CultureZohn: Pierre Chareau, Lost and Found

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Chareau in his Paris apartment at 54 Rue Nollet, c. 1927. On the wall behind him are works by Picasso and Lipchitz. photo by Thérèse Bonney, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Jewish Museum retrospective of the work of Pierre Chareau, a 20th -century designer who has been somewhat eclipsed by his design contemporaries (Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier, Eileen Gray, Marcel Breuer) comes at an interesting time.

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Pierre Chareau's business card

The work of these modernists (and their Italian colleagues) has formed the basis of a serious market in mid-century design. Prices at auction have gone sky high, and dealers like Larry Gagosian have taken them on. But pieces by Chareau are very scarce (a search on First Dibs turned up a few sconces and chairs) and most of his architectural and interior work is not extant. He does not have the same name recognition. The Jewish Museum aims to change all that in a retrospective opening this week. And as in their Roberto Burle Marx exhibition, they have largely succeeded.

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An elegant Chareau vanity set

Chareau, who was Jewish and had to flee the Nazis in France in 1940, is primarily known for his sumptuous interiors, the elegant finishes, and in the end, for the home he designed for the Dalsace family, the Maison de Verre, in Paris.

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The Maison de Verre, Paris

But Chareau, who was not a licensed architect (though he did design a few buildings) but primarily an "ensemblier" or interior designer, had other qualities for which we must recognize him. He was the center of a salon that encouraged collaboration in the decorative arts. He revered his fellow artists, and was the first to actually collect and hang work by Leger, Picasso, and Mondrian qua art as more than décor. He was stimulated by many of the same inspirations as they were: Africa, the machine, textiles.

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Left to right: Pierre Chareau, telephone fan table, c. 1924, wood. Private collection, New York; Pierre Chareau, Two high-backed chauffeuses (fireside armchairs), c. 1925, wood and velours, with tapestry upholstery by Jean Lurçat, reupholstered 1968. Private collection. Photo: Will Ragozzino/SocialShutterbug.com.

Even as he was creating marvelously intricate wood pieces, however, he resisted the more opulent ornamental flourishes of the 20's and 30's. Instead, he explored the use of metal and movement in furniture and partitions. He designed film decors and collaborated with some of the leading film directors of the day in addition to his collaborations with architects like Robert Mallet Stevens.

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Ensemble installation view, Chareau furnishings, including Coat and Hat rack designed for the Maison de Verre, 1931 Photo: Will Ragozzino/SocialShutterbug.com.

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Study designed by Chareau for a Lord and Taylor exhibition, 1928

As guest curator Esther da Costa Meyer says in the sumptuously illustrated catalog, "design was never simply a matter of disposing furniture pieces in a given room. Rather it was about shaping space itself..." Chareau sought perfect integration of design and architecture and was a master of contrast: soft/hard, textiles/paintings. In effect, he inhabited some of the schizophrenia of the time--looking back to the hand, and forward to the machine.

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Louis Dalbet, a virtuoso ironsmith, responsible for the beautiful wrought iron seen in Chareau's furniture and in several interiors, including the Maison de Verre with his sons.

Chareau's piece de resistance, (along with even more unsung collaborator, Dutch engineer Bernard Bijvoet), the Maison de Verre,is in the 7th arrondissement of Paris off the Boulevard St Germain. It's notable first for its use of glass block, but inside for its marvelous embrace of exquisite design and technology. It embodies all of the influences Chareau was able to finally synthesize. Chareau was not Le Corbusier. He was not designing machines for living. That's not to say he was not fascinated by the possiblities of new technology. But the house, shoved into the lower part of an old 18th century mansion because they could not get rid of the upstairs tenants became instead became the much admired, well-used, familial center of an intellectual salon and the locus of lectures and concerts and the medical office of its doctor-owner, Jean Dalsace.

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Glass Plate Negatives of the Maison de Verre, 1932, photos Georges Thiriet

This is not the first time that the Maison de Verre has been discovered. Rather it seems to happen generationally. There was a previous retrospective in the 90's at the Pompidou which owns the bulk of his collected archive. But prior to that, Richard Rogers, co-architect of the Pompidou Center, had studied the building and was impressed most of all by its exposed technology which is also expressed in his museum. His wife, chef/restauranteur Ruthie Rogers' ob/gyn, Dr. Pierre Vellay, took over the practice after Dr. Dalsace, and it was here that she was looked after while she was pregnant with her first son. Imagine being in stirrups in the Maison de Verre!

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Maison de Verre doctor's office, photo by Michael Carapetian 1966

"We were living in Paris where Richard was working on he Pompidou, said Rogers, "when I became pregnant in 1974. Richard had done his thesis at Yale on this building so it became an added incentive to go to the monthly appointments. I remember Dr. Vellay saying ' and now you will hear the heartbeat of your baby ' but Richard had wandered into the next room looking at the ceiling detail."

