Interior design is often thought of as a modern, post-industrial concept, but sculpting our domestic environment became an art form in its own right much earlier. Renowned and highly paid artists from a wide array of disciplines were often involved in the creation and manipulation of living spaces that would meet or even exceed the wishes of their patrons.
Made singlehandedly or by an interpreter in various stages of the manufacturing process, many features of artists' designs have been captured on paper. This exhibition combines drawings, prints, and objects from all over Europe and the United States as they were collected by the Metropolitan Museum over a period of more than a hundred years. It highlights the ingenuity, beauty, and wit often found in designs for the decorative arts, and follows the dynamic development of shapes, ornaments, and materials alternately governed by issues of comfort, theory, and aesthetics.
The exhibition highlights designs for the interior as they were captured on paper through various drawing and printing techniques. Although united by subject matter, the designs differ widely in terms of why they were made and the functions they originally served. The many exhibited works illustrate the full circle of the creative design process: from the moment of inspiration and the subsequent design phase, to the execution and then beyond; to the documentation of executed pieces and their reception in designs by new generations of artists.
In the theme pages below, these different categories are illustrated by objects from the exhibition. It is important to note however, that this system of classification is not necessarily exclusive. A drawing or print can serve multiple purposes and its function can change over time. For example: a sketch by one artist can serve as the model for another's design, either directly or through its reproduction in print; an artist can decide to use one of the drawings from the design process as a final presentation drawing to show to a patron; and a presentation drawing can end up in a portfolio or catalogue for re-use in the future. The groups as they are formulated below are therefore not set in stone, but help us to recognize and determine to which step or function in the design process a specific drawing or print relates.
Living in Style highlights designs for the interior as they were captured on paper through various drawing and printing techniques. Although united by their subject matter, the reasons behind the designs' making and the functions they originally served differ widely. The many exhibited works illustrate the full circle of the creative design process, from the moment of inspiration and the subsequent design phase to the execution and then beyond; to the documentation of executed pieces and their reception in designs by new generations of artists.
In the theme pages that follow, these different categories are illustrated by objects from the exhibition. It is important to note however, that this system of classification is not necessarily exclusive. A drawing or print can serve multiple purposes and its function can change over time. For example, a sketch by one artist can serve as the model for another's design, either directly or through its reproduction in print; an artist can decide to use one of the drawings from his design process as a final presentation drawing to show to his patron; and a presentation drawing can end up in a portfolio or catalogue to be reused in the (near) future. The groups as they are formulated here are therefore not set in stone, but rather help us recognize and determine to which step or function in the design process a specific drawing or print relates.
Sketching forms an important part of many artists' work process. Whether the artist quickly scribbles down the outline of a new design or records another artist's inventions for inspiration or as a learning tool, sketches help to shape ideas and stimulate the creative process. Sketches and studies therefore form an integral aspect of an artist's initial training, but many continue to sketch throughout their mature careers. On this sheet of sketches (1981.1047), the French architect Gilles-Marie Oppenord (1672–1742) has collected various architectural elements with a supporting function, which could serve him in his own designs for the interior. The somewhat chaotic arrangement of motifs is characteristic for a sketch sheet, and many similar sheets by Oppenord are known. His studies were later published by the French publisher Gabriel Huquier (1695–1772), making them available to a wider audience as models for design.
Gregorio de' Ferrari (1647–1726) explores a more concise theme, focusing his attention on the decoration of a frame most likely meant as an overdoor decoration (67.95.9). The design on top shows a highly finished composition of a satyr's mask crowned with a laurel wreath by two cherubs. The lower design represents an earlier stage of the design process where the artist has merely outlined the figures of the two young satyrs on either side of the central vase. By roughly applying some gray wash in certain areas, he is nevertheless able to bring his design to life and visualize what the executed designs would come to look like.
Once a specific design is chosen, the various parts can be worked out in closer detail. Such is the case in the design drawings for the linen press by the Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony in the Museum's collection (1991.311.1). The colony was founded by Ralph Whitehead (1854–1929), who had become impressed by the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement while studying under John Ruskin (1819–1900) at Oxford.
The design process of this linen press is a perfect illustration of Whitehead's idea of artists working together and combining skills to create beautiful, honest furniture. While he worked on the outline of the cabinet (1991.311.2, .3), the panels with stylized sassafras leaves were designed by the young Edna M. Walker (born 1880) (1991.311.4), who graduated from Brooklyn's Pratt School of Design shortly before joining Whitehead in 1903.
