Designing for a New Century: Works on Paper by René Lalique and His Contemporaries
Designing for a New Century: Works on Paper by René Lalique and His Contemporaries
In 1851, the first international exhibition of culture and industry took place in London. Known as The Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace Exhibition, this showcase for the world of industry and design began a tradition that lasted longer than a century and undoubtedly influenced global trends in design and production. The 1889 International Exposition in Paris introduced the Eiffel Tower, the 1900 Paris exhibition gave us moving-picture cameras, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair marked the debut of television. But technological and architectural innovations were only one element of the world’s fairs. The decorative arts were profoundly affected by these international showcases, which contributed to the globalization of aesthetic movements such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Designers and manufacturers competed with one another for medals and recognition, and in the process, they influenced one another’s work and production.
The exhibition Designing for a New Century focuses on the extraordinary artistry of the leaders of the glass design world during the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods. The Rakow Library’s collection of original design drawings by early 20th-century glass designers and firms, illustrates the varied styles of these periods. In addition, contemporary art magazines, such as Art et Décoration, and official reports of the international fairs from the participating countries featured detailed descriptions of exhibitors and the glassware they designed. This material, along with the Library’s early trade catalogs, photographs, and sketchbooks illuminate design trends and production practices of the time, highlighting interesting production differences—from Émile Gallé and Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose firms employed a variety of designers; to René Lalique, whose glasshouse was able to execute his original designs with mechanized processes; to Maurice Marinot, who designed and produced each piece as a unique object.
Emile Gallé was perhaps the first glass designer to ascend to international prominence through his displays at the world’s fairs. At the 1878 International Exhibition in Paris, Gallé displayed his glass on a large scale for the first time, occupying an entire pavilion and receiving four gold medals from the judges. There, Gallé saw the work of François-Eugène Rousseau, who was experimenting with glass carving and decorating. Inspired by Rousseau’s work, Gallé began to experiment with imitating rock crystal, marble, and other hardstones in glass. He continued to investigate various colors and decorating techniques, incorporating metallic oxides, silver and gold leaf, and cameo and wheel carving in his glass objects.
Gallé received a grand prize for glass, as well as for his furniture, at the 1900 Paris exhibition. His team of designers and artisans had already won their share of gold, silver, and bronze medals. Gallé’s work influenced a number of his contemporaries, including Antonin and Auguste Daum, brothers who ran a glassworks devoted to the production of watch glasses, plate glass, and tableware. With Antonin in charge of Daum’s new Department of Art, the firm began to produce engraved and enameled vases with floral and pastoral designs. By the 1900 Paris exhibition, Daum’s elegant acid-etched cameo glass was acclaimed, earning the firm its own grand prize.
Daum and Gallé were only two of the exhibitors to show their glass designs at the 1900 world’s fair. Nearly 60 countries sent 80,000 exhibitors to Paris to celebrate the turn of the 20th century. Modern attractions such as the trottoir roulant, the moving sidewalk that carried visitors to the exhibits at speeds of up to 4.5 miles per hour, were extremely popular. Several vendors displayed early cinematic technologies, such as the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre and the Cinéorama. Technology exhibits were interspersed with visual displays of the art promoted heavily by Siegfried Bing as Art Nouveau. Bing’s pavilion showcased fully decorated rooms featuring his group of artists and designers, including Tiffany, Lalique, and Gallé. These rooms were populated with glass, wood, silver, and other materials, all of which were designed to reflect the natural motifs and sinuous lines of the Art Nouveau aesthetic, then at its peak of popularity.
Lalique’s work peppered the Bing pavilion, but his own booth was apparently crowded daily with visitors eager to view his unusual jewelry with glass, enamel, and hardstones, as well as his sculptural work in bronze and metal. The 1900 exposition served to cement Lalique’s prominence as a designer, bringing him invitations to participate in other international fairs and orders from around the world. Institutions, wealthy art collectors, and monarchs purchased his pieces. His contemporaries recognized him as the leader in French decorative art, and Gallé called him “the supreme exponent of the Beaux Arts.” Following Gallé’s death in 1904, Lalique became France’s unofficial master glassmaker.
