by Muslim women, is meant to protect women in the danger zones of the world.

This headscarf is made from the same metal from which the chains for soldiers’ dog tags are made. Many of Galya Rosenfeld’s (born 1977) objects—jewelry to wall installations—are made from repurposed military-related materials. She mixes traditional techniques such as weaving with industrial materials. Her work is a place where the whimsical meets with common sense protection.

Rosenfeld studied object design at the National Higher School of Decorative Arts, Paris (fashion) and Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem, Israel, Department of Ceramic Design.

Monday, May 21, 2018

National Mobility Awareness Month


Kawasaki Kazuo (designer, born 1949, Japan) and SIG (Special Interest Group) Workshop Company, Ltd. (manufacturer, Ishikawa, Japan), Carna Folding Wheelchair, 1989. Titanium, rubber, and honeycomb aluminum, 33" x 22" x 35 ¼" (83.8 x 55.9 x 89.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Kazuo Kawasaki. (MOMA-D0865)

By the early 21st century, it is certainly no longer questioned that industrial design and art have learned how to go hand-in-hand. I think we also agree that most creative efforts—from chefs to designers of utilitarian objects—involve the work of artists, no matter what their background. I often hate disturbing a beautifully presented plate in a restaurant! Artists are involved in the design of cars, so it should be no surprise that they also design wheelchairs.

The fact that artists have been involved in beautifully designed everyday objects goes back farther back than I am old. The Jomon culture of Japan (flourished ca. 3000–200 BCE) is considered one of the first cultures to decorate ceramic vessels simply for the sake of decoration! The Arts and Crafts Movement of the mid to late 1800s only focused attention on a phenomenon—artists involved in the design of everyday objects—that had existed for millennia!

From depictions in works of art and from contemporary sources, wheelchairs have been around since as early as the 500s CE. This includes a tomb engraving in China that shows a person sitting in a three-wheeled sort of box. Basically, side chairs equipped with wheels evolved during the Baroque period (ca. 1600–1750) in the service of royalty, of course. These necessitated someone pushing them. The first self-propelled wheelchair (three-wheel with hand cranks) came out in the mid-1600s. However, most models into the 1800s were three-wheeled jobs that needed pushing. The first versions on which contemporary wheelchairs are based came out during the US Civil War (1860–1865), because of the overwhelming number of amputations from that war. They had wooden frames; adjustable wicker seats and arm rests; and large, spoked wheels.

Folding wheelchairs were pioneered in 1932 and 1937. Kazuo Kawasaki (born 1949) is a Japanese industrial designer who was born in Fukui Prefecture. He studied industrial design at Kanazawa College of Art, graduating in 1972. While he has worked on designs for portable computer systems for Apple, one of his abiding interests has been in medical technology. He has worked on a project for an artificial heart and the Carna form of collapsible wheelchair. The Carna wheelchair combined function with lightweight modern materials that make the chair perfect for athletes. 

Rainer Küschall (designer, born 1947, Sweden) and Everest and Jennings (manufacturer, firm 1933 to present, Los Angeles), Champion 3000 Adjustable Rigid-Frame Wheelchair, 1986. Aluminum, rubber, plastic and nylon, 31" x 24" x 34" (78.8 x 61 x 86.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Rainer Küschall. (MOMA-D0359)

Rainer Küschall (born 1947) is a Swiss engineer who suffered a serious spine injury when he was sixteen. After recovering, he discovered the limited feasibility of wheelchairs and formed Küschall AG in 1976 to produce wheelchairs that could serve a variety of needs. The 1986 model Competition (called Champion 3000 in the US) was unique in its use of tubular steel, fourteen instead of twenty-five kilograms (thirty pounds instead of fifty-five pounds), which made it lightweight, versatile, and available in both rigid frame and collapsible models. It was also particularly designed for the use of athletes.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; The Visual Experience: 3E 12.4

Monday, May 14, 2018

Furniture or Sculpture?


I took furniture history classes in grad school and even was a TA for the professor, so I learned to absolutely love studying the history of furniture. It seems to me, though, as our digital image collection of contemporary furniture design grows, the question marks pile up in my head. Has furniture design gone so far that it has transcended the traditional criteria that it be designed to conform to the human body?

