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Articles on this Page
- 06/03/14--06:00: _Lux in Tenebris/ Ar...
- 06/04/14--06:00: _Reflecting Well
- 06/05/14--06:00: _When in Rome
- 06/06/14--06:00: _Still Life with Can...
- 06/07/14--06:00: _What Would the Medi...
- 06/08/14--06:00: _Elegant Egg Cups
- 06/09/14--06:00: _A Wallpaper View of...
- 06/10/14--06:00: _A Magic Carpet
- 06/11/14--06:00: _Arabian Nights
- 06/12/14--06:00: _Cleaning Your Plate...
- 06/03/14--06:00: Lux in Tenebris/ Artists are Dogs
- 06/04/14--06:00: Reflecting Well
- 06/05/14--06:00: When in Rome
- 06/06/14--06:00: Still Life with Canary, or A Hungry Cat
- 06/07/14--06:00: What Would the Medici Do?
- 06/08/14--06:00: Elegant Egg Cups
- 06/09/14--06:00: A Wallpaper View of Early New York
- 06/10/14--06:00: A Magic Carpet
- 06/11/14--06:00: Arabian Nights
- 06/12/14--06:00: Cleaning Your Plate for Your Country
Lux in Tenebris, Latin for "Light in Darkness", is a line from Dylan Thomas’s “One Warm Saturday”, the last story in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.”
“The barman switched on the light. ‘A bit of lux in tenebris.’”
A Latin-quoting barman, a high remark in a lowly setting, light and dark; such correlative contrasts come out in two very different book jacket designs by Alvin Lustig, one selected and one rejected. The image you see above is the rejected cover. The image below is the accepted one:
Maquette, Book cover, Dylan Thomas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, ca. 1953. Alvin Lustig for New Directions Press. Gift of Susan Lustig Peck, 2001-29-2
Lustig writes about his own process when designing a book cover: “Sometimes the symbols are quite obvious and taken from the subject itself. Others are more evasive and attempt to characterize the emotional content of the book”. The two versions here portray both ends of this spectrum.
By tracing the fate of an image, much can be learned about taste, marketing strategies of the time, and factors that may forever remain mysterious.
The chosen cover with a photograph of Thomas smoking on the top and a dog smoking on the bottom is often reproduced, highly visible all over the internet. I grew up seeing it on my parents’ bookshelf.
The other, cryptic, Modern, and abstract, has fallen into obscurity.
All because, on a particular day, one highly influential individual (James Laughlin, editor of New Directions) rejected a poetic image in favor of a more direct one . The latter image is so concrete it becomes a witty parody of itself. Why select this one? Certainly, New Directions had published plenty of other abstract book jacket covers.
Was the intention to match Thomas’s shocking title? “Thomas claimed in a letter to Vernon Watkins that he ‘kept the flippant title for—as the publishers advise—money-making reasons.’"
The chosen cover design seems far from the prevailing abstract aesthetic of the Mid-20th Century. Characterizing the time is a quote by Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, who, in their letter to the New York Times in 1943; state “The world of the imagination…is violently opposed to common sense”.
Thomas and Lustig, great artists and thinkers of the earlier half of the 20th Century, might gravitate more towards imagination and abstraction. Abstraction was a mode of expression Lustig was keen on and influenced by, a fan of Miro, Klee, and others whose influence can be gleaned here.
Here, in rejected cover, Lustig constructed a series of universal yet private symbols in response to Thomas’s stories. These range from stars with varied points, with their accompanying elusive symbolic meanings, to typographic symbols, enlarged and aesthetically pleasing on their own terms.
The other, selected cover is an absurdly concrete illustration of words taken to a comedic extreme, more in keeping with the eventual rejection of Modernism’s subtle mysteries towards a Post-Modern, ironic perspective. A smoking dog, humorous and obvious, is a tongue-in-cheek nod to a provocative title with immediate impact.
As a museum educator and artist, one comment frequently asked of me is, “Why is THIS artwork in this museum?” Luckily, Cooper-Hewitt has both in their collection!
Reflecting Well, by Junichi Arai, continues his life-long investigation into materials and textile techniques and the transformation of two-dimensional cloth into sculptural and vibrant surfaces. In this polyester and aluminum piece, Arai combines a melt-off technique, which dissolves the metallic thread leaving behind a transparent cloth, with shibori, a type of tie-dyeing technique that, in Reflecting Well, ultimately protects the metallic areas when dyeing the cloth. The results are large, circular, metallic puckers that reflect light and create an incredibly animated cloth.
Since 1950, Arai has been working in some aspect of the textile industry, developing new manufacturing processes. In 1984, he and Reiko Sudo co-founded Nuno, a company and retail store that produces and sells innovative functional fabrics. He has taught textile workshops all over the world and his work is included in the collections of major museums. The museum’s holdings of Arai’s work represent a cross-section of his career.
