Fashions in home furnishing came and went rapidly throughout the last century.
There was Art Nouveau at the beginning of the period. Then came at least two kinds of Art Deco, an episode of surrealism in the 1930s, and a great flourishing (especially in America) of middle-brow abstraction during the Cold War. All that was followed by the vogue for irony known as postmodernism. Each of these artistic movements, in due course, generated a distinctive “look,” and a number of memorable artifacts, before passing into obsolescence.
But looking backward, we can see that one design impulse hatched in that century has never really lost its popularity among discerning people.
It is the clean-lined, rational manner that’s always been called, simply, the International Style. Under this inspiration – originally French and German – sleek tables were crafted from tubular steel and glass, chairs and chaises were crisply shaped for trim, alert bodies (nothing as comfy as a La-Z-Boy, in other words), and rugs were woven that featured bold geometrical patterns, not florals.
I was put in mind of this version of modernism, and the pleasure its liveliest embodiments have given home-owners for generations, when recently I visited the Toronto dwelling of graphic artist Cliff Smith and his wife Yasmin.
The Smiths love the stuff. They have used contemporary reproductions of several famous items in the style to create effective environments within their lightly-renovated Edwardian in the Republic of Rathnelly neighbourhood. The result of their efforts is a series of small interiors that are serious without being stuffy, and bold while maintaining a sense of humour about themselves.
Take, for example, the dining room. The centrepiece here is Le Corbusier’s rigorously refined LC6 glass and steel table. Unveiled in 1929 to high critical acclaim at the Salon d’Automne des Artistes Décorateurs in Paris, this beautiful work has a base fashioned originally from steel parts used in airplane construction. The material, a present-day producer has observed, was clearly chosen “not merely for the beauty of form, but for its symbolic association with the epitome of the modern age.”
Despite praise from the experts, however, the LC6 was not rushed into mass production by the manufacturer Le Corbusier worked with, apparently because the firm expected the public at large to reject so daring a design. Indeed, the strict lines we admire today about the table may have seemed mechanical and barren to observers in 1929, whose eyes had been educated by the exuberance and theatricality of first-wave Art Deco.
If so, those eyes would have other challenges soon enough. In the same year that saw the debut of LC6, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and designer Lily Reich installed the first of their most renowned chairs – appropriately dignified seating for the king and queen of Spain – in the German Pavilion of Barcelona’s International Exhibition. A Barcelona chair is in the Smiths’ less regal dining room, where it harmonizes well with the equally august table by Le Corbusier.
On a less solemn note, the couple’s dining-room ensemble includes two chic, delightful small tables by the Irish-born Parisian Eileen Gray. One is a steel and glass bedside breakfast table that once adorned an avant-garde Côte d’Azur villa Ms. Gray designed and built for herself and her lover in 1927. The dramatically schematic rug under Le Corbusier’s table is also by Eileen Gray.
When people dine in the Smiths’ home, it should be clear by now, they do so in a setting rooted in the late 1920s, which were incandescent years for the art of modern dwelling. But this house is no period stage-set. The couple have accented their groupings of stringent modernist classics with postmodernist pieces that inject a sense of playfulness into the enterprise.
For example: The living room’s Noguchi coffee table, with its free-form sculptural base and heavy glass top, is in a sort of cross-generational dialogue with the seating. On one hand, there is the Noguchi piece, a paradigm instance of serious modernist flair since its introduction in 1947. Speaking for the postmodern 1980s and beyond are the humorous arm chair and two-seater – Easter-egg purple and cheerful yellow, respectively – by Italian artist Prospero Rasulo. As we find here, the coffee table and the seats have something to talk about, though they come from very different parts of the aesthetic forest.
In the outfitting of their house’s interior, Cliff and Yasmin Smith have made interesting design statements with readily available reproductions of home-furnishing hits from yesteryear – hits that can set imaginative sparks flying when placed alongside things with more recent, and more controversial, pedigrees.