globalization, interior design, and art nouveau

Tassel House, Brussels, 1893, Victor Horta, First floor landing with view toward staircase

tassel house, brussels, 1893, victor horta, first floor landing with view toward staircase

if i could be transported to another time and place, i would be fascinated to visit the few decades before the first world war.  ideally i would not be in one place. i would travel the world and the world would be traveling to me.  globalization on the rise.  

Orchid desk, Louis Majorelle and Daum Frères, mahogany, gilded bronze, and glass

orchid desk, louis majorelle and daum frères, mahogany, gilded bronze, and glass, france 1903

Vilmos Zsolnay Vase, 1899, Hungary

vilmos zsolnay, vase, 1899, hungary

a crazed group of 1910 british bankers sing a frenzied song at little micheal banks in mary poppins, trying to induce him to invest his tuppence  in railways through africa, dams across the nile, fleets of ocean greyhounds, majestic, self-amortizing canals, plantations of ripening tea. 

this economic globalization paralleled a radically changing europe’s outlook and lifestyle. interior design and furniture design would be forever changed. you can argue for or against globalization, but this seems to be a waste of time.  it just happens.  go with the flow.  

interior designers, especially in the art nouveau movement, began the modernist trend toward lighter more open rooms and furnishings. forms and techniques used in islamic and asian, especially japanese, art and architecture were incorporated. new materials and techniques were possible because of the industrial revolution.  ancient styles, materials and techniques were rediscovered.  

the result was a grand flourish of exotic possibilities, pushing design away from the heavy, stodgy forms of the past.  

for more info go to the art nouveau exhibit at the national gallery of art from which i borrowed these four images.

the ladies luncheon Room, ingram Street, glasgow, scotland, 1900, charles rennie mackintosh and margaret macdonald.

the ladies' luncheon room, ingram street, glasgow, scotland, 1900, charles rennie mackintosh and margaret macdonald.


adjustable lounge chair by william morris the socialist dreamer

still searching for a lounge chair for an outdoor seating area.  what angle should the backrest be?  it could be adjustable.  william morris (1834-1896) seems to have been the original creator of an adjustable chair.  at least his name has been attached to the much copied design.  

morris chair, desert craftsman, phoenix, arizona

morris chair, desert craftsman, phoenix, arizona


morris chair, copy, from 1866 drawing

morris chair, copy, from 1866 drawing

Morris chair by L. & J. G. Stickley

Morris chair by L. & J. G. Stickley


morris was an english designer who like many popular designers made a lasting impact with not just their art but their break away thinking about the times in which they lived.  morris was an architect, artist, textile designer, poet, and an outspoken proponent of socialism.  he reacted to the industrial revolution’s mechanized workplaces and poor living conditions for so many workers by dreaming of another happier world.  he did not lounge all the time, though.  he worked and thought about work.

“It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should he done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.”  william morris*

think about that for a minute and the types and work that men should do becomes a very short list. i think he had the dreamy world of artists in mind.  

morris was also a skeptic when it came to leadership.

“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; Art has remembered the people, because they created.”  william morris* 

“No man is good enough to be another’s master” william morris*

but morris was a leader himself, followed because his ideas and art were admired.  in a sense, he was a king or master of the english arts and crafts movement, which hoped society could get back to good craftsmanship and smaller personalized production in which all the workers could feel a pride and ownership.  i don’t think he foresaw that his utopian socialist world would require the fiercest kind or kingship and mastery to enact.  socialists are not pragmatic observers of humanity.  there just always are leaders and followers, ceos and janitors, generals and foot soldiers.  when anything is destroyed the leaders always get blamed whether it is their fault or not….. anyway, back to the lounge chair search.

here is another variation, sitzmaschine, designed for an austrian sanatorium. 

Sitzmaschine Chair with Adjustable Back (model 670). c. 1905., josef hoffman, produced by kohn

Sitzmaschine Chair with Adjustable Back (model 670). c. 1905., josef hoffman, produced by kohn

i find the design rather scary.  the name does not help.  it brings to mind enforced sitting.  associated with a long sickly stay in a sanatorium, the chair is not attractive.  but on the other hand, if you have to sit for a long time for any reason, it is wonderful to be able to adjust the angle of the backrest.  

