Editor’s letter, October 2009

Editorial Staff Opinion

A few months ago Eleanor Gustafson and I spent a day as guests of Historic New England. We had wanted to see what I like to think of as the bookends of that organization’s historic houses­—the 1938 Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, with its spare, modernist decor and bracing use of industrial materials, and the rambling, mysterious Beauport in Gloucester, where Henry Davis Sleeper invented romantic clutter and reinvented interior design during the almost thirty years he worked on it from 1907 to 1934. Of the latter we will have much to say in a future issue. The Gropius House is pertinent here because it reminds me that the Bauhaus, subject of Christopher Long’s wonderfully clarifying article in this issue, was a school, not a tyrannical aesthetic imposed by a group of Weimar era killjoys. However alienating the international style eventually became, the Bauhaus as represented by the house Gropius designed for his wife and daughter, is a warm and pleasant reminder of the school’s best ideals: beauty joined to function in a timeless design.

There was one thing about the visit that puzzled me, however. Among the furnishings designed by Marcel Breuer is a badly pitted lacquered plywood and chrome-plated tubular steel side table. This is not the kind of furniture that was meant to be restored, and Gropius’s daughter Ati Gropius Johansen has argued that it should be replaced by a good new version. Historic New England is not so sure, but I think she is right. With modernism crispness is all, or nearly all. This is not the furniture that Thomas Messel values in Meredith Etherington-Smith’s article, where the craftsmanship cannot be duplicated and the passing years only add to the beauty of a piece. Neither is it the luxurious silver furniture of Versailles described in this issue by Florian Knothe, created to burnish the aura of the Sun King. Breuer’s designs were meant to be mass-produced for the masses and, to my mind, the patina of age seems beside the point and does not become them.

Issues of craft and machine come up again in Monica Obniski and Brandon K. Ruud’s article on Chicago and the arts and crafts movement. Having grown up in that city, I was sure, until I learned otherwise, that the movement had started down at Hull House, totem of reform for every Chicago schoolchild once upon a time. Nevertheless, as our article explains, Chicago artists and designers did make a crucial contribution to the movement in the distinctive joining of craft and machine.

French Empire style may not seem to be a particularly American taste and yet its greatest champion on this side of the Atlantic, Roger Prigent, founder of Malmaison Antiques in Manhattan, has the polyglot instincts of an American original. A Frenchman born in Vietnam who is equally entranced by the Empress Josephine, Johnny Cash, and Andy Warhol, Prigent is at home everywhere and is, I think, the appropriate guiding spirit for our international issue.