Equally popular at the 1900 exposition were the side-by-side exhibits of the two Tiffanys—Charles Lewis and his son Louis Comfort—which displayed the traditional luxury goods of Tiffany & Co. and the more daring Art Nouveau creations of Louis Comfort’s Tiffany Studios. The latter display featured lamps and windows, including pieces designed and executed by “Tiffany’s women”: Clara Driscoll, Agnes Northrop, Alice Gouvy, and others. Both Tiffanys won numerous awards at the 1900 world’s fair.
Val St. Lambert, established in 1826, benefited tremendously from the international connections and exposure afforded by the world’s fairs. As the leading glassworks in Belgium, Val exported tableware, ornamental glass, furniture, and chandeliers to the Middle East, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Far East, Australia, and the Americas. The firm’s wares were acclaimed at worlds’ fairs in Antwerp (1894), Brussels (1897), Paris (1900 and 1925), and Rio de Janeiro (1922).
At the 1902 international fair in Turin, artisans from Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom were already showing designs that differed from the Art Nouveau style. By 1904, the new Vienna Secession Style and a search for simpler, more geometric lines marked the beginning of the decline of Art Nouveau. With the world’s fairs in Turin and St. Louis (1904), the shift toward modernity had begun. Even Lalique’s work displayed in St. Louis was starting to emphasize symmetry and geometrical patterns.
By 1925, the organizers of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris were looking to display examples of contemporary art work that met a “practical need” and showed “a modern inspiration and a real originality,” according to a 1927 British report on the exhibition. The goal was to provide a minimum of traditional influence and classical form, while underscoring the geometric. While the 1925 exposition was dominated by French artisans and companies, other countries took note of the designs and production processes on view. British reports highlighted the table glass of the Swedish Orrefors firm and discussed the aims of the French to achieve new effects and new methods, particularly the success of “foreigners” in the use of molds that eliminated the need for blowing.
The evolution of the perfume bottle perfectly captures the marriage of practicality and originality that was so desired by the organizers of the 1925 Paris exhibition. Around 1907, François Coty commissioned Lalique to design paper labels and bottles for his perfumes. Lalique’s spectacular designs quickly elevated the creation of the perfume bottle to an art form. Each perfume now had its own designer bottle and box—a complete marketing package intended to sell an image, not merely a fragrance. At the 1925 Paris exposition, perfume companies such as Vigny, Houbigant, and Guerlain featured their elegant labels and bottles in elaborate displays. Lalique himself had an impressive fountain-shaped display of his perfume bottles in the Grand Palais.
Lalique’s pressed and cire perdue (or lost wax) glass received much attention, as did his lighting and architectural designs. One observer called the spectacular 50-foot-tall fountain Lalique designed for the exposition “the work of a magician.” The dining room in the Sèvres display, designed by Lalique, included ceiling fixtures whose light reflected off the surface of the walls with masterful effect.
In between the 1900 and 1925 exhibitions were other world’s fairs, as well as a number of more regional showcases, such as the annual Salon of the Société des Artistes Français, where Gabriel Argy-Rousseau garnered attention for his pâte de verre pieces. Argy-Rousseau won several medals for his designs at the 1923, 1926, and 1928 Salons, and he was invited to present at the 1925 Paris exhibition. On a slightly smaller but no less influential scale were artists such as Maurice Marinot, whose deeply cut and highly sculptural, engraved glass vessels were imitated by larger firms, including Daum and Navarre. Marinot was a perfectionist who often labored for an entire year to produce a single piece. Although he did not make many objects, the acclaim he received at the 1925 Paris exposition highlights his importance in the world of glass design.
With modern innovations in technology and global communications, the importance of the world’s fairs in promoting aesthetic trends and production practices eventually declined. During their heyday, however, the fairs were spectacular venues for the marketing of new styles in glass tableware, decoration, and design.
Published on May 2, 2014