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Philosophical Furnishings

Thomas Hope

Jean-Michel Frank

Thomas Hope and Jean-Michel Frank, commanding figures in the decorative arts, exude a mysterious and lingering power. The rooms that they so lovingly arranged--Hope's in a bold neoclassical style, Frank's in an austere modern manner--have pretty much disappeared. And the furniture designs to which they gave an almost philosophical fervor, whether Hope's Grecian chairs or Frank's cubistic couches, cannot themselves explain the reputations that these men still enjoy. The power of their work lies deeper--in the belief that the way a chair or a room or a home is designed reflects a person's psychological and maybe even spiritual condition. This belief was relatively new when Hope died in 1831, and would be nearly a cliche by the time of Frank's death in 1941. Hope and Frank were showmen and theoreticians, materialists and idealists, and they brought to the history of taste a largeness of ambition more naturally associated with the history of ideas.

Thinking about the life and the work of these figures is no easy task. If you linger too long over the details of their various projects, you can make them look like fussbudgets. And if you insist too much on the historical importance of their work, you risk sounding like a pinhead. What is so impressive about the writing that has been done on Hope and Frank in recent years is that it is neither parochial nor pretentious. David Watkin, who together with Philip Hewat-Jaboor organized the major exhibition that is at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts through mid-November, has devoted much of his life to Hope, beginning with a fine book, Thomas Hope and the Neo-Classical Idea, published in 1968. The catalogue of the Bard show--which was seen in a larger version at the Victoria and Albert in London last spring--is the culmination of four decades of thinking about Hope. Pierre-Emmanuel Martin-Vivier's brilliant new book on Jean-Michel Frank began as a thesis at the Sorbonne. It has a rather overelaborate title: Jean-Michel Frank: The Strange and Subtle Luxury of the Parisian Haute-Monde in the Art Deco Period; but anybody who has become inured to the slapdash collage of anecdotes that passes for social and cultural history in volumes about the decorative arts will be happily surprised by Martin-Vivier's study, which is solid, resonant, persuasive.

In the preface to his earlier book, Watkin commented that Hope was of a generation of neoclassicists who "were forever saying what they were going to do, how and why they were going to do it, and how much better everyone would feel once it had been done." And although Jean ichel Frank was not one to put his ideas in print, there is about both men an evangelical quality. They sought nothing less than to reform the way people lived. Although it was the upper classes and the educated classes that were most immediately affected by their work, their ideas did eventually have a more general cultural resonance. Figures such as Hope and Frank helped to shape the fascination with interior spaces that has by now spawned generations of design firms, shelter magazines, and lifestyle supplements. Their achievements span a century and more when there was a rising interest, among artists and writers and thinkers of all kinds, in the character and the quality of interior spaces. Their work reminds us that behind the obsession with product placement and merchandising that fuels the home furnishing and decorating market of our day, there is (or there should be) a fundamental hunger to shape the way one lives, to infuse the design of a room with meanings, with metaphors.

It was in 1840, nine years after Hope's death, that Poe published his famous essay "The Philosophy of Furniture." His critique of the pomposity of American taste--a critique, really, of Victorian merchandising--concludes with a rhapsodic account of the kind of room in which a civilized person ought to live. Poe describes a poetic figure dozing in an interior that is elegantly and somewhat austerely appointed, with simple curtains, good paintings, a few fine pieces of furniture, and lots of beautifully bound books. When Baudelaire translated Poe's essay into French in 1852, he introduced it by musing, "Who among us, in his idle hours, has not taken a delicious pleasure in constructing for himself a model apartment, a dream house, a house of dreams?" Hope and Frank were always trying to construct that house of dreams--an interior that joined immediate necessities with historical memories, a space where the heterogeneity of experience was crystallized, sharpened, refined.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a growing tendency to see people's surroundings as reflecting their desires and principles and dreams. In the novels of Dickens and Balzac, the description of an interior often plays a critical role in the realization of a person's mental or psychological constitution. When Dickens wanted to telegraph his distaste for the social-climbing family in Our Mutual Friend, he named them the Veneerings, because their pretensions were as thin as the sheets of fine wood that can be glued onto some cheaper material. Later in the century, the sense that a home was a reflection of a personality would be developed in ever more self-conscious ways. Edmond de Goncourt wrote La Maison d'un artiste, a book-length tour through his home and his collections. Perhaps the most memorable passages in Huysmans's A Rebours are the naturalistic descriptions of Des Esseintes's elaborately decadent rooms. And then there is Henry James's The Spoils of Poynton, a novel with a plot that centers on the exquisite collections gathered in an elegant house that burns to the ground in the novel's final pages, so that James can give an ironic farewell to nineteenth-century connoisseurship, which he regards as an especially seductive form of materialism.

