Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Essence of Comfort

QUESTION: when I was a kid, I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap in a very comfortable chair. It was designed like a big glove and swiveled on a chrome base with four legs. I don’t know what it was called, but I remember him referring to it as Danish modern. Can you tell me anything about this type of chair?

ANSWER: You were very lucky indeed, for you got to experience the ultimate in Danish design, the Egg Chair, designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1957. But before we explore this chair further, it’s important to know how this design style came into existence.

In 1924,. Danish architect Kaare Klint was asked to teach a newly class in furniture design at the Royal Academy's School of Architecture in Copenhagen. Considered the originator of the modern Scandinavian style of furnishing and furniture design which thrived from the 1940s to the 60s, Klint’s influence on even today’s designs is great.

Using teak, which was plentiful in Denmark, the Danish Modern style began to emerge in the 1920s and soon gained popularity with cabinetmakers in Copenhagen. After 1945, this unique style achieved worldwide recognition and by the mid-20th century, Danish modern had officially arrived.

The son of Peder Vilhelp Jensen-Klint, the leading Danish architect of the early 20th century, Kaare Klint studied painting and apprenticed to several architects, including his father, before opening an independent furniture design studio in 1917.

He became the first Danish designer to combine function with Danish hand-craftsmanship. His drawings revealed an attention to the needs of the human body, long before the science of ergonomics came into being.

For instance, in order that his sideboards would be the most efficient, he determined the average dimensions of the cutlery and crockery used in a Danish home. Klint then created a case containing the smallest space required for the maximum amount of cutlery needed by a household. Aesthetically, he allowed the unvarnished teak to speak for itself, maximizing its clean beauty by waxing and polishing. And so Danish designers began using natural finishes for their pieces.

Klint is known as the grandfather of modern Danish design. He, more than any other Danish furniture designer, felt that it was important to understand the craftsmanship of the furniture of the past.

He pioneered in anthropometrics, which correlates measurements of the human body to make furniture better suited to man’s physical characteristics, essentially the essence of today’s ergonomics. In 1933, he created a deck lounge chair, which he outfitted with a removable upholstered mat and pillow.

America's initial fascination with Danish modern furniture was largely the result of Edgar Kaufmann Jr. of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He returned from Europe in 1948 with photographs of chairs designed by another Danish  architect, Finn Juhl. The interest in Juhl's furniture led to a collection designed by him for the Barker Co.

Presented in 1951, the collection introduced American designers to the structural and decorative combining of woods of various colors and grains. Highlights included a teak armchair.   

Fruitful collaboration between designers and cabinetmakers led to more industrialized production. By 1950, a few factories in Denmark began producing furniture using purely industrialized methods. The new generation of designers included Arne Jacobsen, whose creations, while organic in nature, used materials such as light metals, synthetic resins, plywood, and upholstered plastics.

Graduating from the Royal Academy in 1924, Jacobsen soon demonstrated his mastery of both architecture and furniture design. With the completion of his Royal Hotel in Copenhagen with all its fittings and furniture in 1960, his talents became widely recognized.

Jacobsen's most commercial success was the Ant chair, which was available in a number of materials, including natural oak, teak and rosewood veneers, colored finishes or upholstery. Inspired by American legends Charles and Ray Eames, this unique chair was considered revolutionary in 1952, having only three spindly legs, no arms, and a one-piece plywood seat and back. The design of this chair became the basis for the stackable chairs used in hotels and conference centers today. Jacobsen followed the Ant with Series 7, a chair that had four legs and optional arms. Initially designed in 1955, and still being produced today.

Most of Jacobsen’s designs were the direct result of his belief that architecture and furnishings should be totally integrated. Two of his commissions—the Scandinavian Airlines Terminal and the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen—resulted from the creation of the uniquely shaped chairs, the “Egg” and the “Swan.” Designed in 1957, these modernistic chairs featured hi-density, rigid polyurethane foam, upholstered on single-seat shell construction. Both are extremely comfortable while being ergonomically sound and pleasing to look at.