Guglielmo Ulrich's (1904–1977) design for an L-shaped sofa (1989.1105.8) shows the importance of artists' instructions when it comes to the execution of furniture designs.
His notations on the side of the drawing show how he intended to cater to two different markets with one and the same design. He envisioned both an economic and exclusive version of his sofa—the former executed in artificial leather and metal, while the latter was to be made with real cow's leather and exotic Caucasian walnut wood in combination with the modern metal.
While in some cases the artist himself completely controls the look of his design, in other situations the voice of a patron or financier is the deciding factor in the execution of a design. Such is the case in this design for a casket (65.125.3) by the famous Italian court artist Giulio Romano (1499?–1546). The casket is one of the many designs he made while working as a court artist at the Gonzaga court of Mantua. In the design Romano offers various options for its execution—most notably presenting two different ways of filling the space between the Gonzaga eagle and the decorative lion's feet with an acanthus scroll at left, and a palm leaf at right.
A different type of patron involvement is represented by this drawing of a Sèvres porcelain clock (60.692.7). The drawing is part of a large group of drawings ordered by Prince Albert Casimir, duke of Teschen, following his installment as governor of the Austrian Netherlands in 1781. Prince Albert asked for examples of the finest Parisian furniture in order to decide how best to decorate his new palace in Brussels. For this purpose, many contemporary pieces of furniture were copied in drawings and sent to the Prince. This porcelain mantel clock must have been very popular at the time; it was sold by various clock makers in Paris, and even Queen Marie-Antoinette herself had a version in blue in her apartments at Versailles.
When working on a large and expensive project, such as a design for a complete interior, the approval of the patron is vital. Architects therefore often created highly finished impressions of what an interior would look like. This example, by the famous American architect Ogden Codman, Jr. (1868–1951), shows his design for the bedroom of Frederik William Vanderbilt's wife Louise at Hyde Park, modeled after Marie-Antoinette's bedroom at Versailles [51.644.80(2)]. In keeping with tradition, Codman presented the balustrade in front of the bed as a moveable part, so that the ensemble could be viewed as a whole and the details of the stately bed would not be lost.
Contemporary to Codman, but in a completely different style, is this design for the interior of a restaurant (1991.1288) by the architect Émile Hurtré (active ca. 1890–1900) and the painter Jules Wielhorski (active ca. 1896–98). Permission for the construction of the restaurant in the former Hôtel Langham, near the Champs Élysées, was requested in 1896, and the first images of the finished room were published in Modern Construction (La Construction Moderne) in 1898. These dates indicate that it was one of the first public spaces in Paris to be decorated in the daring new Art Nouveau style. As the inscription on the lower right indicates, Hurtré later gifted the design to a friend.
In some cases, a presentation drawing also performed the role of a legal document. In 1718, Donato Giuseppe Frisoni (1683–1735) presented this elaborate design for a salon in the pleasure pavilion "Favorita" at Ludwigsburg (65.654.1) to his patron, Duke Eberhard Ludwig of Württemberg (1676–1732). In the inscription added to the bottom of the sheet, Frisoni describes the room and the materials in which it was to be executed: glass mirrors, marble, and stucco. He also mentions that the ceiling above was to be painted in fresco. At the lower left, the duke has signed with his initials to mark his approval of the design.
Because of their extraordinary qualities or legendary creators, many designs were recorded in print after their execution. This example (2013.230) reproduces a rock crystal chandelier of Milanese manufacture that had come to the city of Nuremberg about 1694. The enormous piece, which, according to the inscription, supported 36 candles and measured approximately 9 1/2 by 22 feet, was originally commissioned as a gift for the Princely House of Thurn and Taxis. The deal fell through, however, because an agreement on price could not be reached, and the merchant family Peller—who had served as intermediate in the commission—kept the chandelier. It hung in their family chapel for more than a century, and it is likely that they also commissioned the production of this print, which turned the chandelier into a lasting part of Nuremberg history.