Among nineteenth-century art critics, there was a fascination with painters such as Vermeer, de Hooch, and the Le Nain brothers, whose interest in the details of everyday life prefigured contemporary realism, with its emphasis on social and psychological dynamics. The studies of models in the studio that Corot painted in the 1850s, and a great many of the figures of Degas, Vuillard, Sickert, and Bonnard, are as much portraits of interiors as they are portraits of people. With Sickert, Vuillard, and Bonnard, the interior is often regarded as a new kind of physiognomy, with curtains and carpets and chairs observed as closely as the wrinkles on a forehead or the color of a person's eyes. Similar arguments can be made about certain earlier works, notably the interest in quotidian experience in Renaissance paintings of the Virgin at home or of Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine in their studies. And one can even look further back, remembering that many of Thomas Hope's ideas about Greek furniture, of which almost nothing survives, were derived from representations of interiors on ancient vases. But the long history of symbolic interiors notwithstanding, the representation of rooms certainly became more psychologically fraught as time went on. Renaissance and Baroque interiors tend to function allegorically, while in the modern era interiors are almost invariably infused with a private mental weather.

Hope and Frank wanted their interiors to have an intensely personal poetic power. And both men, having created these spaces, proceeded to document them--to become the chroniclers of their own creations. Hope's most famous book, Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, was devoted in large measure to providing a room-by-room and sometimes object-by-object description, in words and pictures, of his London home. And Frank took considerable pains to ensure that the interiors he designed for private clients were preserved in beautiful photographs. These elegant black-and-white images, of which Martin-Vivier provides a generous selection in his book, are an invaluable record of high-bohemian Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.

For Hope and Frank, who were both born into extremely wealthy families but had an ambiguous relationship with the aristocratic world, the interiors they created became their own self-proclaimed aristocracy of taste. In the eighteenth century, Hope's family ran the most important merchant bank in Europe, and from their offices in Holland they funded governments and shaped the course of world events. Frank was the child of a wealthy German-Jewish financier who had lived in France since the 1880s. For both of them, taste was a matter of choice: the choice of how to live. And having made their own choices, they wanted to impart them to others. They became philosophers of furnishings--and they sought to put their philosophies into action.

Thomas Hope, who did so much to shape neoclassical taste in England, was born in Holland in 1769, and spent the last years of the eighteenth century on the grandest of grand tours, visiting Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, and Sicily, in addition to the more familiar sights of mainland Italy. Hope's interests were extraordinarily varied. The family had long been distinguished art collectors, and to their holdings in European paintings Hope added a very important collection of Greek and Roman vases and significant groups of Egyptian and Greek and Roman antiquities, as well as works by contemporary neoclassicists, including Thorvaldsen, Canova, and Benjamin West. Hope was the author of a romantic novel called Anastasius, which Byron admired. He wrote about the history of architecture and published a set of plates that encouraged a classical style in women's fashion, popularized by his wife Louisa, a charismatic figure on the London social scene.

Like many masters of the decorative arts, Hope was an impresario rather than an artist--or perhaps it would be more to the point to say that for him images were ideas. David Watkin moves easily through the complexities of Hope's career, bringing to his appreciations of this idiosyncratic protagonist an encyclopedic understanding of the social and intellectual background. Neoclassicism was already several decades old by the time Hope was active in England in the first years of the nineteenth century. True, he was among the first to argue in England for an austere Greek classicism, for the overthrow of the more elaborately articulated Roman and Renaissance forms already popular; but Hope himself had a taste for the odd and the exotic, and this made him at times a most ambiguous prophet of austerity. The Bard catalogue, with contributions by nearly a dozen scholars, leaves one with a strong sense of Hope's almost kaleidoscopic avidities. If the Klismos chair, one of his favorite forms, takes us back to images we know from Greek vases, the influences on Hope's furniture were Egyptian as well as Greek and Roman, and the lushly perfumed and densely textured atmosphere of his London home suggested a fascination with Middle Eastern exoticism, a strong dose of Orientalism, which was also reflected in his fondness for Ottoman dress.