There was a period of time in the middle of the 20th century when Danish designers were the world's most admired. Some of the most talented earned prizes at major competitions, and their works were quickly acquired by top European interior designers and collectors. Today, American designers see them suited to many different kinds of interiors.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Ladeez and Gentlemen! Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth

QUESTION: When I was a kid, I loved going to the circus with my parents each Spring. There was something exciting and foreign about it—the unusual animals and the performers who seemed to come from all over the world. A while back, I purchased an old circus poster from the Barnum and Bailey Circus and have it hanging on the wall in my den. But I know nothing about it. A friend told me the U.S. Post Office recently issued a new set of stamps featuring circus posters. My interest has been rekindled all over again. What can you tell me about them?

ANSWER: Circus promoters referred to circus posters as "bills" from the early use of handbills, paper, or later, "lithos", whether printers produced them using lithography or not.

Circus owners recognized the notion that "a picture is worth a thousand words." So they incorporated illustrations, which early on took the form of wood engravings, or in some cases cruder woodcuts. Engravings from mahogany blocks, however, were difficult to make and expensive, so printers used them sparingly and repeatedly. The same images would be used over and over again, often for different shows, thus originating the concept of "stock" posters. Circuses produced early show posters in mass, using a single design, often with only a printed title. Other information, such as dates and locations would be handwritten or stamped with ink by circus advance men.

By the 1860's more circus owners embraced the poster as their main means of promotion. And by 1880, the Golden Age of the circus poster had begun.
The actual production of circus posters from idea to finished product was a team effort. Some of the most talented artists of the day designed circus posters, but most didn't sign their work. In fact, most printing companies created circus posters as production art--much like the "original oil paintings" available at Airport Hotel Sales. Any number of artists might work on the overall design of a poster. Often, specific artists specialized in certain subjects. For example, a single artist might specialize in lettering while another specialized in horses, and yet another in performer portraits.

Circus posters can be divided into two categories—stock or specialty. Stock posters, generic designs that could be used by any circus, included images of clowns, wild animals, performers, etc.. Show printers would print large runs of stock designs and store them, making them the most inexpensive. Circus owners could pick these out of catalogs and have their show's  title printed on them. It wasn't uncommon for more than one circus to use the same poster designs in the same season. Printed stock posters might remain in storage for years until a printer sold them to a circus to be used. Often posters used during a specific year had actually been printed decades before.

The dimensions of circus posters are important in dating them. Originally, printers based the sizes of posters on the size of their printing press beds, which varied widely. Eventually, printers standardized a unit of measure called a "sheet"at 28" by 42", basing these dimensions on the dimensions of a lithographic stone a single man could handle or carry.

The most common were "one-sheets," followed by "half-sheets" measuring 28"x  21".  "Flats" had a horizontal format, while "uprights" had a vertical orientation. Printers also produced various multiple sheets, with corresponding multiple dimensions. They produced larger multiples in rare instances, including 100-sheet posters and larger. Printers determined the kind of bill by the combinations of sheets.

Even though printers produced circus posters cheaply by the thousands, they used high quality medium weight woven paper, usually bleached to a bright white color, even though posters were printed in volume and used briefly. Also, printers used oil-based inks for printing circus posters because they were often hung outside.

In the mid-1970's, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey adopted a policy of using only a single poster design for each edition of their circus, often incorporating a variety of featured acts or attractions in the design. By the late 1970's, few circuses even used posters, and many shows opted to use window cards only, which could be placed indoors or simply be stapled to telephone poles outside.

Probably the greatest image ever produced for a circus poster design was that of a leaping tiger, designed by the noted illustrator Charles Livingston Bull in 1914. This particular image may well be the most recognizable circus image in history, and it’s still in use today, often appearing in set and costume designs in current productions of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Bull's original poster image, however, doesn’t bear his signature.

