Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Porcelain of the Royals

QUESTION: I recently saw some Meissen porcelain at an antique show. I fell in love with it but the price seemed high. What can you tell me about this type of porcelain? I’d like to start collecting it, but I’m not sure I can afford it.

ANSWER: Meissen porcelain was the first porcelain made in Europe. It’s origins are royal. Augustus II, known as Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who reigned in the early 18th century, avidly collected porcelain from China and Japan, as did many of his fellow monarchs. By the time the Asian-made porcelain reached Europe, it was so expensive that only a king or queen could afford it.

For Augustus, it wasn't enough to fill his Dresden palaces with Oriental imports. He wanted his own porcelain, made in Saxony. After a great  many failed experiments and the expenditure of large sums of royal revenue, his court alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottger, hit upon the correct formula and produced true porcelain at Meissen, a suburb of Dresden, in 1708. The early wares of the factory were imitations of the Chinese or Japanese styles.

Although Meissen produced a wide range of porcelain ware, both ornamental and practical, he company  is best known for its figures. From medieval times, German court dining tables had displayed decorative centerpieces composed of mythological, allegorical, or comic figures modeled in wax or spun sugar. Porcelain figures replaced these in the early 18th century. The earliest bore the mark “Hofkonditorei,” meaning royal confectionery. Because of their origins in entertainment, the subjects are usually cheerful and, when modeled in groups or two or more on a single base, often tell little stories.

Johann Joachim Kändler, who worked from 1731 until his death in 1775, was the great modeler at Meissen. In the hands of most modelers, porcelain figures were mere dolls. In the hands of Kändler, they became sculpture. Though collectors seek out all of Kändler's work, they especially admire his animals and birds, based on observations of the royal Saxon menagerie.

The commedia dell'arte inspired some of Kändler's finest work. His contemporaries immediately recognized the stock characters—the Doctor, Pantaloon, Scaramouche, Harlequin, Columbine— from these plays. Kändler dashingly modeled and brilliantly painted them with colors that have faded little in two centuries. These figures have never been inexpensive, and often sell for five figures or more.

Kändler's greatest achievement in tableware was the celebrated Swan Service, which he had his fellow workmen model in the grandest baroque style. It was made between 1737 and 1741 for Augustus's chief minister, Count Bruhl. Consisting of 2,200 pieces—plates, tureens, sauceboats, wine-bottle stands, and candlesticks, among other items—many in swan form and all painted with the Bruhl family coat of arms, the Swan Service has been called "the most beautiful and magnificent table service ever to be executed by a porcelain factory."

Having successfully produced his own porcelain, Augustus began to show signs of megalomania. He planned a "Japanese palace" paneled and furnished entirely in porcelain. He commissioned Kändler to do a life-size statue of him for the palace, but it cracked before it could be fired. A number of animal and bird figures from the project survived, and several examples have been sold.

The most expensive single piece of European porcelain ever sold was a 26½ -inch-tall macaw from the palace project, which brought $195,000 at a 1978 London auction. It came from the collection of German millionaire leather manufacturer Robert von Hirsch and was bought by the Kunstgewerbemuseum of Cologne.

Porcelain making is an art that has made little "progress" in 200 years. Eighteenth-century Meissen is considered by most collectors to be the finest porcelain ever made in Europe. And prices for it reflect that. The costliest lot of porcelain ever sold at auction was a 21-piece Meissen tea service ordered by King Christian VI of Denmark about 1730 and painted with the royal arms of Denmark and the insignia of the Danish Order of the Elephant. It brought $433,000 at a London auction in 1986. The royal connection was obviously a great asset, because a similar 27-piece tea and coffee service from the same period with no such provenance sold for a more typical $70,000. The demand for Meissen is consistent. At most sales and auctions, Meissen sells for prices way above the rest. So if you intend to collect it, you better win the lottery or start saving your dollars—not your pennies.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ooolala...Art Deco French Style

QUESTION: I have a pair of upholstered arm chairs that originally belonged to my great grandmother and were passed to my grandmother and then to me. They have an unusual shape. Can you tell me anything about them?

ANSWER: Your chairs seem to be classic French Art Deco, dating from the late teens to mid 1920s of the last century.

The term Art Deco, actually coined in 1966, refers to a design style that originated around World War I and ran through World War II. It’s epitomized by the works shown at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts), held in Paris in 1925. Indeed, the name of this vast exhibition would later be abbreviated to Art Deco, giving a catch-all and rather imprecise label to an enormous range of decorative arts and architecture.

Most people associate Art Deco with the mechanized, metalicized objects that appeared in the U.S. in the 1930s. Like haute couteur fashion, this high style was more popular with the wealthy and avant garde than with the average person, mostly because this group had more education and its tastes ran to fine art and design.