The reach of Hope's imagination is certainly impressive, though I don't know whether to call this a healthy curiosity or a dangerous lack of focus. Watkin finds in the sketchbook of a trip to Italy a fascination with Romanesque art and architecture that was highly adventuresome in the very early nineteenth century. His country house, Deepdene, was an exercise in the extreme picturesque, a building consisting of a meandering assemblage of dissonant elements, a purposeful collage of periods or styles. Watkin argues that this taste for variability can be traced back to a certain strain in Greek architecture, found in the Erechtheum, the oddest building on the Acropolis in Athens, with its asymmetrical volumes and radically different facades. Sometimes, reading the Bard catalogue, I am left wondering when the real Hope will stand up.

The particular archaeological and historical and philosophical controversies in which Hope took part can engage the non-specialist only up to a point. Not surprisingly, his ideas often seem to echo those of better-known thinkers and artists. At the end of his life he wrote his Essay on the Origin and Prospects of Man, which Roger Scruton, in an essay in the Bard catalogue, describes as a wide-ranging and hard-to-parse exploration of biological, theological, and philosophical ideas, perhaps most striking for its freedom from conventional Christian thought and its openness to the fluidity of natural and human possibility. Hope is certainly not the only figure in the history of taste who offers us no key to his enigmatic heart, but I am left wondering if Hope himself understood the extent to which his taste for the exotic confounded his admiration for the ideal.

What has kept Hope before the public for two hundred years is the peculiar power of the furniture that he designed. This is dream furniture, with elements crazily juxtaposed, as if by some scrupulously intelligent madman. Consider the "Egyptian" chairs and settee designed for his London home, works in carved wood, painted black with gilt accents. The basic furniture forms, which are more Greek or Roman than Egyptian, are decorated with various elements in an Egyptian style: carved crouching figures, figures in relief, winged creatures, palm and papyrus motifs. The way Hope joins figurative and geometric elements is not guided by any idea of grace or wholeness, but by some personal sense of visual storytelling. Neoclassical and Empire furniture does tend to have a stronger narrative quality than most furniture done before or after, what with the figurative elements alluding to Greek gods and heroes and a more general sense that these are the forms that furniture took in the noble, ancient world. But in Hope's work the allusions have a more tangled and abstracted quality--the decorations might be intentionally inscrutable, an unreadable rebus.

In his Illustrated History of Furnishings: From the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century, the greatest book ever devoted to interior decor, Mario Praz observes of these "Egyptian" pieces that "they look as if they had been made for a stage." And they are surely among the most theatrical pieces of furniture ever created. Hope's chairs and settees have the imposing dimensions of thrones, but they are the thrones of a fantasy kingdom. The "Egyptian" furniture suggests collage or montage, an obsession with the past not as orderly and knowable, but as rapturous fiction, in some sense prefiguring elements in the paintings of de Chirico or the Surrealist illustrations of Max Ernst. Hope's furniture is obdurate, hyperbolic, weirdly arcane, almost an impersonation of furniture, a joke on the idea of furniture--a form of high camp. What you cannot deny is that this is high camp with staying power, with undeniable aesthetic authority. The designer is so violently averse to anything that could be called functionality that he forces us to think about furniture all over again. The "Egyptian" chair is not a chair so much as it is a series of speculations about a chair--disquieting, perversely revolutionary. Hope's anti-functionalism provokes fresh thoughts about functionalism. Like Rietveld's 1917 armchair, with its flat planes painted in primary colors, the "Egyptian" chair is meta-furniture--a dream of what furniture might be or might become.

There was certainly a dream logic to the work of Jean-Michel Frank, who in the 1920s and 1930s preached asceticism to a hothouse Parisian clientele. This was a deluxe austerity--monkishness for the crème de la crème; and as his clientele shifted from high bohemia to high society, the cream tended to be mixed with the rarest brandies and served on solid gold spoons. Some of this stuff has mainly the look of money. No matter what he did, though, Frank remained a remarkable figure in a remarkable time.

The Parisian world between the wars, in which Frank came of age and achieved considerable fame, was a world that embraced pleasure without ever entirely forgetting the abyss that had opened in 1914. I am a little reluctant to believe that a decorator can express such primary experiences, but Frank's finest interiors unmistakably bear the mark of those years of exhilaration and anxiety, the period Americans tend to associate with Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, his novel inspired by Sara and Gerald Murphy, the expatriate friends of Picasso and No?l Coward. (Coward's apartment was decorated by Frank in 1928.) Frank's interiors were shockingly stripped-down. Cocteau, after visiting Frank's own apartment, is said to have commented that it was a shame that the man had been robbed of all his possessions.

