Objects of Desire
For much of their existence, world’s fairs were a means of unveiling scientific advances in industry and promoting their impact on daily life. Perhaps because the fairs were so resonant of their time, the souvenirs and other ephemeral materials that they produced have long captivated collectors and been the subject of books and exhibitions. Carnegie Museum of Art’s current show, Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the Worlds Fairs, 1851–1939, takes a different tack. It is the first to focus on the effect of scientific innovation on developments in design. In the process of exploring this subject, co-curators Jason T. Busch of Carnegie Museum of Art and Catherine Futter of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art have brought together a collection of remarkably seductive objects created at the height of the industrial age.
Personally, I have a relationship to design objects that is different from other art forms. Other kinds of art may intrigue me; the experience of them may preoccupy me for months, inspire deep study, or move me to tears, but once the experience of them is over, I’m usually content to turn them over in my mind. When a design object fascinates me, I want to own it. As best as I can figure, this has something to do with the utilitarian nature of these things. They beg to be handled or worn, and doing so gives a particularly intimate kind of pleasure to everyday existence.
It’s very individual, which objects exert that kind of a pull; for me, it is a pair of black andirons from the museum’s collection designed by Thomas Jeckyll. They are in the shape of sunflowers and date from c. 1878. Hardly the most spectacular items in the exhibition, they truly came to life for me in the context of the show. I’ve often thought that art history is the most exotic form of tourism because it involves intellectual time travel. The simple flatness of these andirons takes me back to the 19th-century England of Arts and Crafts designers such as Jeckyll or William Morris.
Then there is the stool by the Belgian designer Paul Hankar (also ours; CMA is the single biggest lender to the show, a fact that makes me proud), which bears the influence of African art. Its elegant legs and feet face in different directions and are slightly off center, enlivening the stool and suggesting an animal about to move. It’s easy to pass by an object like this—small, low, and unassuming—but careful looking rewards the viewer.
“Le ciel” is an Art Deco clock produced by Maison Cartier that has the feel of a storybook illustration from its era, c. 1925. In it, two fish made of jade with coral fins sit on an obsidian pedestal draped with rock crystal carved to suggest flowing water. The fish seem to be frowning in a cartoonish way, perhaps from the weight of the clock that they support with their fanned tails. The face of the clock is the dark blue of a night sky, studded with twinkling diamond and mother-of-pearl stars and set with delicate diamond-encrusted hands. The unexpected combination of storybook imagery and precious gems makes the clock compelling in a strange and funny way.
My husband and I play a game when we’re in the midst of beautiful things—pick the one you want to take home with you. He took the Paul Hankar stool and I went for the clock. Inventing the Modern World is filled with objects large and small in widely different styles and materials. Come by and see the exhibition, and let me know which object you, in an ideal world, would choose, and why (click on the “Contact” tab above to send us your thoughts). We’ll share some of your favorites on our website.
Until next month,