Now on view (through September 8), the exhibition Living in Style brings together drawings, prints, books, and pieces of furniture from the Museum's collections to illustrate five centuries of interior design, from the Renaissance period through the 1960s. Following a chronological path of development, the show traces changes and continuities in the approach to materials, shapes, colors, and decorations as displayed by the works on paper.
Interior Design on Paper
The drawings and prints in the exhibition are united by their subject matter, which focuses on designs for the domestic interior, ranging from royal residences to more modest dwellings. Some show single pieces or details of furniture, while others are impressions of an entire décor. Created for different reasons, these works provide glimpses of various stages of the design process. A large part of the pieces in the exhibition represents original ideas and designs meant for execution, while others were made for study purposes or as recordings for a workshop portfolio or publication. As a group they convey our own enduring fascination with the shaping and reinventing of our everyday living environment.
Adding Another Dimension
Accompanying the drawings and prints are objects and pieces of furniture from several other curatorial departments, demonstrating the coherence within the Museum's encyclopedic collections and illustrating the translation of the two-dimensional designs to three-dimensional objects. The pieces have been selected for this presentation either because of their close resemblance to a design on paper, or because they elucidate a certain aspect of it. They also demonstrate certain characteristics, such as the materiality and spatial impact of a design, which can only be conveyed up to a certain extent on the two-dimensional picture plain. In a few special cases, the exhibition provides the unique opportunity to see the design drawing and the executed piece of furniture united in one gallery.
The Story of Style
The chronological arrangement of the objects traces the development of style through the ages. Beginning with designs from the Renaissance period, influenced partly by Roman Antiquity and oriented around architecture, the path continues with the more theatrical designs of the Baroque and whimsical creations of the Rococo.
Late eighteenth-century Neoclassicism presents a break within this organic succession of styles through its reactionary character, directly opposing the aesthetics of previous generations. What follows is a period of about one hundred years in which taste turns towards various different historic and exotic styles, in search of a new and modern direction for the arts. Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement mark the end of that period, both still using certain aspects of previous styles, but in terms of the overall aesthetic, moving in a decidedly new direction.
By way of the elegant designs of the Art Deco period, the exhibition concludes with designs from the post–World War II era, which are characterized by simple yet elegant lines and the use of modern industrial materials.
Aside from telling the larger story of design and style, the individual objects in the exhibition tell their own stories as well. Whether they are exquisite examples of innovative design or generic representations of a type, the information about their makers, the context in which they were created, or the influence they had on contemporary and future generations of artists all add to the way we perceive and value these art works today. The stories in the exhibition range from pirate copies after Dutch prints, published in seventeenth-century Germany; a German father and son anonymously yet shamelessly promoting their interior designs to their New York clientele; designs for the palace of a courtesan-turned-countess; and a bedroom modeled after Queen Marie Antoinette's at Versailles.
Collecting Design on Paper
The works of interior design on paper fall into the larger category of Ornament and Architecture, an area of the collection in which the department of Drawings and Prints still collects actively.
The objects have come into the collection in various different ways. A large part has been acquired over the years as a result of their pursuit by drawings and print curators. In addition, many other pieces were donated to the Museum by passionate collectors such as Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman or former curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts William Rieder (1940–2011). Where it concerns works of art from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some have also entered the collection directly from the artist estates, or in some rare cases, even as gifts from the artists themselves. Part of the aim behind acquiring this type of work is to document and complement the Museum's extensive collection of objects but, as underlined by the current exhibition, designs on paper merit attention as distinguished works of art in their own right and are also collected as an autonomous art discipline.