The soft edges of Brutalism

img_6237

After years of bad publicity mid-century brutalist furnishings have been enjoying somewhat of a revival. Its fair to say these items have always elicited a love/hate response in people and for anyone who has ever seen such items, its easy to see why. Incorporating concrete, wood or forged metal, they are often raw, brash and cold. Yet while the smaller furnishings are often lumped alongside their very unpopular architectural relatives, its important to recognise key differences that I think mean such artworks should not be written off with the same well-tarnished brush.

Brief overview:

In architectural terms the Brutalist movement emerged in the early 1950s as an academic reaction to the increasing blandness of post war modernism, and Le Corbusier and Miles van der Rohe were quickly cast as the spiritual heads. Formed from the French word for ‘raw concrete’ brutalism represented a new voice tired of the slick-back self-engrossed confidence of industrially uniform design.  It offered a new bold design language and the promice of social improvement through considered design. As a highly malleable material, the brutalist buildings that emerged were unashamedly concrete, modernist and brash. They found quick favour with institutions and planners in Britain and worldwide keen to build a new landscape, but by the mid 1970s as the promices failed to materialise, the style began to decline.

Institute of Education

Brutalist furniture and furnishings emerged around the same time in the early 1950s and also embraced many of the same principles as architecture. However, being of a far smaller scale, these objects did not pretend to be a solution to any of the social debates that ultimately toppled the architectural dream. Instead the brutalist designers and artists seemed to draw more inspiration from the craft movement as well as abstract and surreal expressionism. Inspired by the works of artist such as Willem de Kooning or Alberto Giocometti, the new brutalist furnishings tried to express a sense of urgency and energy by using overtly hand-made industrial methods often incorporating geometric or random forms.  Works by early protagonists such as Marcello Fantoni or Paul Evans tend to have an immense sense of raw power to them as though ripped from the depths of the earth or forged in passionate haste from the anvil. They wear their wounds of frantic torch cuts and solder blobs proudly. By the latter 1960s the early zeal had somewhat burned away and while pieces still bore the brutalist hallmarks, the style had certainly evolved. Under artists such as Curtis Jere or companies like Poliarte the look became far more refined, thoughtful and in turn serene. At the more mainstream end pieces in turn became tamer and sometimes more kitsch to appeal to a more commercial environment. It is this reason why many people get confused by the term ‘brutalist art’ when they first google it. In the end it was the ability of the object to suggest a sense of energy (whether brutal or calm) and elicit a response in people that really tied them under the same universal label.

Incorporating the brutalist look today

As we progress further and further into another age of elegance, then small brutalist offerings full of sculptural energy can actually work well in our homes. In small doses such as on a simple sideboard or against a white wall they offer a burst of unashamed vitality that usually complements the general quietness of our rooms. While pieces by the leading artists and sculptors were often signed and can set you back a four or five figure sum, the vast majority of brutalist items were not. Therefore many great items can still be picked up for mere pounds, and when considering any piece (irrespective of price) it should be all about how it makes you feel. As sculptures these things were always intended to elicit an emotional response. Therefore no matter how awkward the dinner party may become, brutalist art can always be relied upon to get the conversation started again!

Concrete stairs photo credit to  Ben Adlard

The welcome return of Art Deco

img_9025

You may have noticed a new resurgence of interest in the Art Deco era.  To be fair, it is a style that has never really left us as its heritage, personality and principles can still be found woven into all our homes and offices whether via original features, later reinterpretations, or even just amid our continued respect for crisp design and open spaces. Though fashions come and go, Deco speaks to many of the warmth and confidence of halcyon days, of the successful merging of art and industry and of timeless elegance. And unlike later mid-Century Modern items, the Art Deco period also offers a far more mature and established field in which to collect.

It was Judith Miller who reminded me recently, at the launch of her latest publication ‘Art Deco, the glamour of the Jazz Age’, that Deco was our first truly democratic and global style. She is right of course. From the lofty exclusive heights of Emile Ruhlmann or Ferdinand Preiss, to the unknown mass-produced items that filled every department store of the day, there was indeed something for every pocket and continent. But it was also much more than just this. Today as we look to re-embrace the Art Deco style, it is worth considering its roots and ideology to help us better understand it and welcome it into our modern homes again.

