For Your Eyes Only, Part I: European Decorative Arts

July 18, 2011

Decorative arts are often designed with a few secrets and surprises—hidden drawers, colorful interiors and ornate decorations in unexpected places. As displayed in a gallery, it’s not always possible to show everything. Today and tomorrow on Unframed, for your eyes only, two of our curators have unlocked, turned over, and opened up four works of art to reveal to you the wonders that are normally hidden from view. First up, Elizabeth Williams gives a look at two objects on view in our European galleries.

Moulinié, Bautte et Moynier (gold box) and Jean-Baptiste Isabey (portrait miniature), Snuffbox with Napoleon Bonaparte I, c. 1812, long-term loan from The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This miniature portrait gold box of Napoleon Bonaparte I is a stunning combination of an exquisitely rendered portrait by French painter Jean-Baptiste Isabey and a tour de force of goldsmithing by the Swiss firm Moulinié, Bautte et Moynier, which was based in Geneva. A pupil of Jacques-Louis David, Isabey became one of the best-known French portraitists with a long list of commissions from the successive rulers of France, including Marie Antoinette and the Napoleonic court. Here Isabey has depicted Napoleon as an official icon, shown in the coronation regalia he wore when he crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I. Surrounded with a border of alternating stars and bees, a symbol of Napoleon’s reign, the emperor wears a gold diadem, and the five-armed cross of the Order of the Legion of Honor lays against the ermine of his coronation robes. The blue pendant with an “N” that Napoleon wears is replicated with the golden “N” set on a ground of deep blue enamel on the underside of the box which is encircled by intricately wrought radiating trophées d’armes (depictions of the enemy’s arms taken by the victor), composed of three different tones of gold: white, yellow and rose.

But why spend time and effort to so elaborately decorate the bottom of the box?

Bottom of snuffbox

This gold box was fashioned for the functional purpose of holding snuff, or powdered tobacco. Initially overshadowed by the practice of smoking tobacco during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the taking of snuff developed into an elaborate social custom during the eighteenth century. By taking snuff from a gold box, wealthy aristocrats could show their taste, status, and wealth in a single gesture. All sides of these magnificent status symbols would be on view as the owner displayed the treasure just taken from his pocket and opened the lid to take a pinch of snuff. In addition to serving a functional and social purpose, gold boxes were also considered a sort of fashion accessory, and were often selected to complement the owner’s couture, or to mirror the attributes of the season.

Attributed to Jacobus Fiamengo, Cabinet, c. 1600, gift of the 2000 Collectors Committee

Made from rare and exotic materials such as ivory and ebony, this cabinet, with its many drawers and compartments, was made to house valuable personal possessions. Such luxurious cabinets were prominently displayed to show the taste, knowledge, and wealth of their owners. Whereas a number of the drawers can easily be spotted by their keyholes, this cabinet possesses many hidden drawers and compartments that only those familiar with its design could find.

Although normally under lock and key, we have temporarily opened some of the secret spaces for you to see. The cabinet’s center panel opens to reveal four small drawers.

Front of the center panel


Drawers in center panel, closed or open

This cabinet’s distinctly architectural form, with its overhanging cornice, medallions, and portal flanked with Ionic columns, is characteristic of classical Renaissance architecture. Depicting themes of ancient Rome, the intricate decoration of the ivory panels is achieved by the sgraffito technique, in which incised lines are filled with black pigment. The vertical members between the drawers may seem to be merely part of the cabinet’s architectural structure. However, they too open to reveal a slender hiding place for the most important of documents.

Drawers and vertical slide-outs closed


Vertical slide-outs pulled out

Elizabeth Williams, the Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Curator of Decorative Arts


Inside California Designer’s Homes

June 22, 2011

Recently, we had the fun of shooting video interviews with several designers who are part of our upcoming exhibition California Design 1930—1965: “Living in a Modern Way”. All were active in the postwar period, making everything from furniture to jewelry to enamels and weaving.

Not surprisingly, they live in extraordinary homes. Perhaps the most stunning is that of John Kapel, who designed his house with architect Jerry Weiss. This photo of John sitting in one of his studio chairs (which will be in the exhibition) doesn’t fully capture the beauty of his home, but it does suggest the environment, with its blue tile floor, hand-built wood furniture, and sculpture – all by John. In this photo, he’s talking about the design of the chair, and the subtle geometry that make it visually appealing from various angles.

John Kapel at home in Woodside.

The setting is spectacular as well – nestled into the hills above the San Francisco Bay, in Woodside.

John Kapel's home, from the road.

We also visited ceramist Harrison McIntosh at home high on a hill in Claremont.  Here he is in his studio, at the same workbench he’s used since the 1950s, when he shared the space with Rupert Deese.

Harrison McIntosh in his studio.

The rustic modern house was designed by architect Fred McDowell for Harrison and his wife Marguerite and their young family in the 1950s. Here it is seen from the rear patio.

McIntosh home, rear patio.

Gene Tepper lives and works aboard a houseboat in Sausalito. Here he is on his back deck with Mount Tamalpais in the background.

Gene Tepper at home.

Gene’s studio is down a flight of stairs – below deck, you might say. The surface of the water, which rises and falls with the tide in relation to the windows, creates dancing reflections inside the studio, where Gene has a collection of drawings and paintings. (The piece in our show is a convertible dining table/cocktail table from the 1950s.)

Gene Tepper in his studio.

Just up the hill from Gene, June Schwarcz is still producing in her enamel studio, in the basement of her small but exquisite home overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

June Schwarcz in her studio.

You enter the modestly-sized house through a lush garden…

June's front door.

…and enter an open living space filled with Asian antiques, African sculpture and paintings and objects June has collected over decades of living there. A wall of windows looks out on this:

The view toward Tiburon.

Jeweler Merry Renk lives on a narrow winding street in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood.

Merry Renk's front door.

She bought the house and—as she proudly tells it—paid off her mortgage all by herself in one year (she was widowed when her first husband’s plane went down in World War II) with her teaching income.

Merry at home.

The inside of the cottage is charming…

A wall of family photos and mementos near the kitchen.

…though my favorite part is the clawfoot tub on the back deck overlooking the city.

A tub with a view.

We also made it over to Berkeley, to textile artist  Kay Sekimachi’s home and studio near the university. Here’s Kay sitting in a chair by Sam Maloof, one of the other designers in the show.

Kay Sekimachi in a Sam Maloof chair.

Watching Kay weave on one of her looms is mesmerizing.

Kay at one of her many looms.

Curators Bobbye Tigerman and Wendy Kaplan are hosting a discussion at Dwell on Design this weekend, at 2 pm on Friday. They’ll talk about the exhibition and California’s unique brand of mid-century modern.

Later this summer, we’ll share full video interviews with the designers you see here and more.

Amy Heibel

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