This design consists of five different structures of ancient Rome, including some of the more well-known ruins such as the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Roman Forum. All of the structures are seen in silhouette, as are the peculiar cast of characters patrolling them. Appearing in front of each structure are Roman soldiers either on foot, horseback, or riding in a chariot. Both the figures and the structures are highly stylized, while the figures appear as caricatures. The design is printed in two colors on a pale yellow silk ground.
Each of the colors is printed to suggest a linoleum block or rubber stamp print, or possibly the appearance of much wear or abrasion, as one would expect to find on an “ancient” artifact. The Museum collection contains several other wallpaper designs by Hawking for Denst & Soderlund that have a similar appearance, giving his designs a handcrafted look, with a certain elegance.
Clarence Hawking is a graphic artist who joined the firm of Denst and Soderlund in 1951 as one of the chief designers. He remained with the company for a number a years and designed many wallpapers including both repeating patterns and murals. Denst and Soderlund was a Chicago-based company active from 1947-1961 who became known for their stylish and trendy wallpapers. John R. Denst (Jack) and Donald K. Soderlund both graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1946 and founded their partnership the following year. The partners remained together until 1961 when Denst set out on his own and founded Jack Denst Designs. After landing a major job with the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, the company began receiving orders from set designers and one of the Jack Denst wallpapers was used in the 1971 thriller “Play Misty for Me.” Denst became known for the whimsical names he gave his designs, which intrigued the producers of “What’s My Line” enough to invite him to appear on their show in the early 1960s.
While the genre of still life painting dates back to ancient times, it had emerged as a specialty by the late sixteenth century. Still lifes depicted mostly inanimate objects and could include natural things such as fruit, flowers or animal trophies, as well as man-made objects such as vessels or books. While it is not known if this firescreen with cat and canary is copying an actual painting, the inclusion of cats in the genre of still life painting became quite prevalent from the seventeenth century on. Most frequently the cat is shown toying with a dead catch of fish, whether just being inquisitive or in the process of having lunch.
Most of the early still life paintings contained a moralistic message which was frequently about the fleeting nature of life. This appears to be the theme applied here. The overall scene displays bounty, fruitfulness and youth. The abundance of fruit displayed is plump and ripe; the various cut flowers are fresh and either in bud or full bloom. The parrot and cat appear vivacious, groomed and well fed. There is no sign of wilt or decay or aging. And to all concerned, be it the home owner, the parrot or the cat, life is good. It's a different story if one happens to be the little yellow bird, where all is not well. As there are two living entities in the print, the parrot and the cat, the fact that the parrot is helping himself to a juicy cherry, is possibly suggesting a similar fate for the cat’s trophy.
Firescreens and overdoors were of a similar format and followed in the nature of paintings or scenic wallpapers in that they did not have a repeat. Firescreens of the paper variety were used to cover the fireplace when nothing was burning to make it more decorative, while overdoors filled the space between the top of the door frame and the ceiling. This firescreen was woodblock-printed in about twenty-eight colors on a deep taupe ground. Four sheets of handmade paper were pasted together to form the support.
It is easy to think, in the age of Pinterest and the Knot, that weddings have never before been so extravagant. Without knowing the history of weddings in the West, we all too often find ourselves rolling our eyes at 30,000 dollar weddings. But, those tasty, miniature, artisanal canapés with pickle remoulade (at fifteen dollars a pop) are not actually as generation Y as you might think. In fact, they are a pretty striking carry over from weddings in Early Modern Europe. During the Renaissance in particular, lavish weddings were reserved for nobility, merchants, and money men (such as the Medici) – essentially, the top tier of society.
This print from Italy was executed in 1608. Neptune is perched high above winged male figures who appear to propel the ship along with oars. What does this have to do with weddings, you might ask? It is a print from a “Series of Naval Battles for Wedding Festivities of Cosimo Il de'Medici.” The depicted attraction was likely actualized, along with several others, and floated in large outdoor “oceans” as wedding entertainment. These spectacles were assuredly only a few among innumerable others that celebrated the union between Cosimo II de’Medici and Archduchess Maria Maddelena of Austria in 1608. Not only was the marriage a political triumph, but the wedding itself also served a propaganda role--deftly displaying the magnitude of the Medici fortune and the importance of their family. The food, entertainment, and events were all conspicuous and outlandish, even by today’s standards.
Cosimo II was a great patron of the arts and it was under his rule, and other members of the Medici family, that weddings became massive public events meant to be striking displays of power and money. Similar to our current desire to challenge the ephemeral nature of a wedding by taking photographs, the Medici wished to immortalize the union and all that it stood for – both politically and lineally. This desire provoked the Medici to commission prints of wedding festivities such as the ones in the Cooper-Hewitt collection. This made the event portable and tangible, allowing for its easy dissemination throughout the rest of Europe. It was with events such as these, and their consequent representations, that Italy became one of the culture capitals of Europe during the Renaissance.