The seeds of Deco:

Many still believe that Deco was somehow miraculously conceived at the opening of the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art that took place in Paris in 1925, yet in truth it has roots that stretch back much further. What came together at the 1925 World’s Fair was a fresh global energy that wanted to forget the tragedy and austerity of the First World War, that wanted to embrace the newly emerging machine age, and that also wanted to open the windows widely to the stuffy legacy of cluttered Victoriana. Bauhaus, Thonet, the Secessionist designers and Rennie Mackintosh of course all played their part in creating the design language of Deco simplicity, but so too did the wave of expats newly returned from Europe’s now shrinking Empires. Indeed look at photos of any period interior and you will quickly see that Deco’s draw was not only its ability to declutter the lines and physical spaces, but to also embrace the cultures that these expats used to call home. Open plan rooms (that have been the traditional dwelling format for many tribal cultures) suddenly took off in the 1920s as a new, exciting and healthy concept, and amid the sleek new modernist furnishings encased in exotic timbers, nestled ancient motifs and antique ethnic artefacts. In many ways it was an era much like our own, one learning to co-exist in a global melting pot of ideas and designs.

Newark, Art Deco

Collecting Deco:

When it comes to collecting and integrating Art Deco into our homes then according to Jeroen Markies, one of the leading Art Deco specialists in this country, it is all about buying statement pieces with discernment. “There is a lot of interest globally at the moment in top quality English made items by the top designers such as Epstein and Hillie, and particularly in lighter timbers. Hollywood movies like ‘The Great Gatsby’ or programmes such as ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ have all reignited our love for 1920s frivolity and glamour, and it is a look that still works well in our modern homes”.  But as interest in Art Deco continues to buck the general downward trend of antiques, it is also an important time to buy well as supply of the best pieces continues to dry up. For anyone new to the field, then purchasing or at least discussing from reputable established dealers is strongly advised not only because most pieces were sadly unlabelled, but also because subtle variances in colour and form can have a very big impact on both desirability and value.  According to Jeroen, the savvy collector should also really focus on prewar pieces first as the build quality did drop off dramatically after WW2.

The Changing Face of Australian Pubs

Welcoming it into our homes:

Unlike Art Deco collectors of the past who were more puritanical in their look and interest, today’s buyers seem far happier to mix things up. And that’s the great thing really, as a style originally intended to complement a whole host of other periods and cultures, Deco just works. Whether your other interests are African masks or Chinese porcelain many items simply look better juxtaposed on a crisp deco sideboard. For the academic amongst us, there is also lots of literature to be found.

So go on and Deco-rate your homes. Embrace those unashamed bronzes and chrome uplighters and revel in burr walnut or birds eye maple. For even if they provide your home with just an extra ounce of 1920s frivolity, then amid our austere times, that is surely money well spent!

Deco lamp photo credit by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose; deco living room photo credit by Michael Coghlan

Vandalising our Past

Broken

One of the most famous pieces of modern Chinese art is a set of 3 images from 1995 showing the artist Ai Weiwei intentionally dropping and smashing a 2000 year old Han dynasty urn. In fact he actually smashed two, since the photographer failed to capture the first drop successfully. Oops. As a cultural statement this seemingly mundane act somehow hit at the heart of many people’s sense of sentimentality and decorum regarding the care of our antiques and there was a public outcry against this all too blatant act of vandalism in the name of art.

High profile vandalism within antiques is an all too common story. Whether its the Taliban blowing up Buddhas, Militants destroying Iranian museums, the never ending debate over the Elgin marbles that were ripped from the Parthenon, infamous paintings slashed to make a political point or, as I read a few months ago, US immigration officials smashing ivory components from a host of antique treen because they had not been properly declared. When the Ivory story was reported in the press, I clearly remember the impassioned backlash that hit social media the next day. While the US authorities had merely followed protocol in upholding the tight anti-ivory laws that exist in the States, for antique lovers everywhere their actions were perceived as little better than Ai Weiwei’s.