Cocteau meant it as a joke, but Frank's early years were indeed harrowing. His parents, wealthy German Jews, had lived in Paris since before the turn of the century. But during World War I, even as Frank's two older brothers died fighting for France, the family was regarded with suspicion by the French, and saw their assets seized, and were threatened with deportation. Frank's father committed suicide in the wake of his sons' deaths, and it was only after the war, and after considerable struggle, that Frank and his mother gained French citizenship. Although Frank entered the 1920s a wealthy young man who, having received a law degree, could pretty much do as he pleased, he had already seen the limits of European cosmopolitanism, and when disaster struck again in the 1930s, he could not have been entirely unprepared. In 1940 he made his way to South America, and he was in New York in 1941, where he committed suicide, leaping from a building as his father had done before him. He had reached safety, but perhaps not inner safety. (Among those to be consumed by the European fire would be Frank's Dutch cousin Anne.)

The rooms that Jean-Michel Frank designed in Paris can look depopulated, emptied out. He loved walls of bookcases, a few armchairs or couches, a desk and a chair, but he kept ornaments and pictures to a minimum. It was Frank's idea that the proportions of a room--some with the high ceilings characteristic of the nineteenth century, others with lower, boxier twentieth-century proportions--could speak for themselves, if only the designer let them. There is surely a period relationship between Frank's interiors and the streamlined spaces favored by Le Corbusier and Gropius and other modernist architects. But in place of the exultant reductionism of early modern architecture, Frank offered an ambiguous and perhaps pessimistic austerity more in tune with the melancholy of the harlequins and pierrots of Picasso and Gris.

In place of the optimism of early modernism, we are presented with a shedding of Third Republic excess that turns back to the neoclassicism of the eighteenth century or even perhaps the Cistercian iconoclasm of the Middle Ages. A certain modesty is what Frank aimed for even when he was working with fine eighteenth-century interiors, including his own apartment, which occupied a whole floor of a building on the rue Verneuil. He would sand down antique paneling and floors and leave them unfinished or rub them white. His mantelpieces and mouldings were always extremely simplified. In a sense, what he designed were passive environments--rooms awaiting occupants; but their passivity had an air of aggression, or terror, about it. There was something disquieting about the lack of adornment.

Frank was friends with and did design work for a great many writers, more than a few associated with the Surrealists. His clients included Aragon, Crevel, Mauriac, and Drieu La Rochelle. Especially striking, I think, is the living room that he designed for Nancy Cunard in 1924, for her apartment in a seventeenth-century building on the le St. Louis. This was at the very start of his career, and like certain artists who hit their most authentic note close to the beginning of their working lives, Frank achieved here a directness that he probably never surpassed. Cunard, the heiress to the shipping fortune, had recently arrived in Paris, where she would become a considerable figure in literary circles, in a few years establishing the Hours Press, the publisher of fine limited editions of contemporary works. The room with which Frank had to work, wide and large with a vaulted ceiling, was satisfying in its own right, and he turned it into a space dedicated to the free play of the imagination--to conversation, to friendship, to reading and writing and listening to music. There is a wonderful cool deliberateness to the arrangement of objects in this large room: the austere fireplace, flanked by simple bookcases set into the wall; the boxy, upholstered couch and chairs and lamps and tables gathered around the hearth; the desk; the piano; the screen. The bare floors, the bare walls, the minimal curtains at the two tall windows--these set the furnishings in high relief, and confer upon them an almost allegorical significance, as if what we were entering were not only a comfortable room but an essay in the idea of a comfortable room.

By the end of the 1920s Frank had come to epitomize an austere hedonism that already had a long tradition in France. He was a pioneer in the elegant use of humble materials such as wicker, but he was just as likely to cover walls and furniture with leather panels custom-made in the Hermes workshops. He designed business interiors for Guerlain and Schiaparelli, and in 1935 opened a boutique on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore. I do not think that his wealthiest clients inspired his best work. The music room that he did for Noel Coward in 1928 looks unpleasantly glossy, but he could sometimes go brilliantly over-the-top, the most famous example being the Parisian mansion of Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, with its walls paneled in parchment, bronze doors, ivory leather couches and chairs, and, in an antechamber, paintings hung from elaborate red cords. The New York apartment for Nelson Rockefeller, with its walls of richly grained wood and an over-mantel by Matisse, has an almost Persian-miniature quality of coloristic richness, as if at the end of his career Frank were seeing what he could do in a completely different vein.