Designs by notable artists were often reproduced in oeuvre publications to serve as collector's items, but also as inspirational models for other artists. The French publisher Gabriel Huquier (1695–1772) published many of the designs by the multitalented Juste Aurèle Meissonnier (1695–1750). This print (220.127.116.11) shows a view of the interior he created for the Warsaw palace of Count Franciszek Bielinski (1684–1766). The detailed reflection in the mirror over the fireplace hints at the grandeur of Bielinski's city palace.
The print medium was also used to spread design ideas which did not relate to a specific commission and were not necessarily executed. The group of prints fitting this description has been named "ornament prints." This term can be misleading, however, since the group comprises not merely ornaments, but a broad range of subjects including architecture, gardens, monuments, interiors, furniture, vessels, gold and silversmith’s work, jewelry, surface decorations, and individual motifs.
A relatively early example [51.501.6076(9)] comes from a group of furniture designs by the Flemish artist Paul Vredeman de Vries (1576–1630), published for the first time in Amsterdam in 1630. Vredeman de Vries was not a cabinetmaker by trade, but, like his father Hans, a painter of highly detailed city views and interiors often rendered from his own imagination. His published designs could be of service to colleagues of similar profession, but at the same time could also be adopted by cabinet makers and taken as a point of inspiration for the making of actual pieces of furniture.
The tradition of publishing conceptual ideas for design in this manner continued and developed until the end of the nineteenth century. The introduction of color printing—especially the chromolithograph—added a completely new dimension to the discipline. Drapery studies in particular benefitted from this development, since certain characteristics, such as fabric textures and color variations, could now be brought to the fore very clearly, whereas they had formerly been almost impossible to portray. Good examples are the designs by Ernest Foussier (1859–1917) for the long-running series called Bibliothèque de l'Ameublement (Library of Furnishings) by the publishing house E. Thézard Fils. Foussier was specialized in upholstery and created several portfolios of color lithographs depicting canopy beds [1977.595.28(1)], window and chimney draperies, and textile-clad chairs and couches. In keeping with the nineteenth-century taste for historicism and exoticism, his designs are inspired by a broad range of styles, from Celtic and Gothic to Turkish, Russian, and Japanese.
Design firms and workshops often had a portfolio of drawings and modelbooks at hand which functioned as a catalogue "avant la lettre" for customers to choose their preferred designs, or to help them make decisions when creating a custom-made design. This design for a wooden bench [59.608.104(8)] comes from the inventory of an early eighteenth-century French or Dutch cabinetmaker. From the execution of the drawings, it can be deduced that this was not a first-rate draftsman, but rather a craftsman who catered to the middle-class market. He did, however, closely follow the latest fashions, both in the types of objects he offered and the style in which they were executed. This design for a bench shows him fully versed in the vocabulary of the Regency style.
The furniture-manufacturing firm Gillows of Lancaster and London has left behind a particularly extensive group of these presentation drawings from the workshop. Gillows produced furniture for the higher classes of society in Britain and its colonies, garnering a remarkably long, mostly prosperous history. Their workshop-presentation drawings show the range of designs produced by the firm, from chairs and sofas to dressing tables and hat-and-umbrella stands (38.37.200), as well as draperies and entire room arrangements. The pieces are executed in various period styles, from "contemporary" Empire and Biedermeier to Neo-Gothic, Baroque, and Rococo, which could be ordered according to taste and preference.
As printing and reproduction techniques advanced in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, it became more and more common for workshops and stores to publish sales catalogues marketing their products. A group of almost six hundred preparatory drawings for this type of publication related to the workshop of Leopold and John George Stickley of Fayetteville, New York, is preserved in the Museum's collection. (1984.1055.131., 143)
They show both the universality of their Arts and Crafts aesthetic as promoted by the firm, as well as the range and diversity of furniture they produced. The drawings were rendered with great care, and often contain notes and suggested measurements meant for the etchers or lithographers who were to translate the designs into print.
One of Joe Colombo's primary concerns as a designer was functionality—that is, the ways in which an object could be both elegant and simple while at the same time highly practical. This meant that he thought of ways to limit the amount of space an object would occupy, allowing it to be taken apart, folded together, or stacked, often resulting in it being assigned a multipurpose use. In this drawing (1987.1096.7r), Colombo himself demonstrates the many ways in which one of his last designs, the two-part Multi-Chair, could be used. A leather strap allows the two elements to be taken apart and assembled in different ways to sit, sleep, or simply hang out in one's apartment.