Design  Exhibition  Art and Culture 

The Utopia of the Interior

Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design

Mark Wigley 

Pierre Chareau is deeply, even obsessively, admired by many designers. He has been a cult figure since the 1930s, a fetish object lurking off to one side of mainstream discourse, overlooked by the big canonizing stories about ‘modern architecture’ yet periodically celebrated in essays, monographs, films, and now a major exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. These celebrations every decade or so always run the risk of taking away the very allure being celebrated, domesticating Chareau by retroactively integrating his work into the standard narratives.

The risk is heightened by the fact that he was not a manifesto writer framing his own work. Those who toast him act as his ghostwriters, with a little too much freedom to speculate since few of the original spaces remain. The risk has even increased as the ventriloquists conjuring up a voice for Chareau have symptomatically passed from fellow designers like Paul Nelson, Richard Rogers, and Herman Hertzberger in the early decades to designers turning themselves into historians like Kenneth Frampton in the late 1960s, and then historians like Brian Brace Taylor taking over in the 1990s. The descriptions have become ever more forensic. Each successive analysis goes deeper into a wider set of works. No detail is apparently too small to consider. But membership of the Chareau cult still takes the form of sharing a secret and even of sharing the idea that Chareau’s work is special because it has secrets, that there is a fundamental mystery to the work, some elusive shadowy quality at the heart of his relentless theatrical display of display itself. The dilemma is how to bring the shadow of Chareau into the light without dissolving it. The beautifully assembled and presented current exhibition manages this delicate mission with considerable agility. It answers more questions than ever about Chareau, yet the sense of mystery ultimately increases.

The cult celebrations, and this exhibition and catalog is no exception, typically begin by saying how difficult it is to classify the work of Chareau, which is not an interesting thing to say if you think about it. Or at least it doesn’t engage with why he remains off to one side. Take Le Corbusier. No one is more at the center of the standard narratives about modern architecture, but does he really fit into any established category? Perhaps we only ever talk about figures inasmuch as they defy classification. Or, to say the same thing in reverse, classifications are just a way of removing most things from the conversation. This exhibition tries to overcome the gap between thinking of Chareau as a furniture maker and thinking of him as an architect by astutely focusing on the concept of interior that links the two. In fact, there is no dilemma of classification with Chareau. As a designer of interiors, he fits seamlessly into a vast tradition of interior design that is arguably more prominent and impactful than that of modern architecture, and was anyway central to that project, not simply because of the modern architect’s ambition to operate equally at any and all scales, but conthe interior itself was a central ambition of the modern project, imagined in a binary relationship to the expansive city ‘outside.’ It can be argued that the interior domain stereotypically identified as feminine was literally at the heart of the modern project, never simply isolated from the outside but somehow incubating the promise of a new outside. For all the talk of a new fluidity between inside and outside, the imagined modern interior was never a miniature outside, but more of an incubator of metropolitan potential. Chareau is not overlooked because he is marginal but simply because the field still has difficulty looking at itself.

The real dilemma is not one of classification then, but the awkward fact that one Chareau interior so dramatically transcends the rest of his work in most eyes. The Maison de Verre or House of Glass, built in Paris between 1928 and 1932, is a project of such complexity, innovation, and nuance that it renders much of modern architecture uninteresting or inadequate. A house that is not a house but a quivering environment produced by a layering of adjustable filters, none of which is thick enough to completely block light, sound, or smell. Between its front and rear facades of translucent glass blocks, the three ascending layers of work, living-entertainment, and bedrooms overlap each other to produce endless permutations and combinations between public and private. This three-dimensional tour de force of perforation is a space secreted from the city in which it is paradoxically very difficult to keep secrets. Every object, material, connection, and behavior is on display, from the wiring and fuses to the toilets and bidets, even light itself as daylight is turned into a kind of lamp by the glass blocks, and lamps aimed onto the glass from outside produce the effect of the day at night. Everything handcrafted with the uniqueness of a bespoke or haute couture garment that paradoxically has the look of an industrial assemblage. Above all, the sense of mobile equipment to live with and live in, a space that is continually reconstructed by sliding, rotating, revolving, pivoting, folding, swinging, suspending, rolling metal elements. It is as if the mobile translucent screens that reconfigure the traditional Japanese interior, and turn domestic life into a shadow play, have been put on steroids. Hard not to think of a prehistory in the complex layering of interpenetrating screens of Frank Lloyd Wright and the transformative interiors of Victa Horta, and of the contemporary kinship with the remarkable mobile domestic equipment of Charlotte Perriand and Eileen Gray.

Scenery and Shelter

The exhibition tries to resist the overwhelming presence of this one project by tracing many of the same qualities in earlier works and greatly expanding the history of Chareau’s interiors and the role of art, other designers, clients, and collaborators within them. But inevitably the exhibition succumbs to the force of this one definitive interior. To walk through the exhibition is to feel this interior steadily taking over.

The beautifully staged exhibition, with the unmistakable care and thoughtfulness of Elizabeth Diller and her team in the installations, is organized around three successive theatrical spaces. In the first space, a quiet highlight, six sets of furniture pieces float on white screens suspended from rollers attached to the ceiling, then softly folded horizontally like the temporary backdrop cloths used by photographers to highlight people against an abstract depthless space. It is as if they could be rolled up at any minute, producing a sense of immediacy, of being present during a normally private moment of exposure. Stylized shadows of the furniture are drawn onto the screens, and on the reverse side these shadows are seamlessly accompanied by the moving silhouettes of people using the furniture like ghosts of the past, enticing the visitor to imagine the interiors that they are animating. In the second, equally theatrical space, four sets of furniture pieces are placed in a black cubic volume of space and, when donning virtual reality goggles, suddenly appear embedded in fully rendered immersive spaces from projects in Paris, including the garden and main salon of the glass house. The visitor now becomes the ghostly inhabitant of interiors that have been reconstructed on the basis of intense archival research, able to scrutinize every detail. In the final, darkened exhibition space, a moving screen suspended from the ceiling above a plan of the Maison de Verre on the floor steadily cuts through an intricate digital model of the building and its urban site, successively revealing on both its sides all the layers of the space, like a CAT scan revealing the inner mysteries of a body.

