Saturday, February 18, 2012

All Modern

Less is more    Mies van der Rohe 1923
Less is a bore  Robert Venturi   1966 

It's All Modern this week in Palm Springs. In 2005 I wrote the following article for the show's magazine. It's a great review of what modernism is all about.

Innovation in furniture and technology flourished--sleek, grand forms in simple colors of the 20s and 30s replaced earlier sinuous, organic shapes in architecture and design. Throughout the next 50 years, designers of new products swung within a pendulum that ranged from extreme minimalism to the avant-garde, an all-show-and-no frills package of goods meant for everyone. Ruled by the masses who in a new industrial world now acquired what was once only the bastion of the rich, the designers conjured up practical products to fill the homes of an expanding suburban population.

From the Depression to the to the Soviet Union's breakup the Western world struggled to remake itself in an industrial world among fascism, communism and capitalism. Streamlined minimalist-yet-functional furnishings and accessories emerged from the battlegrounds. Modernism was to become the name of the game for decades. Its offshoots--Art Deco, Bauhaus, deStijl, Streamline American and '50s International style and 60s pop--dared to different, but never looked back at the intricate moldings and detail of earlier Art Nouveau and Victorian eras.  

It wasn't until the 80s when postmodernism etched itself into the mainstream that modernism was pushed aside. Styles with pastel colors, smoky glass and highly polished stone among expressive forms and witty images came of age.  Palm Springs designer Steve Chase used of glass and stone and natural desert colors. Playboy illustrator Patrick Nagel created a new image of the postmodern woman and Wendell Castle moved away from the space age bringing back wood sculpting as a craft. Factory produced items were out.

These new designs faded as retro pushed its radical touch around the world in the late 90s.

It's not just the United States either, where mid-century modern and related designs have made a comeback and that the mainstream has taken to with kid-in-a-candy-store zeal. From Camden Locks in London to the Marais in Paris, vintage mid-century items and remakes rule among store display windows.

Dependable, made-to-last-a-lifetime furniture and accessories from Deco to Retro remain vogue in 2004, striking up poses in homes from urban areas of the haute- international set to towns where college students rule.

European "Moderne" (pronounced modairn), furniture that debuted in the 1920s (as opposed to modern which usually is associated with the 50s and 60s) was streamlined and functional, setting the stage for future minimalist design. It contained sculptural elements such as decorative "knuckles" that protruded slightly up and down the furnishings legs.

At the end of World War II, a near magical style was carved from the one of the era's design geniuses. Isamu Noguchi introduced the three piece coffee table-- plate-glass top balanced on two curved, solid walnut legs in 1944, a piece manufactured by the Herman Miller Furniture that brought wood and glass together for the modern age.

Offbeat shapes of coffee and dining tables and lounge chairs evolved during the 50s and 60s. Eero Saarinen's tulip chair and Pierre Paulin's ribbon chair stepped beyond the original risks of couches that swerved around Heywood-Wakefield (1940) kidney-shaped coffee tables and that, at the time, wiped out more traditional furnishings from earlier eras.

What goes around comes around and the earlier styles are becoming as ubiquitous as those are from the 50s, the peak of minimalist modern.

There are two schools of thought to the fifty-year period in which modernism evolved both driving the business of mid-century furnishings and accessories to higher level each year-- the revisionists and purists. The former mix and match styles, mainly focusing on mid-century modern, but will use many equivalents-- reproductions and even, don't even mention this to a purist, furnishings from other periods.

"A lot go for the look. Purists look for labels, designers' names and the dates furniture was made," explained  Miguel Linares, an architecture student at College of the Desert in Palm Desert and partner of James Claude, both of whom run Palm Springs Consignment, one of the oldest vendors of mid-century modern in the country. "It's 50/50 split, a lot of people by second homes want to furnish them in a fun way.  Others come in for items that will match their mid-century homes exactly."

Peter Murozzi, Palm Springs Modern Committee president, for example, remains a purist, choosing only the less-as-more, matching Mies van der Rohe's purist view. Asked about whether an art deco steel lamp would suit his home he said, "I'm not ready for that," but added,  "it's still timeless."

Isabella Emmett, of Coral Gables, FL, rumored to be an expert among dealers at the show on between-the -war design, offers deco designs that would make a South Beach Florida hipster drool with desire. South Beach is a deco wonderland. Her tastes lie within the earlier Gatsby era, a time when Paul Frankl, one of the designers that appeals to her, used light wood to create streamlined designs of perfect symmetry.

Palm Springs designer Alan Hodges tastes extend from the purist elements that one might see inside the homes of the book Palm Springs Weekend: The Architecture and Design of a Mid-century Oasis (2001), by  Alan Hess and Andrew but many of his choices in design for his Palm Springs mid-century style condo originated from earlier eras. His favorites are a Mies Van De Rohe (designer) day bed and Barcelona chairs, all items which were on drawing boards in the 20s.