The other week when collecting an object I’d purchased, I chanced into the owners workshop where a rather lovely Georgian rosewood card table was in the process of being permanently lost under a fresh layer of crackled gold leaf and black paint. Though the transformation was intended to make the item more saleable, to me it seemed like an unjust funeral for such a good original item.  I felt a 2000 year old vase smash inside me, but being English I said nothing. Only when I got home and looked around did the reality dawn. The truth behind most everyday ‘vandalism’ is that we all live with, accept and sometimes cherish elements of it in our own homes and that perhaps it only affects us when it openly rejects our own beliefs. From dressing tables cut down into bedside cabinets, wardrobes refashioned into bookcases, tables stripped, paintings over-restored, chairs recovered and a multitude of items repainted to the latest fashionable finish, we are all culpable perhaps for allowing the unnecessary destruction of our antique items.

The above are obvious examples, yet things can also be far subtler. I was surprised to learn the other day that nobody actually knows what an authentic 18th century finish was like on furniture. With a lack of written documentation, natural decay, over zealous waxing and pieces being refinished using 19th century shellac recipes, no-one still knows how 18th Century homeowners would have expected their new furnishings to have looked. Even without realising it, the most conscientious among us are still a little culpable of some light vandalism as well.

img_1304

‘Vandalism’ remains an emotive term because it implies not just the wilful destruction of the object itself but more importantly the wilful rejection of what it stood for.  The Chinese respect for tradition and ancestor worship meant it was not surprising a broken old vase upset people. Yet had the artwork happened in our own country over the last few years, I wonder if we would have reacted the same way?  In our world ‘upcycling’ remains the buzzword for savvy Millenials and countless television hours are spent teaching us that an old item is only really desirable now when refashioned into something new. Beyond just the physical change, we have also chosen to downplay many of the intentional meanings of the past in favour of our own modern far softer melting pot approach. Looking around at the hotch-potch of antiques I choose to live with, I see that I’ve also unwittingly vandalised the original meaning out of many of the objects I so love. For example a pure Cotswold cabinet that defined the virtue of traditional handicraft and rejection of mass-production holds our mass produced TV, a 16th century carving of a saint that is meant to evoke the higher unworldly place of God sits beside a 1920s Gramophone, an object for praying to the false idols of popular music. I could go on….

In 2014 Ai Weiwei’s controversial work was part of an exhibition in Miami. Displaying a series of ancient pots dipped in modern bright house paint, a member of the public walked over, picked up one pot and dropped it on the floor. This act of vandalism was reputedly a protest against the museum’s preference for displaying international over local artists, but the bitter irony was lost on the authorities who arrested the man, and also to Ai, who the man later had to apologise to.   While antiques remain so embedded not just into politics and ideology but the whirlwinds of fashion and novelty …….I wonder what wilful vandalism we will subject them to next?

Broken Mirror photo attribution: by Massimiliano Calamelli

section 52:New Changes to UK Design Patent Law

Living room with a natural Sapele hardwood floor.

Like many seismic events, you would be forgiven for not having noticed the gentle pre-rumblings about a change to the UK patent law which is due to come into effect in just a few weeks time. On July 28th the ‘Repeal of section 52 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988’ comes into force allowing industrial designers and their families the right to retain, reassert and legally protect the copyright of their designs for up to 70 years after the death of the creator. Previously limited to only 25 years after the design was released, the revision brings it into line with wider European law.

This repeal, which was lobbied by the powerful design community, is aimed at protecting industrial scale designs (where more than 50 copies of an object have been made) from open plagiarism within the retail market. It will perhaps correctly bring to an end the era of knock-off Corbusier, Eames and Egg chairs that currently flood the market place, yet by potentially reasserting protection on current and out of date designs (as well as having no exemptions for second hand goods), it could have important knock-on consequences for the secondary market. While the focus has been on furniture design because that is where most current patents seem to lie, the change is an umbrella one that could include anything from jewellery to home ware.

What will be affected?