The gaps between these three stage sets are lined with drawings, paintings, sculptures, and light fittings, along with a wealth of archival letters, photographs, cards, and negatives that explore Chareau’s boutiques, exhibitions, publications, friendships, and family, the central role of art in his personal and professional life, and the previous attempts to document Maison de Verre in different media.

In presenting a kind of history of the representation of the definitive project, the digital forensics appear as but the latest attempt to dissect the work using contemporary means, as did Kenneth Frampton and his colleagues with their remarkable axonometric drawings in ink of the late 1960s that are presented alongside earlier sets of photographs. To which could be added the short film made in the 1970s, the accelerating parade of monographs starting in the 1980s, and the first major exhibition at the Pompidou in 1993. It is as if the alluring complexity of the project challenges each generation to unsuccessfully attempt to unveil the last layers of its mystery. In the end, neither the curator, exhibition designers, catalog writers, this review, nor even Chareau himself, can get past this project, nor wants to.

Which raises the other point about Chareau that is typically overemphasized, and is so again in this exhibition when it repeats the lament that his career only flourished between the end of World War I and the rise of fascism, between 1919 and 1932. This is treated as a cruel constraint on a creative force that would otherwise have flourished, rather than a productive constraint like the fact that the genius of the Maison de Verre is completely dependent on having to keep the top floor of the existing apartment building and insert the new interior as a huge adjustable furniture piece in the fixed volume of space between the ground, suspended floor, party walls, courtyard in front, and garden in back. In the few opportunities to do a freestanding building, Chareau produced uninspiring work, even when working with the same collaborators in the same years. Like artists that die young, his reputation is not diluted by the further opportunities he surely deserved. On the contrary, the space between the wars was itself a very specific kind of interior in which Chareau blossomed so vibrantly with a remarkable series of projects.

Between the violence of two imperialist nightmares, a violence that would directly impact his family and those of his clients, Chareau worked on a succession of interiors for clients, exhibitions, publications, and films that elaborated a kind of domestic utopia, a practical dreamscape as a refuge and place of discussion with the shadow of a real threat looming outside. The Maison de Verre producing its shadow play on translucent glass in its hidden courtyard is the very figure of this idea of a refuge at the heart of the metropolis, mirroring the aspirations and ambitions of his clients but also the aspirations for a new kind of society.

Collaborative Work

The real gift of Esther de Costa Meyer’s incisive curatorship of this exhibition is to refuse to overlook the question of interior and to widen the understanding of collegiality between designers and artists during those years with networks of mutual support, collaborative work, and shared exhibition and publication. It deepens the understanding of the collaborative role of the clients, in particular the circles of Jews that supported Chareau, and shows how Chareau’s own domestic life was socially, intellectually, and professionally entangled with theirs, including the key role in his work of Dollie Dyte, whom he had married in 1904.

Yet one is still left itching to learn even more of the specific collaboration of Chareau with the iron craftsman Louis Dalbet and the architect Bernard Bijovet – the trio that did the Maison de Verre. The collaboration with Dalbet and his studio-workshop had started in 1923, and Chareau’s work was transformed by floating forged iron elements, whole wall systems as mobile pieces of equipment, remarkable iron and alabaster lamps, and furniture where wood and metal dance like an odd but happily self-absorbed couple. The thinness of the pounded iron allows Chareau to liberate the interior from the fixed constraints of floor, walls, and ceiling to suspend fabrics, paintings, mirrors, telephones, lamps, ashtrays, books, letters, clothes, plants, sculptures, tabletops, food, cabinets, and people. The thin metal planes act as a scaffolding for a new mode of living. It is not clear if without Dalbet’s ironwork the Chareau cult would survive. Dalbert, who sometimes exhibited his own designs in the Salon d’Automne and won the Prix de Rome in 1917, is often identified in the exhibition, but the relationship itself and its implications are not explored beyond the traditional but perhaps misleading model of the master craftsman. And the importance of the serial collaborator Bijovet, who started working with Chareau after they met in 1925, is downplayed, even if it is not complicated to see through earlier work with Johannes Duiker that Maison de Verre is unthinkable without him. The project is a genuine collaboration in the sense of a stunning work that exceeds the gifts of all those that produced it, yet is unimaginable if any one of them is removed, or the thinking of the remarkable clients, Jean Dalsace and Annie Bernheim. 

This elegant and intelligent exhibition on the collaborative production of interiors and works of Pierre Chareau that so impacted figures like Le Corbusier – the enigmatic guy with black glasses who, said the workers, kept turning up at the site of the Maison de Verre and asking questions – finally hesitates in the face of this most dramatic collaboration, as if out of fear of finally dissolving Chareau in the very act of celebrating him. Yet it is the treasure of this exhibition to show that the difficulty of drawing any clear lines between the collaborators mirrors the ghostly effect of the work itself that hopefully will continue to defeat those that try to capture it.

Mark Wigley is professor and dean emeritus at Columbia GSAPP.

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