Saturday, October 16, 2010

Making modern by hand

I wondered in an earlier post about the problem of, at times, too much visual stimulation in our contemporary environments. We swim through text based seas, dodging the flotsam of innumerable journals, magazines, books, brochures, catalogs, cards, folders, all the time battered by the winds of the virtual www.

Increasingly it seems that more and more information is being cut loose from its context, a habit so much contemporary art has made into its own defining characteristic. When this befalls an object it can be revelatory or at times puzzling or worse yet, demeaning. Many of the archetypes of modern design and furniture were originally very site specific. Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Chair or Eileen Gray's Adjustable Table for example. What they became, how they are understood when they are now reproduced endlessly for an insatiable design market is doubtlessly worth the flowerings of a thousand theses. But it is also more than useful to see them in an altogether specific environment - the home of its original designer/maker.

Rizzoli has recently published Leslie Wilkinson's Handcrafted Modern: At home with mid-century designers. The title is fine; the subtitle somewhat mawkish in its post-Oprahian claims to intimacy which I suspect was derived from the marketing department at Rizzoli, and not the editorial. Suffice to say, pictures are worth the usual currency allowing us to voyeuristically survey the intimacy of a designer's own domestic space, and the occasional workshop.

Russel Wright, George Nakashima, Jens Risom, Harry Bertoia, Vladamir Kagan, Charles and Ray Eames, JB Blunk, Eva Zeisel, Walter Gropius, Irving Harper, Albert Frey, John Kapel, Wharton Esherick...

Some of these designer/makers' personal interiors have been widely available in other publications or docos - the Eames iconography supports something close to its own publishing industry ( the pinnacle of which remains Pat Kirkham's Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the twentieth century) and Nakashima and Esherick are well known in woodworking circles as key to moving making on from tissue box covers and, admittedly, beautifully crafted reproductions to the dawning of the studio furniture movement in the US.

As anyone who makes objects as resolutely anthropomorphic as domestic furniture well knows, placement makes or breaks a piece. Something that may work on a plinth in a white exhibiting space can look out of scale and ridiculous in a domestic setting - much of what graces the pages of interior magazines are unfortunate examples of this strange cargo cult. Something that sits quietly and thoughtfully, that seduces the viewer and user, may appear thin and anaemic in A Gallery or upon the pages of Wallpaper. Scale and context are everything and Williamson's project does something vitally important - it restores the humour, the tension and the wit to many iconic pieces that have become mere pastiches of their original intent.




These images are from Lesley's Williamson's own blog.