The technical jargon from the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is that the industrially produced design must be ‘a work of artistic craftsmanship’ to qualify meaning the form must clearly outweigh its function. The IPO acknowledges that their definition is open to interpretation which is worrying  when you consider that every mass produced object of the last 100 years has been actively shaped by one designer or another. From cutlery to lamps, sideboards to bridges, we live in a world dominated by industrial design. Until now in the UK, our utopian principles have led to an accepted understanding that good design should remain available for the benefit of all and where plagiarism and subtle adaptations arose, these have always been a forgivable consequence of the industry. In 2011 it was estimated that the replica furniture industry in the UK accounted for only 7% of total UK furniture sales. Yet as European courts tightened their own legislation a few years back, the emerging internet allowed the UK to become a supposed hub for replica goods and push the onus back on the UK to tighten up as well.

How the Antiques field may be impacted

There are several ways that the antiques industry may be affected by the repeal and these changes have come about at a time when the interest in mid-century design is at its peak.  Under the new rules any credible design produced since 1946 ( as well as some older ones still under contract) could potentially be covered by copyright.  Although there will be a 6 month grace period until January 2017 to allow people to clear their stock or make necessary changes, the new law makes the sale of unendorsed design classics in the UK illegal. This change may bolster consumer faith and spending back onto the original vintage or endorsed items, yet will also surely see prices rise as well as the market thins out. It will mean that even as a private individual you won’t technically be allowed to sell your fake Corbusier armchair anymore even if you’ve had it since new from the 1970s. You will still be allowed to own it, but only officially produced versions by Cassina will be permitted for resale.

A second area that will affect the education, heritage and publishing industry the most is that the law will also apply to copyright protection on 2D photographic representations of such objects as well. Potentially hundreds of art, antique and reference publications may have to be modified and republished (at a cost to the publisher) to ensure there are no infringements made.

The Future

While the IPO feel the ‘artistic’ requirement of industrial design makes qualification for such copyright potentially hard to obtain, there is also no question that it will have long term impacts for many people. Already many interior designers are saying the change will push their costs sky high and magazines will have to be very careful when they are photographing on location. Publishers are facing massive short-term financial loss, and for their part auctioneers and dealers will have to be constantly vigilant for unofficial examples.  It is the open-endedness that is troubling. The IPO say a design is protected due to its form and not its attribution. Therefore just because you do not know its makers name does not preclude it from protection. One wonders if all this uncertainty may actually push interest back onto genuine antiques which are free from such complications?

Last word 

Unlike art, genuine uniqueness in the design world is actually a rare thing. Constrained by form and function, its a world instead of inspirations and subtle modifications towards the more perfectly balanced form.  If the changes to the law mean the best of design becomes the preserve of the rich, then that sadly goes against the principles why many took to the drawing board in the first place.

For more information, relevant guidance is available via the www.gov.uk website or email  section52CDPA@ipo.gov.uk

Chairs image attribution: by Boa-Franc

When Love Came To Town- Embracing 1960s Psychedelic Posters

Whether (as the saying goes) you remember the 1960s or not, the hippie movement that emerged at the time was to produce its own highly unique and vibrant style of art. Widely recognised today as a counter-cultural and philosophical brand, the hippie message still resonates just as clearly nearly 50 years on.

Paraphrased best as: ‘bold, bold and more bold’, the now iconic images of the 1960s psychedelic revolution scream of an age of self-assured youth, iconic music concerts and social and artistic experimentation. Even if you have no desire to tye-dye your whole wardrobe in solidarity, just a small splash of neon psychedelia onto our modern minimalist walls can look both fabulous and very contemporary. Best of all, with entry prices for original works (like posters and hand bills) still running at only a few pounds, its a nostalgic statement that won’t break the bank.

Victor Moscoso, Quick silver Avalon ballroom (San francisco), 1967

Overview:

As with any other art movement, the psychedelic art of the 1960s-70s emerged as a creative response to the social and political upheaval of the time. Led by a disillusioned youth, weary of what they saw as the lies and injustices of their parent’s generation, the ‘hip’ or ‘hippie’ movement was to have its birth around 1965 within the progressive melting pot of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Within just a few short years and supported by the ever more popular rock music scene there, the ‘free-loving’ messages would spread globally. The Haight community found itself at the epicentre of this whole hippie revolution, with 1967’s ‘summer of love’ becoming the defining year.