Developed by a group of French architects and interior designers who banded together to form the Societe des Artistes Decorateurs, the Art Deco style incorporated elements of style from diverse artworks and current fashion trends. Influence from Cubism and Surrealism, Egyptian and African folk art are evident in the lines and embellishments, and Asian influences contributed symbolism, grace and detail.

Disillusioned by the commercial failure of Art Nouveau and concerned by competitive advances in design and manufacturing made by Austria and Germany in the early years of the 20th century, French designers recognized that they could rejuvenate a failing industry by reestablishing their traditional role as international leaders in the luxury trades, a position they once held during the 18th century. The founding in 1900 of the Société marked the first official encouragement of new standards for French design and production through annual exhibitions of its members’ works.

In 1912, the French government voted to sponsor an international exhibition of decorative arts to promote French pre-eminence in the design field. The exhibition, originally scheduled for 1915, had to be postponed because of World War I and didn’t take place until 1925. If the exhibition had taken place as scheduled, the sophisticated style of Art Deco probably wouldn’t have evolved.

The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris was a vast state-sponsored fair that dazzled more than 16 million visitors during its seven-month run. The works exhibited—everything from architecture and interior design to jewelry and perfumes—were intended to promote and proclaim French supremacy in the production of luxury goods. The primary requirement for inclusion was that all works had to be thoroughly modern, no copying of historical styles of the past would be permitted.

But creating from scratch isn’t something that occurs in the arts. All art—painting, sculpture, writing, music, theater—evolves from what’s been done before in some way. So many of the objects exhibited had their roots in the traditions of the past. The stylistic unity of exhibits indicates that Art Deco was already an internationally mature style by 1925—it was just getting started before World War I but had peaked by the time of the fair. The enormous commercial success of Art Deco ensured that designers and manufacturers throughout Europe continued to promote this style until well into the 1930s.

In France, Art Deco combined the quality and luxury of the French furniture tradition with the good taste of Classicism and the exoticism of distant, pre-industrial lands and cultures. Many designers used sumptuous, expensive materials like exotic hardwoods, lacquer, ivory and shagreen in order to update traditional forms like armchairs, dressing tables and screens. Motifs like Meso-American ziggurats, Chinese fretwork, and African textile patterns offered a new visual vocabulary for designers to play with in order to create fresh, modern work.

Early Art Deco furniture introduced sleek, rounded corners, and futuristic styling. Seating often curved slightly inward, suggesting intimacy and sensuousness. Geometric designs and patterns often provided a counterpoint to the soft rounded lines of classic Art Deco furniture. Designers often incorporated fan motifs using layered triangles, and circular designs were common.

The concept behind French Art Deco furniture was one of luxury and comfort using rich wood and textural elements. Finishes were shiny or glossy. Wood was heavily lacquered or enameled and polished to a high sheen.

Fabric choices enhanced the feeling of luxury and opulence in Art Deco furniture. Designers used bold geometric, animal or exaggerated floral prints in soft, sumptuous materials to contrast and compliment the sleek styling.

French Art Deco reflected the general optimism and carefree mood that swept Europe following World War I. Sunbursts and chevrons represented hope and prosperity. They also employed vivid colors in paint and upholstery. Both furniture and textiles tended to use decorative designs that exhibited a strong painterly quality reminiscent of Impressionist, and post-Impressionist, Fauve, and Cubist techniques.

Sometimes ornamentation was straightforwardly applied to the surface of an object, like a decorative skin. At other times, potentially utilitarian designs—bowls, plates, vases, even furniture—were in and of themselves purely ornamental, not intended for practical use but rather conceived for their decorative value alone, exploiting the singular beauty of form or material.

After the 1925 Paris Exposition, American designers began working in the Art Deco style in the U.S. For American audiences, however, there was less of an emphasis on luxury and exclusivity and more interest in mass-production, accessibility and the machine age. The modern influences heralded a bright and shining future outlook that found its way to architecture, jewelry, automobile design and even extended to ordinary things such as refrigerators and even trash cans.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Kolorful Kitchen Kollectibles

QUESTION: I have been cleaning out my grandmother’s house after her death. In the kitchen drawers, I’ve found dozens of quirky looking utensils, most with colorful wooden handles. Some of these I’m sure I can use today. Should I use them or put them aside as collectibles?

ANSWER: Every American kitchen had a least some of these handy-dandy doodads. Each utensil had one use, so housewives had to buy a large number of them to take care of all the tasks a typical kitchen required. And, yes, some of them may be somewhat valuable—at least the rarer ones.