* quotes copied from

furniture design – thonet’s lifestyle

how do you get from this….
The Battle of Trafalgar by J. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1822–1824)

to this?

Thonets mass produced no.14 chair

Thonet's mass produced no.14 chair

you cannot separate great designers from their life and time.  case in point, michael thonet.  he was a cabinet maker by training.  interior design at that time was following the trends of architecture and that was inspired by royalty (and the church.)  see me, my great buildings, trust me and follow me (even though i am rather foolish), sort of thing (well, not the church entirely, nor all royalty, but lots of it).  but this was the beginning of the end for those that inherited moneyed upper classness.  along with the rise of british naval power was the beginning of the industrial revolution.  hard working innovators were the rising rich, first in britain and spreading to western europe and north america.  meanwhile, in prussia, and then austria, thonet and his four sons experimented with chairs.  

trade and war went hand in hand during the early industrial revolution, and the greatest need for both was fast ships.  the shipbuilders were the only ones bending wood.  lighter, stronger, sleeker, faster.  then sail to china, bomb their ports, trade your opium and tea, steal hong kong (1842). back to london for huge profits. (for example).

i was born and raised in hong kong and only the very old sat around there, much.  everyone worked hard to make the most of every opportunity — which was plentiful because of the hard work of the people that had built the place (and few regulations, low taxes, and good government).  factories were set up in tiny apartments, where whole families also lived, even in the shacks perched on the slippery hillsides.  little 3 year olds studied their characters to make it into the first year of school.  everyone studied english.  people were selling anything and everything wherever they could.

hong kong island, transformed from the 1800 fishing village

hong kong island, transformed from the fishing village of the early 1800s

but back to thonet and sons, whose story reminds me of hong kong.  he was born in 1796, apprenticed with a cabinet maker, was invited in 1842 to be the royal furniture designer for austria.  turned the offer down to keep his independence and vision of worldwide sales.  below is a excerpt from “Thonet 14,” by Giovanni Renzi.   bear in mind that there were no phones or emails, no cars or trucks.  steam ships and trains were only just getting under way.  there were no gas stations, no credit cards.  europe and north america were growing and changing rapidly, with every man for himself, more or less.  

The history, development and copies of the bestselling chair in the world 
Over a hundred and forty years ago, in 1859, a Thonet factory in Koritschan in Moravia, produced the first chair known as number 14 in the catalogues of the Viennese company. Since then several million chairs of this model have been manufactured and sold. 
According to various scholars of the Thonet phenomenon 
(1), it is possible to speak of fifty million examples manufactured and sold by 1930, whilst according to the advertising of Gebruder Thonet in its contemporary catalogues, fifty million chairs had been sold before 1914. This success was followed by extremely widespread competition from local, national and international firms, with several million (2) copies of the original built using the same bent beech-wood technique. Finally, the same model was reproduced using other materials; firstly iron, which was initially handcrafted and later worked using modern welding techniques, and then plastic. 
Such figures have never been repeated in the furniture sector, and although they have probably been inflated by advertising propaganda, they still represent the worldwide success of an extremely simple model: an archetype of the chair. 
Ever since the last quarter of the nineteenth century news papers and magazines and travel magazines have portrayed people of all races and ranks sitting on the number 14, firstly in drawings and later in photographs. 
The success of number 14 is the success of Michael Thonet and the final result of the stubborn conviction that beech-wood and the bending technique represented the future of chair making. Following twenty years of experimentation, marketing mistakes, technological intricacies and partial failures, Thonet managed to create the economic chair for mass consumption. 

michael thonet and sons, who started their own company in 1819

michael thonet and sons

more on thonet another time, but i am impressed by his story and his chairs.  we want things to be given to us today.  make it easy, make it fast.  but that is not how it happens.  get to work – or dream on and only see it on your dreams.