“19th-Century Modern”: The New is Older Than You Think


Some of the most shocking dates of fabrication you’ll ever see can be found gracing an unusual group of items on display in the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibit “19th-Century Modern.” That all-glass rolling pin whose surface looks like a blue peppermint candy? And its sister, a decanter with wine-colored spirals swirling up its smoothly curved body? c. 1775-1810! That chair with the green velvet cushion and the supports that look like lead pipes? 1880! Did Frank Lloyd Wright design those sleek, silver, pyramid-shaped salt and pepper shakers? Not unless he was 13 years old, because they were also made in 1880.

Unearthed from the museum’s collection and nestled almost invisibly away on the building’s Decorative Arts floor, where it competes with Bauhaus chairs and that to-die-for Art Deco salon, “19th-Century Modern” makes a very convincing case for revising the common belief that modernism began later, with European paintings of dogs on leashes and nude robot women on staircases. No, contends this group of 40 some-odd objects, design we think of as modern began with the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the upsurge in manufacturing created the public’s fascination with technology and made desirable the abstract-looking items that it had become possible to mass produce.

Think Jules Verne—especially when you have a look at French designer Guilmet Cie’s Five-Piece Clock Garniture, an elaborate series of mechanical-looking silvered bronze candelabras, the central one containing a clock about two inches in diameter, surrounded by an antique glass bubble. All sorts of probably nonfunctional gears and lathed supports ring the bubble, which is topped with an apparatus that recalls, or might actually be, a thermometer or a syringe. This truly bizarre table setting looks like a bathyscaphe for a team of mice out of a sci-fi collaboration between Verne and E.B. White. The date? 1885, 24 years before Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. And yet it would be perfectly at home on the bar at one of Brooklyn’s trendier steampunk-influenced hotspots—say, Weather Up—where mustachioed bartenders in suspenders mix drinks like science projects.

Although Cie’s wacky clock recalls a quaint vision of a possible future that never occurred, a number of the artifacts on display have no such nostalgic flavor; they just look extraordinarily modern, as if the curators cheated by running out to CB2 at the last minute and slipping in a few of that furniture store’s items. This is especially true of the work of English designer Christopher Dresser, whose scientifically inspired Decanter (1881) would thrive, perhaps serving coffee, in any chic restaurant or home and whose elegant, geometric Toast Rack (1880) would certainly outshine any toast with which one might stock it. What a shame it would be to see such a beautiful object disgraced by crumbs.

In a clever nod to the current age, the curators have displayed a familiar Aeron ergonomic office chair (the black ones with the fine mesh seats) by Herman Miller on a pedestal alongside Thomas E. Warren’s “Centripetal Spring” Chair from 1849. The resemblance is striking, making the heritage of modernism plainly visible—placing the two together feels like a family portrait in which the 1849 design is obviously the Aeron’s grandmother.

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