These early 20th-century kitchen gadgets have a strong relationship to today’s “As-seen-on-TV”  gadgets, advertised on many of the retro channels. Take the one-hand blender. Except for its streamlined shape and lack of a colored handle, it’s very similar to the one-handed eggbeater that worked with an up-and-down motion, similar to a top, created in 1909 by Benjamin T. Ash and Edward H. Johnson of upstate New York. It puts a new spin on the old saying, “What goes around comes around.”

But why the colorful handles? Brightly painted cooking utensils of the 1920s brought the first dab of color into American kitchens. Apple green led the cutlery color wheel, followed by Mandarin red. But manufacturers also produced wooden handles in white, blue, black, or yellow, and sometimes two-toned with ivory stripes.

All these utensils—from food mincers, pitters, and corers to spiral whisks, ice picks, and jar lifters—eased even the most basic of the housewife's culinary chores. Ingenious kitchen gadgets made exacting tasks—such as defining the outer edges of a piecrust with a pie crimper—a pleasure. Colored handles only added to their attraction.

Kitchen gadgets, from spoons to mashers, were originally all-wood, simply carved, and shaped to meet various purposes in the kitchen. Pie crimpers are a good example. Whalers often carved them of whale ivory for their wives and sweethearts back home. By the 20th century, makers introduced metal with the wood and a sea of new items appeared in homes.

Black was the first "color" used to paint wooden handles, then white, just prior to 1920. It wasn’t until the  late 1920s that other colors began to appear and continued in use through 1950, when plastic handles took over.

The history of colored cooking aids directly parallels that of the emerging automated kitchen. Prior to the industrial revolution, agateware offered lackluster, all-white kitchens their only hint of color. Kitchenware, dishes, pots, and other items were also plain and unimaginative. Utensils—in their bare steel frames plated with tin, nickel, or chrome, and later stainless steel were just as pallid until color came along.

It happened around 1927. Competition was everywhere, especially in real estate. To attract buyers, builders resorted to gimmicks such as using pink and blue tiles, instead of the traditional white, in bathrooms. The tiles were a hit—an indication that America applauded merchandisers' efforts to add vibrance to homes. Houseware manufacturers quickly responded. A color revolution in the kitchen had begun, and it hasn’t let up yet.

By the end of the decade, the "Color Craze" had replaced the "White Enamel Era," so-called by women's and home-fashions magazines. Department stores such as Abraham & Straus, Macy's,,and Wanamaker's led the market selling utensils and other kitchen paraphernalia in color. Sears Roebuck, Kresge, Spiegel, and F. W. Woolworth—also retailers catering to middle class housewives—offered serving trays, canisters, spice sets, breadboxes, clocks, scales, garbage cans, dishes, and even dustpans to eager homemakers.

Kitchen-tool manufacturing was widespread in the early part of this century. Many small businesses produced all types of labor-saving devices with and without color. Acme Metal Goods Mfg. Co., of Newark, N.J., and Bromwell Wire Goods, in Cincinnati, Ohio, were only two.

But antiques dealers say the name on utensils that probably pops up more often than others is A & J Mfg. Co., of Binghamton, N.Y. Colored utensils from A & J are widely available at flea markets and antiques shows and shops simply because these products proliferated nationally and internationally in the kitchen-cutlery market for about 40 years. Stamped into the tool's metal, their trademark is a diamond shape with the Monogram "A & J" superimposed on the utensil.

A & J began humbly in 1909 in the homes of Benjamin T. Ash and Edward H. Johnson, who lived in rural upstate New York. After creating and marketing their first product—a one-handed eggbeater—they added numerous other kitchen gadgets with natural wooden handles to their product line. By 1918, A & J had moved to a commercial building and employed 200 workers who cranked out some four million tools annually.

A & J was the first to offer knives, spatulas, ladles, and other items in one package. In 1923, the company entered the toy market, producing its regular kitchen items in miniature, with the same colored handles, for young girls. The half-sized eggbeaters, waffle irons, strainer spoons, and rolling pins were exact replicas of the ones Mother employed. Johnson's intent with the company's line of Mother's Little Helper Kitchen Tools for Little Cooks and Bakers was to familiarize future housewives with the A & J name so they would buy the company's products when they grew up and had a home of their own. The strategy worked.
A & J was so successful that Edward Katzinger, founder of Ekco, bought the company in 1929 and moved it to Chicago in 1931. Ekco kept the A & J trademark and line until the 1950s, and sold the toys until 1937.

So while some of the items advertised on TV today may seem futuristic, their purpose is the same—to make like easier with less work for not only mother, but anyone who cooks.

For more information, see an earlier post of this blog on kitchen gadgets from February 18, 2013, entitled “Less Work for Mother.”