So, the next time you find yourself at a wedding, wondering just how much it costs to wine and dine 250 guests on quail eggs and a delectable vintage named after the happy couple, you at least know when and where it all started.
Kristian Vedel is primarily known as a furniture designer, trained by the Danish architect-designer Kaare Klint and strongly influenced by Klint's standards of economy, function and simplicity. Vedel established his own studio in 1955. These stacking egg cups are one of his early innovative designs, part of the Gourmet line of plastic tableware from about 1958. Manufactured by Torben Ørskov & Co., they are made of melamine, a hard, durable, heat resistant plastic still popular for table and kitchen goods today. The egg cups were produced in white, black and red. The simple, circular molded forms show a sculptural lightness and refinement. Their rims, wide enough for a small spoon, taper to such a fine edge that they are almost sharp.
In the early-to mid-1950s, Torben Ørskov started working with designers to explore what could be achieved with melamine, a relatively new plastic at the time. The company wanted to show that it could be used to produce finely sculpted forms of high quality. Surprisingly, this experimentation with melamine and the idea of stackable plastic ware was somewhat influenced by American products Vedel and other Danish designers saw at the 1954 exhibition of American decorative arts, in Copenhagen. One Danish critic noted that American design emphasized functionalism and the "art of simplification." There was a large contingent of plastic kitchen and dining wares, including Russell Wright's and George Nelson's first stacking table services in plastic. Vedel began to design the Gourmet range around 1956, and the basic line went into production two years later.
By the early 1960s, this international story seemed to come full circle—the egg cups and other Gourmet items were available to American consumers at Design Research, the innovative retailer of modern design, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in about 1953. Design Research, a great proponent of the Scandinavian Modern style, went on to open stores in New York and San Francisco. The firm became an influential marketer of every aspect of the modern lifestyle in the 1960s and 70s—from clothing and textiles, to furniture, to goods for the kitchen and dining table.
This wallpaper shows a view of New York harbor as seen from Castle Williams on Governor's Island. The design features a landscape view that alternates with an eagle bearing an E Pluribus Unum banner. The paper is woodblock-printed in grisaille or shades of gray with a green filigree running through the design that outlines and connects the different elements. The foreground of the landscape view shows a sentry walking around the base of Castle Williams, a nearly circular fort built between 1807-11. Castle Williams was considered to be a state-of-the-art fortification and remained influential in fortress design for decades to come, so it makes sense to include this structure in a patriotic wallpaper. A variety of large and small vessels sail the harbor including paddlewheel boats and tall ships. The Manhattan skyline can be seen in the distance. This print of the eagle is based on the Great Seal of the United States, whose eagle clutches a banner in its beak, carries thirteen arrows and an olive branch in its talons, with thirteen stars overhead, each of which symbolize the original thirteen states. Twenty stars appear over this eagle’s head, and if symbolic in this use, could date the paper at 1817 when Mississippi became the twentieth state.
Landscape views appearing on wallpaper designs were frequently copied or inspired by period prints. There was a note on this object’s catalog record stating that was most likely the case with this wallpaper. Knowing some of the key elements of this scene I went onto the Museum of the City of New York’s website and found a very similar view of New York harbor as viewed from Governor’s Island dating to 1820. The sentry walks around the fort, ships are sailing in the harbor, Manhattan can be seen in the distance, and the rolling waves in the print have been replaced by barrels and other items on shore.
“Sustainability,” “green,” “eco-friendly”: these terms have become bywords associated with the contemporary city. With the inception of LEED certification in 1998, and the advent of sustainable technologies such as solar panels, today’s urban designers are increasingly immersed in the conversation around sustainable design. Architect and sculptor James Wines (b. 1932), however, has been grappling with these questions since the early 1970s. His work has proven so influential within the architecture community that in 2013 Wines was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement award from the Cooper-Hewitt as part of their National Design Awards program. Wines, president and co-founder of the architectural firm SITE, has used his design platform to transform the traditional hierarchy between architecture and nature, the tendency to “discard” vegetation as secondary to our built surroundings, proposing instead an assimilation of structure and environment. “Buildings conceived of as integrations of structure and landscape,” he writes, “are mutable, metamorphic, and evolutionary, constantly conveying new levels of information.” For Wines, built, natural, and social contexts are in perpetual dialogue.
