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Interview with Esther da Costa Meyer, curator of 'Pierre Chareau: Modern and Architecture' at The Jewish Museum

Dorothée Charles (DC): Can you introduce Pierre Chareau, architect and designer at the intersection of tradition and innovation?

Esther da Costa Meyer (EdCM): Pierre Chareau rose to prominence as a major figure in the French decorative arts. Without being a revolutionary, he was nevertheless one of the leaders of the modernist wing of the French ensembliers. His furniture was characterized by flat surfaces and clean profiles; rare woods and wrought-iron -- a rare combination – took the place formerly accorded to ornament. His pieces were further enriched by mobile parts that could swivel out depending on the needs of the owners, a flexibility that showed his keen interest in practical, workable solutions consonant with the requirements of modern life.

DC: The exhibition Pierre Chareau: Modern and Architecture includes rare furniture, light fixtures and interiors. Could you present the sections of the exhibitions and its design set?

EdCM: The exhibition is organized into five main sections. The first focuses on Chareau’s furniture designs, and brings together a series of beautiful pieces that he designed for different interiors. The second calls attention to some of the art works owned by the Chareaus or used by Chareau in his displays. The third part tries to contextualize his life and oeuvre by showing drawings, archival photos, and photographs. The fourth section evokes four interiors designed by Chareau in Paris. Finally, the last section is devoted to the Maison de Verre, one of the most original and innovative houses in twentieth century architecture. The design set has been created by Diller and Scofidio and I invite the audience to discover and experience the exhibition.

DC: La maison de verre (1928-1932), is the masterpiece of Pierre Chareau located rue St Guillaume in Paris. He also realized houses in the USA  when he moved to NYC in the 1940’s to flee Nazi. Can you present the difference between these two periods?

EdCM: In France, Chareau designed three houses in collaboration with the Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoet: the Golf Hôtel de Beauvallon (1927–29), the villa Vent d’Aval (1927), and the celebrated Maison de Verre (1928–32). Commissioned by different members of the same family (the Bernheim and the Dalsace), they were executed with great care and reveal the designers’ allegiance to modernism in their sleek profiles, unornamented surfaces, and (in the case if the Maison de Verre) exposed structure, industrial materials, and custom-made details. Chareau also designed a modest country house for his friend, the dancer Djemil Anik (1937).

In the US, Chareau lacked the kind of patrons that allowed him to engage in costly materials and detailing. The house he did for the artists Robert Motherwell in East Hampton (1947) reveals the open plan and exposed structure of the Maison de Verre but was built with two inexpensive Quonset hut kits. His one-room summer cottage, erected on the grounds of the Motherwell house was even simpler. In upstate New York, Chareau designed a house, La Colline (1950), which looks back to Djemil Anik’s house in its quirky and rustic feeling.

DC: Pierre Chareau was a collector. Who were the artists collected?

EdCM: The Chareaus had to sell many works from their art collection to survive in exile and we may never be able to identify all the works in their possession. We know that they owned, among other things, paintings by Mondrian, Max Ernst, Robert Motherwell, Joan Miro, Vieira da Silva, Torres Garcia, as well as sculptures by Amedeo Modigliani and Jacques Lipchitz.

DC: Can you tell us about the Bureau-Bibliotheque (collection musée des arts décoratifs in Paris) realized by Pierre Chareau in 1925 for a specific project for a French Embassy?

EdCM: The Bureau-Bibliothèque, designed in 1925, launched Chareau’s career as a major and highly original ensemblier. The prestigious Société des Artistes Décorateurs, of which he was a member, collaborated on a single project, a proposal for an imaginary and luxurious French embassy. Chareau was assigned the library. It included a beautiful desk and chair, and a circular carpet by Jean Lurçat, surmounted by an ingenious fan-like armature in palmwood that could be closed to isolate the ambassador at his desk, or open up to reveal the surrounding shelves, lighting fixtures in alabaster and wrought-iron, a sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz, and wall hangings by Hélène Henry.

Esther da Costa Meyer is professor of modern architecture at the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. Her research focuses on architecture in its interaction with globalization, neoliberalism, and environmental change, connections that challenge the anthropocentric, monographic models of traditional historiography. She also works on the architectural practices of colonial powers in the Global South, as well as the emerging cultures of resistance that were themselves highly hybrid, transnational, and diasporic. On issues pertaining to gender and design, she has also published on architects Lilly Reich, Charlotte Perriand, and Lina Bo Bardi. Her curatorial work includes the exhibition Schoenberg, Kandinsky and the Blue Rider, co-curated with Fred Wasserman (The Jewish Museum, New York) and, more recently, an exhibition of the drawings of Frank Gehry, Frank Gehry: On Line (Princeton University Art Museum). She has also published a book on the Italian futurist Antonio Sant’Elia and his connection to the historical avant-gardes.