Chareau, who was known to be very sensitive to women, had designed the house to be both a work and a living environment, two distinct spaces, but the features of one certainly bled into the other. I remember exploring the house with Ruthie one night in semi darkness, the sophisticated nooks and hidden crannies in contrast to the rustic bolts and beams. The whole notion of exposure and obstetrics, and really all of daily life, was marvelous and daring. Dr. Dalsace had been a confirmed leftist, an advocate of birth control, a follower of Lacan and Freud, a polymath. It was a marriage of client and designer in the best possible way.

Adam Gopnik begins by calling Chareau a "minor French interior decorator" in 1994 in his wonderfully discursive The New Yorker piece (which to my mind gives a better sense of Chareau and the house than the essay in the catalog), and which then goes on to certify him as a genius. The Gopniks were invited by the family to stay in the house but were defeated by it according to Gopnik. In searching for why, he says they felt trapped and cold instead of warm and wonderful; he came slowly to understand the house is neither a machine nor a temple but "theater". Gopnik attributed this to Chareau's longer experience with set design than building buildings. In that way, he suggested, it had fulfilled its destiny best as an empty, cult object.

But I understood it differently. As much as I loved crawling around its ambitious and charming spaces, I missed its inhabitants. It needs its players, its intellects, even its fashionable patients. What I craved from the Glass House, indeed what I always crave from domestic architecture, is the ability to contain smart people gathered around a table near a fragrant kitchen communing with each other and with life. My guess is that the Gopniks should have had a dinner party!

Today a wealthy couple, the Rubins, have bought and are faithfully restoring the Maison de Verre where necessary. They have left the medical suite as is but had to replace the kitchen appliances. In photographs, the house looks burnished but not betrayed.

I've been looking at Glass Houses this year, The Farnsworth by Mies van der Rohe outside of Chicago for a spinster doctor who became entangled with it and him emotionally, the Philip Johnson Glass House which he built for himself, and Sanaa's new Grace Farms building/church in Connecticut. Glass towers are still being constructed all over the world as a symbol of wealth, home to corporations and billionaires who value the privacy and security only being high--and still surrounded by glass--can afford them.

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Chareau spent the last years of his life in exile in New York where he had a apartment that did not rival his art-strewn home in Paris; in fact, it was the art that "saved' them according to his wife Dollie when they had to flee France and had no funds (their collection is partially re-united in the exhibition) and were forced to sell most of it off to survive. Robert Motherwell hired him to build a house in Easthampton and, possibly stimulated by a view of an Oscar Niemeyer house, Chareau kitted out an old Quonset hut for the painter. Motherwell only ended up living there for four years, and then sold his house to 28-year old Barney Rosset, publisher of racy literature through his Grove Press, who then modified it where needed to make it livable. Norman Mailer shot a cult film there which alas contains few views of the house itself. It was then sold in 1980 and torn down a few years later for a Hampton mega-dwelling.

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Interior, Motherwell House

The elegant exhibition has been designed by Liz Diller (is there anyplace that the Diller eye has not been called upon in the last decade?) and her firm Diller, Scofidio, Renfro, and allows an excellent accounting of the areas of new scholarship curator Meyer wished to emphasize: Chareau's Jewish roots; his other persona as a collector with his wife Dollie (whose own role has been undervalued)and the experience of the Chareaus in exile in New York. It makes much out of the precious little of Chareau's work that survives, as Diller herself admits, as one could not replicate the unusual spaces of the Maison de Verre. Instead, Diller, who wanted to remain "neutral", used other more modern technologies to accept the challenge of one architect displaying another, and "lots of things that swing". And she does indeed capture the yin yang, the vintage-meets-tech Chareau aesthetic. She used scrims as exhibition dividers instead of walls and shot footage of actors in domestic spaces onto them to give a sense of life. (Diller says she eventually wants to make a feature film--and you can see that coming) They also used VR, a bit of overkill in my mind as it trusts nothing to the spectator's imagination, but the excellent lighting design does make the furnishings much more dramatic and important. A digital "experience" film of the Maison de Verre mounted on tracks similar to the ones Chareau used in the Maison de Verre is clever and must have been hugely expensive to mount in its very theatrical installation.

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Elizabeth Diller, exhibition designer, Esther da Costa Meyer, exhibition curator, Claudia Gould, Jewish Museum director, the troika that has brought Pierre Chareau to life

The Jewish Museum is also to be commended by continuing to bring to our attention the work of 20th century design masters whose impact has largely been far from our own shores.

The Jewish Museum exhibit of Pierre Chareau is open until March 28, 2017

The Maison de Verre is now privately owned and can only be visited through special permissions but you can glimpse the outside at 31 rue St Guillaume. If you haven't seen the Mallet Stevens or Le Corbusier's houses in the 16th arrondissment of Paris also put these on your Paris bucket list

Adam Gopnik's piece for the New Yorker is archived, but archives of the New Yorker are accessible only to subscribers