Frank's expansive operations necessitated the services not only of some of the finest craftsmen in Paris, but also of artists, who included the rather facile neo-Romantic painter Christian Berard, the brilliant Cubist sculptor Henri Laurens, and, most important of all, Alberto Giacometti, who was then at the beginning of his career. Giacometti started working with Frank in 1928, when he was embarking on the Surrealist works for which he would first become known. James Lord, in his biography of Giacometti, takes their connection very seriously, observing that Frank and Giacometti "became close friends, each no doubt appreciating in the other an almost obsessive disposition to take unlimited pains for the sake of spatial relationships which most people would never have noticed." The lamps that Giacometti did for Frank, some with elongated Etruscan figures, have become famous. Less well-known but even more interesting are a large number of figurative relief works, including dancing figures, portrait heads, and studies of birds and other animals. In these vigorous yet severe images, generally done in plaster, we have a foretaste of the expressive qualities of Giacometti's postwar sculpture, with its telegraphic calligraphy and attenuated forms. Apparently the obsession with paring everything down to the essentials, which fueled Giacometti's mature vision, was something he already shared with Frank in the 1930s.

For both Frank and Hope, decoration included elements of mythologization. They were both constructing a stage on which men and women might choose to live their lives. These men were not artists or architects or craftsmen in any traditional sense, not makers of some particular thing, so much as they were impresarios of form and space, directing and inspiring others, offering through their designs and ideas the libretto that others would flesh out and transform into three-dimensional form. In the ambiguity of their vocation, in the openendedness with which they conceived it, they suggest a line of development that would come to include such arbiters of design as Charles and Ray Eames and Buckminster Fuller, who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. They are all, in their different ways, philosophers of furnishings and interiors. Hope brought to his interest in Greek style and London interiors some of the evangelical spirit that animated Fuller's Dymaxion House or the Eames house in Los Angeles, which with its mixture of modern furnishings and folkloric decorations suggests an integrated way of living.

The evangelical element in these men can inspire wildly differing responses. Walking through the Fuller show at the Whitney was not an especially enjoyable experience. His achievements looked rather thin, while his philosophizing, captured on video and film clips, seemed strident and hollow--a crackpot's rap. Hope's London home apparently inspired similarly contradictory responses, with the great architect John Soane praising Hope's "public spirit," while another architect, George Dance, commented that the house "excited no feelings of comfort as a dwelling." We know from Fuller and Charles Eames that people who seek to shape the environment tend to be social animals, and this was surely true of Hope and Frank as well. I find it significant that these men and their works were of interest to the novelists of their times. One of Frank's first clients was Drieu La Rochelle, a writer better known in France than in the United States, no doubt in part because he was a fascist sympathizer in the 1930s and a Nazi collaborator in the 1940s. According to Martin-Vivier, there are aspects of the protagonist of Drieu's most famous novel, Gilles, that suggest Frank, and there are also interiors in the book that are based on Frank's designs. Martin-Vivier sees echoes of Frank in Jacques de Lacretelle's novel Silbermann and in Francois Mauriac's Destins, where there is "a young character named Bob, most likely gay and an occasional interior designer, who is indeed reminiscent of Frank." Watkin, in his earlier book on Hope, observes that in T.S. Surr's novel A Winter in London, from 1806, there is a description of a mansion that is "almost certainly based on Thomas Hope's," and among Hope's closest friends and greatest admirers was the novelist Maria Edgeworth.

Perhaps it is not surprising that novelists, working in what is the most open-ended and fluid of literary forms, should be drawn to interior designers, whose work is almost diabolically difficult to define. Like the novelist, the decorator can be a poet, a portraitist, a historian, a psychologist, a social critic--and sometimes all at once. Balzac, let us not forget, was a manic collector who lovingly described the room where Cousin Pons, the insatiable collector in the novel of that name, kept the Old Master paintings that he had discovered in junk shops and bought for a song. Writers who are sensitive to the environments in which people live will quite naturally take an interest in the work of interior decorators, who weave a sort of fiction out of curtains and rugs and chairs and couches--a fiction in which people then proceed to live their real lives. The work that Hope and Frank did was at once insistently personal and strangely utopian, both realistic and romantic. In their way, they too were weaving a kind of fiction. To look at the wildly over-the-top eclecticism of Hope's "Egyptian" chair or the ascetic severity of Frank's living room for Nancy Cunard is to see design as a speculative enterprise: not a study of things as they are but a search for the way that things ought to be. After their own fashion, both Thomas Hope and Jean-Michel Frank were asking the biggest question of all: how should we live?

Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.

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By Jed Perl