I know that furniture design fell under the spell of combining “fine arts aesthetics” with industrial design starting with the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 1800s, and then the Bauhaus in the early 1900s. At first glance, it would seem that many designers have gone way beyond this battle cry in designing furniture that seems more like an aesthetic emphasis (i.e. sculpture) than something convenient on which to sit. And yet, there are stories behind a lot of these designs. You decide. 

Claudio Slocchi (designer, 1934–2012, Italy) and Sangiacomo (manufacturer, 1968 to present, Milan), Appoggio Chair, 1971. Fiberglass and steel, 46 ½" x 22" x 20" (118.1 x 55.9 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Claudio Slocchi. (MOMA-D1059)

Claudio Slocchi (1934–2012) was an architect and an industrial and interior designer. He studied at Milan Polytechnic and taught interior and furniture design at the University of Rome. He was also involved with the State Institute of Furnishings in Lissone. Apparently one of Slocchi’s aesthetics was minimalism, because this sit/stand stool sums that up.

The Appoggio Chair was designed by Slocchi to conform to tight spaces where regular sitting was not possible. I guess this would work in offices nowadays where we are encouraged to stand at our desks most of the day as “healthier.” Slocchi based his design to cradle the pelvis, basing the seat design on a bicycle seat. The chair is also adjustable vertically. That means that it adjusts for differences in human height, thus accommodating the human body. I wouldn’t be surprised if these chairs make a comeback!


Louise Campbell (designer, born 1970, Denmark) and Zanotta S.p.A. (manufacturer, 1954 to present, Milan, Italy), Veryround Chair, 2006. Laser-cut sheet steel, 27 3/16" x 41 ½" x 32 11/16" (69 x 105.5 x 83 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Louise Campbell. (MOMA-S1335)

Denmark has been a leader in contemporary furniture design since the middle of the 1900s. Louise Campbell (born 1970) graduated from the London College of Furniture in 1992 and studied further at the Industrial Design Department of the Danish Design School (1993–1995) in Copenhagen. Her emphasis is on furniture, lighting, and interior design.

This chair is a puzzle to me, because I can’t imagine it is either easy to sit down in or easy to get out of. Campbell’s designs are experimental, and she has stated that she is happy her chairs don’t look like chairs. Her designs are based on the aesthetic of repeating circles (240 in this chair) and an interest in positive and negative space. Interesting about this design is that it is precision cut from sheet steel. Theoretically, the layers blend together to be solid, at the same time giving it the appearance of paper. 

Mathias Bengtsson (born 1971, Denmark), Spun Chais Lounge, 2003. Carbon fiber, 34 ¼" x 33 7/16" x 82 11/16" (87 x 85 x 210 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Mathias Bengtsson. (MOMA-D0905)

Everything I’ve read about this piece indicates that the artist, Mathias Bengtsson (born 1971), wants it considered not only furniture, but also fine art. His website indicates that the artist feels issues of comfort and convenience in furniture design were established long ago, including the study of ergonomics in the 1960s. He wants his furniture to “challenge the senses.” He also challenges himself with the materials he chooses—such as spun carbon fiber—to accomplish in his designs. He prefers to think of his furniture designs as domestic objects made artistically, rather than a work of art made comfortable. The chair is machine-woven from a computer program using lightweight but strong carbon fiber, a clothing material.

Bengtsson, born in Copenhagen, studied furniture design at the Danish College of Design, the Art Center College in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Royal College of Art in London. The Spun Chaise Lounge is just one of his innovative uses of materials. He also makes chairs out of stacks of used paper glued together. 

Thomas Heatherwick (designer, born 1970, Britain) and Magis S.p.A. (manufacturer, 1976 to Presenty, Treviso, Italy) Spun Seat, 2009. Polyethylene, 26" x 36" (66 x 91.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Thomas Heatherwick (MOMA-S1378)

The Hive commercial website of home design products advertises the Spun Chair as something good for people who don’t like sitting still all day, but rather spin and roll. It came out of research into the redefinition of the common elements of chair design (such as front and back) and its simplification into basic geometric shapes. And forget about such standard terms as “leg,” “arm,” or “stretcher.” These are not needed! The designer, Thomas Heatherwick (born 1970), is also interested in the use of nontraditional materials in his designs.