He looks for furniture manufactured by Knoll, a German husband-and-wife team whose biggest coup was acquiring the rights to her former teacher a Mies Van De Rohe's popular "Barcelona" series chairs that helped Knoll to carve out a viable American market for the International Style. In 1929, the Spanish Royal Couple sat in a pair, two thrones for the elite. "It is almost easier to build a skyscraper than a good chair," said the chair's designer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Not only do revisionists choose furnishings from other eras; they also will use reproductions of original pieces. "I will buy a reproduction or reissue if the vintage piece is too difficult to obtain," he says.

Hodges finds that original pieces can be modified to suit certain decors. He purchased two lime green velvet vintage pieces of designer Thayer Coggin, an American who specialized in upholstered furniture, from Palm Springs Consignment, and had them reupholstered in contemporary-print fabric, a process that a purist would probably shun, but one that fit the needs of one of his clients.

Bubbling double rows of round cushions for the seat and the back, George Nelson went on to design the marshmallow sofa (1958), a later period choice for Hodges' condo if he only had room.

If you want new but yearn for the old you can accent rooms with original accessories for an extra shot of nostalgia in your home.

Kitsch and pop, bright colors, bold daring designs began in the 60s and are especially hot for people who want to step into modern fun slowly by buying what the dealers call "smalls". Smalls are accessories from bright red portable typewriters, complete with a matching case to rotary telephones and portable television sets and pottery. Shawnee, McCoy, Haggar or the likes in pink or baby blue radiate a 50s flavor all around. The bright colors of California pottery offer a 60s powerhouse of retro in one small free form piece.  A Bakelite (that's the first plastic that was made) clock radio with an oversized dial, the numbers 54 6 7 8 9 11 13 16 arched around it in a Norman Rockwell manner. 

A small's secret harrows in the senses--a kind of new modern age quest to gather items that flash with camp, color, light, and sound, and that connect past generations to your life today.

The smalls design and color give clues when items were produced. The pale spring colors are likely to have been used in the 50s, screaming colors in the 60's, then toning down to browns and olives in the mother earth 70's.

A quick snapshot from a year of each decade from the 50s to the 70s shows life as it once was:

In 1955, a set of Bertoia form wire chairs with tangerine seat cushions were perfect for sitting and chatting during the cocktail hour.  Houseguests often lounged on armless, curved, floating-seat sofas. Martini glass rested under a napkin with a poodle on it on top of a two-tiered kidney-shaped coffee table. 

In 1968 one grooved to the Doors under the light of a chromed metal lamp with a revolving head, maybe relaxing, reading the Rolling Stone in a black Globe chair with red cushions. With a swivel, a red cylinder, pre-formed plywood cabinet/table appears to launch at your side. Arm reaching out dangling with love bead bracelets, a pitcher of Kool Aide is not far away.

Ten years later paying your bills is mellow act in a beautiful home office of modular furniture.  It includes a laminate-faced worktop and storage units--all attached to aluminum frames.  Your spouse can watch you in admiration in one of a set of brandy- colored, leather armchairs.

In the 80s Steve Chase encouraged designers to use the natural desert landscape as a backdrop for interior design in new Palm Desert homes, a style that was picked up in suburban living all across the Western United States.  His home in the Thunderbird Cove Club was a perfect example, staircased squares and rectangles of adobe, the same shades as the boulders and mountains nearby.  Inside, he used the same shapes inlaid with transparent materials for subtle desert views and muted light. Dr. Carol Soucek King in her book Empowered Spaces classified Chase's style as "Earth Spirits," making Chase a key element in solidifying the back to nature trend.

"The acid citrus, shag rugs and in-your-face patterns and prints changed into a more subdued pallet of pastels--muted pink and mauve," explains Randy Patton of Steve Chase Associates.  "The soft, quiet colors were in response to the earth tones of the desert.  Much of the architecture was clean and tailored to the environment and heavy with masonry and solid materials." 

Remembering Steve Chase, Patton reflects: "He was a dynamic personality, a creative genius.  He had a sense of scale and worked within both the architectural envelope by creating bold and simple statements using natural materials."

The desert designer of large estates, had two homes then, one of which he simply thought of as "all charm, no sense" (his Del Mar home) and the other as "all sense, no charm (his Rancho Mirage home). Chase's suggestion (from King's book):  "Take desert colors and shapes and hard regional materials and make a warm house."

Chase died in 1994, just about the time when mid-century revival began.

Fifty years of the twentieth century design history in a city Murozzi brands a "Mid-Century Disneyland" is filled with the spirits and works of great designers among majestic natural surroundings where you can find less being more and among camp and kitsch that's never a bore.