Generally speaking, circus posters can sell anywhere from $30 to $375.  With such a broad range, collectors must take the specific circus, date, and condition into consideration. At the low end might be a mint Famous Cole 3 Ring Circus poster with black type on yellow stock for $30. At the high end might be a rare Cole Bros. Circus from the Erie Litho. & Ptg Co., of Erie, Pennsylvania, bearing the title, “Cole Bros. Circus Presents Quarter- Million Pound Act of Performing Elephants–The Most Colossal Train Animals Display Ever Presented” for $375.

Although circuses continue to thrill youngsters, much of the promotion is now done using T.V. and radio ads and discount coupons handed out in supermarkets. The days of posters plastered on the sides of buildings are long gone.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Sign of Welcome

QUESTION: At a number of Americana antique shows I’ve attended, I’ve seen pineapples used as decoration, especially on pieces of furniture from the 18th century. Can you tell me why cabinetmakers used them so much?

ANSWER: Pineapples have long been associated with Southern hospitality. Many people associate pineapples with Colonial Williamsburg. Perhaps that’s because it began decorating with them in the 1930s. But the idea didn’t start there.

Christopher Columbus discovered pineapples in 1493 on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Since the fresh sweet fruit wasn’t available back home, his crew looked on it with awe and wonder. In Renaissance Europe, fresh fruit was seldom available. Common sweets were also rare. Sugar derived from cane was expensive and had to be imported from the Middle East and Asia.

In the West Indies, however, pineapples were a plentiful native fruit. So much so that the locals used it to both warn away intruders and welcome guests. They planted barriers of pineapple around their village because they believed their sharp, spiky leaves deterred unwelcome visitors. But they also hung the fruit on their gates as a symbol of hospitality and abundance.

Columbus and his men brought these sweet, succulent fruits back to Europe where they became instantly popular. But not everyone embraced the spiky fruit. When Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor had an early opportunity to taste the pineapple, he refused, fearing that it might poison him.

In 1657, Captain Richard Ligon published A True and Exact Story of Barbados, an account of his travels from London to the West Indies. In his journal, he devoted entire pages to the pineapple.

Diaries of the time often recorded gifts of pineapples presented to the king, and late 17th century ship manifests listed pineapples making their way from Barbados and Bermuda to England.

European gardeners perfected a hothouse method for growing pineapples, and in 1675, John Rose presented King Charles II of England with the first pineapple grown in England. The king later posed for an official portrait of him receiving the pineapple as a gift. The act was symbolic of royal privilege.

During the 18th century in England, greenhouse gardening became a popular hobby for the nobility, who coveted pineapples. The fruits often served double duty at dinner parties, first as an elaborate table decoration, and then as dessert.

The Spanish were probably the first to adopt the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality, carving pineapple designs into much of their woodwork: The custom soon spread throughout Europe, where it became fashionable to incorporate pineapple motifs into furnishings. Eventually, cabinetmakers adorned tall case clocks with pineapple finials. This custom continued into the early 20th century.

Sea captains, who sailed to the Caribbean Islands and returned to the New England Colonies with cargoes of fruit, spices and rum, first introduced the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality in America. Upon their return, the captains would spear a pineapple on the fence post outside their home, where it would serve as an invitation for friends to visit and share their food, drink, and tales of adventure.

Before long, American innkeepers adopted the pineapple as a means of welcoming guests. Inns would feature pineapple motifs on their signs and advertising literature, while pineapple-related items within their establishment included carvings on bedposts, vanities and dressers along with furniture, brasses, doorknobs, lamps and candleholders.

American architects also embraced the pineapple. Early estates and public buildings often have carved wooden or stone pineapple gate posts and copper or brass pineapple weather vanes. One such example is the home of Virginia's William Byrd. In 1730, Byrd ordered a carved door surround from London for his Westover plantation mansion on the James River. The door featured a broken-scroll pediment with a pineapple in the center.

The pineapple continued to find its way into home decor. Carpets, draperies, napkins and tablecloths often had pineapple designs woven into them. And women stitched pineapples into their quilts and needlework.