Heatherwick, born in London, was educated in three-dimensional design at Manchester Polytechnic (1988–1991) and the Royal College of Art (1992–1994). He established his own firm, Heatherwick Studio, in 1994, but has designed furniture for many firms, including Herman Miller in the US. His firm is primarily focused on architecture and public art that not only emphasizes unusual use of conventional materials, but the exploration of green technology and design. Some of his architectural plans, such as the Pier 55 on the Hudson River, New York (ongoing), are amazing in the way they incorporate green into the urban environment.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 1: 6.7; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.35-36; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 2: 6.9; Discovering Art History 4E: 2.2

Monday, May 7, 2018

Never “Pin” an Artist to One Art Form!


The word “pin” was entirely accidental in the title of this posting, but I’m sticking with it. In the 1980s, I received a broken-down version of Harry Bertoia’s (1915–1978) Diamond armchair as a gift from dear friends, and subsequently gifted it to an artist friend of mine who fixed it up and sold it. I never really liked sitting in it, and my mother couldn’t get out of it once she did. However, it is a beautiful design, so elegant and (almost) aerodynamic. My point is that when most people hear the name Bertoia, they think of his revolutionary furniture designs. But, like Alexander Calder (1898–1976), he was also a brilliant designer of jewelry. Did you know that?

Harry Bertoia (1915–1978, US, born Italy), Brooch, ca. 1947. Silver-electroplated gold, 3 ½" x 4" (8.9 x 10.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Estate of Harry Bertoia/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-8425btaars)

Bertoia’s most avant-garde chair designs were made during his period with Knoll, Inc. from about 1950 to 1953. Between 1953 and 1978, he produced more than fifty public sculptures, many of them commissioned to adorn architecture. However, his interest in metal sculpture and metalworking began during the 1930s, long before he ever participated in designing furniture or sculpture.

Born in San Lorenzo, Friuli, Italy, he was recognized as an accomplished artist while he was a young man. Some of his early work was designing wedding linen embroidery patterns for brides in his hometown. At fifteen, he moved to Detroit to live with his brother and further study art. A one-year scholarship to the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts was followed by the pivotal event for his artistic development: a scholarship to the Bauhaus-of-the-Midwest, the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills.

Although he studied painting and drawing, at Cranbrook he was asked by the director, architect Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950), to reopen the metalworking shop in 1939. Because of the scarcity of metal during World War II (1939–1945), Bertoia was forced to concentrate on jewelry. In 1943, he moved to California to work with furniture designers Charles (1907–1978) and Ray (1912–1988) Eames to solve the mass-production problems of Eames’ avant-garde molded plywood chairs. During the same period, doing war work designing airplane parts, he took a welding class.

Between 1945 and 1950, jewelry making was one of his main sources of income, while he continued his monoprinting, painting, and sculpture on the side. In the late 1940s, his jewelry had become part of the “art to wear” movement, which included such noted artists as Margaret de Patta (1903–1964) and Fanny Hillsmith (1911–2007). Along with these two artists, his work was featured in the second major “art to wear” exhibition (titled Modern Jewelry Under Fifty Dollars!) at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1948. The elegant, organic lines of his jewelry made it very popular, and Bertoia actually designed wedding rings for Charles and Ray Eames in 1941. 

Harry Bertoia, Brooch, ca. 1947. Silver-electroplated gold, 3" x 3 1/2" (7.6 x 8.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Estate of Harry Bertoia/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-8426btaars)

These post-war pieces of jewelry clearly owe a debt to his learning how to weld, but they also prefigure his welded sculptures starting in the 1950s. His first chair collection was introduced by Knoll in 1952, and his first architectural metal sculpture commission came a year later.

Here’s a reminder of the chair that made Bertoia a household name in the early 1950s. He designed many variations on the basic diamond (I used to call it “butterfly”), including open, non-upholstered versions that consisted of welded grids of steel wire. 

Harry Bertoia, “Diamond” Armchair, 1952. Chromed steel wire and upholstery, 30" x 33 1/2" x 28" (76 x 85 x 71 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Estate of Harry Bertoia/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0084btaars)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art 2E, Grade 2: 2.7; Explorations in Art 2E, Grade 6: 5.7; A Personal Journey: 7.connections; The Visual Experience: 10.7