Haight Ashbury corner in San Francisco

The art that marks the movement was of two kinds. The first was experimental and conceptual (and thus very hard to define or ever collect). The second in contrast was a more commercial art, usually recognised through small print runs of posters or handbills, that would publicise the associated music and cultural events taking place at the time. Venues such as The Matrix or Fillimore Auditorium took to commissioning the local Haight artists to produce advertising posters for their upcoming concerts. As history unfolded, a good number of the musicians that performed for this Californian music scene, would rise in stardom to become the giants of the rock music world. This included groups such as Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead.

Jefferson Airplane

Junior Wells

Not all the psychedelic artwork produced at the time was for musical purposes, and a smaller percentage had a more political or social-activist undertone instead. Even so, as rock and pop memorabilia has continued to grow over the years, psychedelic’s close association with their iconic bands has ensured a healthy level of interest in the whole art form.

neon rose 15 neon #12Avalon Ballroom

Collecting the style

The psychedelic style and mismatched neon colours of the 1960s are thankfully an easy one to spot. Despite a large number of later pastiches, it is the half a dozen or so San Francisco based artists who started the art form (called the Fillimore artists) who have become the most sought after today. Even the main international museums like the Smithsonian actively hold examples of their work as well.

stanley mouse and alton Kelley

Moscoso Quick Silver Poster attribution by:lartnouveauenfranceAshbury Haight photo attribution: by Felix E. Guerrero; Blashfield Jefferson Airplane poster attribution by: Cliff; Moscoso Junior Wells poster attribution: by Cliff; Moscoso 2 women poster attribution: by Wilson Bilkovich

Subtle Design Variation in Mid Century Lighting

DSC_0252_1_edited

There is nothing more pleasing than good design, and the cult of the inspired designer is stronger now than ever before. The best pieces quickly spread to become instant icons and while thousands of words of praise are often heaped on them, really just a split second glance tells you everything you actually need to know. Like a good painting you don’t need to understand its historical significance to just appreciate it.

There s plenty of conjecture behind just what makes an object great, but the best designs are often the most successful meeting point between production and consumption.  Put another way, its a design where both the producer and the end user shake hands in mutual admiration since the needs of both have been most fully met. Cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu calls designers ‘cultural intermediaries’ and there is much truth in that, but too often design history is only told through a few select milestone pieces we choose to deify. The rest somehow slip into the shadows and when finally rediscovered years later, are labelled ‘in the style of’ offerings instead.

A book I read DSC_0238_editedsome time back said to be the best at anything, you just need to do the same as everyone else but 5% better.  I would argue that in all but a few cases, top industrial designers are no different. Thumbing through a book I picked up recently confirmed this 5% rule to me.  Though reprinted in 2012, the book was originally published in Germany in 1953. Entitled ‘Modern Lighting of the 50s’ the book showcases a wide range of lamps from the years just before 1953 from major designers and companies across Europe and America.

All but one of the images below are reproduced from the above mentioned book and show variations on two interconnected design forms that were clearly innovative and fashionable at the time:  the adjustable scissor stand and the dual functioning table/wall lamp. These are not copies or design forgeries, but the natural variations that emerge when leading designers go head to head over the same concepts. Most interestingly the one lamp that was not included in the book is the scissor lamp from the Frenchman Boris Lacroix (colour image shown) that has widely become known as the leading  example of that form.  While certainly the most elegant of all the variations listed below, Lacroix’s lamp which came out around the same time as all the others, is probably the only example many collectors will be able to name. This show’s the stark truth of the 5% rule……….

BorisLaCroix 1st dibs_edited DSC_0243 DSC_0244_edited DSC_0245_edited DSC_0246_edited DSC_0248_edited DSC_0249_1_edited DSC_0250_edited DSC_0251_1_edited DSC_0252_1_edited DSC_0257_edited