Wines’ 1986 design for the Pershing Square redevelopment in Los Angeles illustrates the architect’s unique design philosophy. Though the project ultimately went to architect Ricardo Legorreta and landscape architect Laurie Olin, Wines’ proposal is commendable for its effort to revolutionize the historic square while paying homage to the surrounding context. Wines was inspired by the city’s topography, a “vast, gridlike carpet with rumpled corners where the hills surround the central plain,” as well as the city’s cultural mosaic. Using the park’s original footprint, Wines developed an undulating topography around the square’s periphery, leveling the space into a central valley at the square’s nucleus.
Drawing, Proposal for Pershing Square, 1986. James Wines. Museum purchase through gift of Lucy Work Hewitt, 1993-115-3.
Wines further divided the square into a pattern of modular grids. Each module represents a unique “mini-environment” with its own vegetal and aesthetic profile derived from the surrounding city. Cooper-Hewitt’s two drawings illustrate the logic of Wines’ scheme. The “Selection of Los Angeles Theme Modules” catalogues the various environments Wines developed for the Pershing Square project. These included a Japanese Garden , an “auto archaeology” module with a half-buried car in recognition of the Los Angeles auto culture, a “Spanish Archaeology” module complete with citrus trees and bougainvillea, beach, tropical, and desert modules in honor of the state’s varying climates, as well as a series of fountains. Wines referred to his scheme of modules as a “magic carpet,” which, when paired with the dynamism of the park’s undulating topography, imbued the space with a “visual drama.” Cooper-Hewitt’s second drawing shows how these modules interlock throughout the square, flowing from level to raised ground, broken by pathways and a trellised processional at the park’s center. These drawings further attest to Wines’ skill as a draftsman, and in particular his belief in hand drawing as a crucial component of a design’s evolution, together with computer renderings. The varying line qualities and textures suggest the diverse amalgamation of vegetal and visual features throughout his design, which, like the mosaic of contemporary LA, combine into a unified whole.
 Wines, James. “Passages: the Fusion of Architecture and Landscape in the Recent Work of Site.” Architectural Design. Vol 67. No 1. January-February 1997. 32.
“Pershing Square.” Site. New York: Rizzoli, 1989. 214.
“Pershing Square” 214.
“Pershing Square” 214.
Arabian Nights is one mural from a collection of five produced in 1948. The mural is divided into three distinct views, the two ends showing building exteriors while the center view looks through a colonnade into a courtyard. Through this view one can see all manner of decorative fences, roof tops, a cupola, even a pair of nesting birds. The two end views show elaborate tile work and horseshoe-arched windows, both common features in Islamic architecture. This mural was printed on a single horizontal panel measuring 37 x 95 inches and could be installed in a variety of ways: it could be used by itself, it could be hung with multiple panels end to end, or it could be installed in brick fashion to fill an entire wall.
Ilonka Karasz began designing wallpapers in the 1930s but her wallpaper career didn’t take off until the postwar period when she designed exclusively for Katzenbach & Warren. She believed walls should be rendered as a flat surface, and her designs present an unusual, surreal perspective not true to nature. Her designs were printed using a variety of media, including machine printing and the new Mezzotone process, a blueprint method introduced by Katzenbach & Warren. Mezzotone prints were available in a variety of ink and paper colors, including sepia, burgundy, blue, and yellow. All of Karasz’s designs printed in the Mezzotone process were hand drawn to scale in graphite and ink on linen. Karasz preferred this printing technique because it picked up the delicate line quality and textural aspect of her drawings.
Karasz immigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1913, and became one of very few women working in the design field. She was also the first woman admitted to the Royal School of Arts and Crafts in Budapest. While she worked with a variety of media including wallpaper, silver, textiles, and furniture, Karasz was probably best known for her New Yorker magazine cover illustrations, designing her first cover in 1925 and creating a total of 186.
During WWII, the US government depended on Americans to volunteer in the war effort. Over 85 million Americans--nearly two thirds of the population--purchased war bonds providing much needed financial support. Women entered the workforce in large numbers helping to produce the thousands of ships, tanks, and airplanes required overseas. Food shortages were a major problem during the war, and the government asked Americans to become as self-sufficient as possible.
This 1943 poster encouraged members of the public to finish everything on their plates and to not waste food. A note that accompanied this poster explained that since the military would require much of the commercially produced canned food that year, Americans needed to preserve their own food to get them through the winter months. Growing “Victory Gardens” and using food stamps were active ways that the public could further help the war effort.
This object is one example of the many posters that the US government mass produced throughout the 1930s and 40s. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) developed a new silk-screening process that could reproduce color posters at a rapid pace. Posters were hung on factory walls, in store windows, and along sidewalks as a constant reminder to the public about their patriotic duty and wartime responsibilities.
Laura Williams is a Masters candidate in the Museum Studies program at New York University. Interested in pursuing a career in curatorial research of United States cultural and social history, Laura earned her Bachelor of Arts in American Studies and History from the University of Maryland in 2013. She currently works with the National Design Awards at Cooper-Hewitt.