Pierre Chareau – Through the Looking Glass

A retrospective currently at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue, New York) through March 26 2017, provides an immersive view of the virtuosic modernity of French designer and architect Pierre Chareau (1883-1950). The exhibition, curated by Princeton University professor Esther da Costa Meyer, features M. Chareau’s designs in interiors and furniture, along with a look at his personal life and art collection. The home pieces convey his innovative manipulations of form to facilitate function, while revealing a penchant for rare woods and alabaster. But the real highlights are the presentations conceived by architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro that depict four virtual reality tableaux, and the captivating layer-by-layer digital screening of M. Chareau’s masterwork the Maison de Verre.

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Commissioned by Dr. Jean and Annie Dalsace and completed in collaboration with Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoet and ironsmith Louis Dalbet in 1932, the Maison de Verre is a translucent structure of glass and steel. It had been built on the bones of an 18th-century hôtel particulier, ensconced behind a porte-cochere at Rue Saint-Guillaume on the septieme arrondisement in Paris, and recently acquired and lovingly restored by American historian Robert Rubin. Its cult-ish appeal springs as much from the way it gleams like a lantern, the countless of ingenious mechanical moving parts within, as well as for the lyrical poetry of its fluidly interlocking spaces. All of these are anchored by the grand salon with its towering steel bookcase on one side and a vast wall of glass blocks on another.

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Rendering of the grand salon of Maison de Verre, as seen through a virtual reality headset, with exhibited Chareau-designed furniture in virtual context.

Shortly after completion, the unstoppable march of the Nazis forced M. Chareau and his wife Dollie to flee to Marseilles, then Morocco, before arriving in New York. Here, he failed to cultivate the kind of tightly knit circle of affluent patrons he had in Europe, and he consequently descended into overlooked penury. His final commission was to create a summer home cobbled from a Quonset hut in the Hamptons for the abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell. Unfortunately it was demolished in 1985. For what has survived, we are left with an intriguing glimpse into a truly under lamented genius of design.

Installation view of the exhibition Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design, November 4, 2016 – March 26, 2017, at The Jewish Museum, NY. Photo: Will Ragozzino/SocialShutterbug.com. Exhibition design by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Visit TheJewishMuseum.org for more information.  Images Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.