Lived with, slept on, leaned against and worn

Three wonderful exhibits in Houston and New York illustrate the current revival of color, pattern and playfulness in interior design. This sea change over the past decade has been a welcome relief after what felt like an eternity of Beige-Beige-White-Beige interiors.

The objects in these shows are human-scaled, detailed and intimate. They were made to be lived with, slept on, leaned against and worn. Many of them reveal a story upon close looking—and many reference each other across the centuries, a reminder that good ideas are always around (and that nothing is ever completely new).

Timorous Beasties, Glasgow Toile, designed 2005, printed wallpaper, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Leo and Karin Shipman. Photo © Timorous Beasties

Timorous Beasties, Glasgow Toile, designed 2005, printed wallpaper, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Leo and Karin Shipman. Photo © Timorous Beasties

The best exhibit is the littlest, a charming show of wallpaper at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Curated by Cindi Strauss Christine Gervais and located in the small design galley in the Law building, “Pattern Repeat: Wallpaper Then and Now” pairs historic wallpapers (including a truly stunning design by William Morris) with contemporary examples that slyly riff on traditional patterns. Glasgow Toile by design firm Timorous Beasties takes a classic, monochrome toile and inserts moments of 21st century urban blight (a junkie; power lines; a gas station). It’s an amusing send-up of the treacly pastoral scenes that toile originally celebrated. (Indeed, the current rage for ironic toile extends to online manufacturers who make custom fabric from scenes you select.)

The MFAH show is the soul of brevity, but “Interwoven Globe” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is anything but. This massive exhibit wades into the unwieldy subject of international trade and how everybody has influenced everybody else in their textiles. See how the Chinese influenced the Europeans and the Indian subcontinent influenced the Peruvians and vice versa all around, and how the Americans struggled to catch up! Sadly, it’s a lot to swallow for a tourist with time constraints. That said, many of the textiles are stunning, and even a brief visit reveals the main point: motifs from one culture popping up in the textiles of another.

And for a visitor with access to the MFAH, there is a definite interplay between some of the objects in these two otherwise very different shows. Consider this fantastic resist-dyed panel from the Met:

Blue-Resist Panel. Probably India, for the American market, mid-18th Century. Cotton, painted and block-printed resist, dyed, 78 ¼ x 59 5/8 in. (198.6 x 151.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1940

Blue-Resist Panel. Probably India, for the American market, mid-18th Century. Cotton, painted and block-printed resist, dyed, 78 ¼ x 59 5/8 in. (198.6 x 151.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1940

 

And this contemporary wallpaper, by Dan Funderburgh, from the MFAH:

Designed by Dan Funderburgh, Elysian Fields, designed 2008, printed wallpaper, produced by Flavor Paper, est. 2003, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Dena Woodall and Skip Fowler. © Flavor Paper by Dan Funderburgh. Image © Flavor Paper

Designed by Dan Funderburgh, Elysian Fields, designed 2008, printed wallpaper, produced by Flavor Paper, est. 2003, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Dena Woodall and Skip Fowler. © Flavor Paper by Dan Funderburgh. Image © Flavor Paper

 

One object at the Met that stuck with me for weeks afterward was the Length of Bizarre Silk. This extraordinary woven silk that at first glance looks like it was designed about a hundred years ago is actually much older, from around 1700. The term “bizarre silk” refers to a brief period of lavish, asymmetrical designs based on elongated and distorted botanical motifs, from about 1695-1720.

Length of Bizarre Silk. France or Italy, 1700-1710. Silk satin, brocaded, silk and metal-wrapped metal, 97 x 43 in. (246.4 x 109.2 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1964

Length of Bizarre Silk. France or Italy, 1700-1710. Silk satin, brocaded, silk and metal-wrapped metal, 97 x 43 in. (246.4 x 109.2 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1964

 

And back at the MFAH, the Kolomon Moser show of Secessionist design features this textile, which, while much more literal, still brings the bizarre silk to mind:

Koloman Moser, Schwämme (Mushrooms), design no. 4003, 1899, execution: Johann Backhausen & Söhne, Vienna, wool, silk, and cotton, MAK–Austrian Museum for Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, Vienna. Photo: © MAK / Katrin Wisskirchen

Koloman Moser, Schwämme (Mushrooms), design no. 4003, 1899, execution: Johann Backhausen & Söhne, Vienna, wool, silk, and cotton, MAK–Austrian Museum for Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, Vienna. Photo: © MAK / Katrin Wisskirchen

 

Hundreds of years apart, working sometimes in different continents with very different materials, these designers nonetheless share a common visual language. These non-art exhibits are a satisfying departure from white cube contemporary galleries, and they serve as a reminder that when it comes to the objects we use every day, we’ve always spoken the same languages.

 

Rainey Knudson is the founder of Glasstire.

also by Rainey Knudson

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3 responses to “Lived with, slept on, leaned against and worn”

  1. This show deserves this kind of attention and is beautifully installed. Cindi Strauss is a gifted Decorative Arts Curator at the MFAH, but unfortunately she did not curate this exhibition. Christine Gervais curated this gem . I believe Christine focuses on 18th and 19th Centuray Decorative Arts. Both Christine and Cindi have been curating strong beautiful shows tucked away in this small design gallery at the MFAH for years. Kudos to Glasstire for covering this exhibition.
    Brooke Stroud

  2. When watching the discssuion around “The Art Guys Marry A Plant”, I am reminded that The Art Guys Marry A Plant was a piece of performance art and it appears that the performance is still ongoing. To me, the fact that some individuals have chosen to vilify the “intent” of the performance and then continue to try to impose that view on others makes the art piece much more interesting than I originally thought it to be.I have to say that I was a bit confused when I first heard that The Art Guys Marry A Plant was being labeled as homophobic and anti-gay marriage. I viewed it as being just the opposite. To me it was quite clear that The Art Guys, in the way that they do, were pointing out the absurdity of the debate over civil marriage rights absorbing so much of our national energy. Trying as hard as I can, I cannot morph this into something homophobic. Perhaps I missed the homophobic undertones because I don’t “understand” artwork … after all, I am just someone who supports artists, galleries, and museums; and buys artwork. Perhaps I lack the imagination to glean the deeper darker meaning buried in this performance. Perhaps I missed this because, based on years of history, I can in no way see The Art Guys doing anything homophobic. Or, perhaps it is because I don’t run around with a huge chip on my shoulder looking for anything that I can label homophobic so that I can display my righteous indignation and appear relevant. For whatever reason, I just don’t see it.Most of the comments and statements surrounding this are pure opinion, but there is one clear fact in all of this. That fact is, the Menil made at least one very big mistake. Either they made a mistake by accepting the piece, or they made a mistake by deciding to move/remove it … probably both. Most of the issues surrounding this piece could have been foreseen at the time the Menil accepted it and one would assume that these issues would have been taken into consideration before the piece was accepted. When one plants a tree, it just might grow and get bigger … that is why one should pick a site very carefully. When one installs a piece of artwork that is intended to be rather permanent, some people might not like it and it might be vandalized … that is just part of the deal. Mistakes happen but I do hope that fund raising considerations were not part of the Menil’s latest decision regarding this piece of artwork. That would be their biggest mistake. Basing decisions on fund raising expedients invariably backfire for museums.I do feel rather sorry for the poor tree that is caught in the middle of all this after being unwittingly cast as the enduring symbol of this controversy and can only hope that it thrives wherever it end up.

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