Archive for the Furniture Category

Winifred Gill and the Omega Workshops

Posted in Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Embroidery, Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Furniture, Rugs, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Winifred Gill, Sketch of dancers, 1916
Pencil, ink and watercolor on paper
The Bodleian Library, Oxford

Winifred Gill (1891-1981) was one of the unsung heroines of the Omega Workshops. The task of  creating patterns or translating existing designs to be used on textiles, furniture and home furnishings fell largely to the women of the Omega Workshops—Gill, Jesse Etchells and Nina Hamnett among others. Artist Vanessa Bell also helped to produce some of the embroidery and other needlework, but because she was also one of the directors, not as much of the handwork fell to her.

Roger Fry at the Omega Workshops, c.1913

Duncan Grant, design for embroidered firescreen, c.1912
Embroidered by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Collection of Bryan Ferry

It is largely through Gill’s letters and taped recordings from the 1960s, that we know as much as we do about the day-to-day activities at the Omega—their production methods, anecdotes about specific projects and the personalities of the participants. (Gill’s archive was donated in 2009 to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, by her niece, Dr. Margaret Bennett.) Winifred Gill not only had artistic talent, she was intelligent and energetic, with a practical side that enabled her to also manage the business and handle sales.

The Omega Workshops Showroom, 1913

The Omega Workshops, started in 1913 by Roger Fry, was a modernist incarnation of the earlier Arts & Crafts movement that was the legacy of William Morris. Fry was an art critic and painter who wanted to move the British public past the traditions of Edwardian design. He embraced the contemporary European modernist movements—Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism and the Futurists—while also cultivating a bit of a Japanese aesthetic, especially through the use of painted screens. The Omega Workshops’ expressive, colorful, bold and abstract designs were the forerunners of the British artist/designer movement that followed mid-century. In 1925, Paul Nash wrote:

The modern movement in textile design began with the establishment of the Omega Workshops.

Paul Nash, Cherry Orchard, 1930
Block-printed silk crêpe-de-chine, Cresta Silks Ltd.

Roger Fry had some experience in interior design prior to founding the Omega Workshops. Among other things, he had built and furnished his home at Durbins, painted a mural at his mother’s home in Cheyne Walk, and decorated the home of his friend, Hubert Crackenthorpe. His co-directors, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were also very actively engaged in the decorative arts, both for themselves and friends, including their home at Charleston.

Photograph of the drawing room at Charleston in the 1930s

Duncan Grant, Interior with the Artist’s Daughter, c. 1935-36
Oil on canvas
Collection of Dick Chapman and Ben Duncan

Fry chose to open the Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square, London—then rather a shabby neighborhood—in a regular house, rather than a shop, in order to better integrate the work within a domestic setting. When the workshop ended in 1919, Fry wrote:

I have lost $2000 and five years of gratuitous hand work: I cannot waste more on a country that regards the attempt to create as a kind of Bolshevism.

Over the years, in addition to Fry, Bell and Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Paul Nash, Frederick Etchells and others contributed to the designs. Their clients included George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, E.M. Forster and Gertrude Stein—as well as Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline Morrell and others of the Bloomsbury set. Winifred Gill indicates in her letters that there was a lot of collaboration—Grant, Bell and others contributed designs which were stored away and later reworked into patterns for specific products by Gill, Hamnett and many of the other unheralded young women who did so much of the work.

Nina Hamnett and Winifred Gill in Omega fabrics
from The Illustrated London Herald, 1915
The British Library

Roger Fry, Portrait of Nina Hamnett, c. 1917
Oil on canvas
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London

Roger Fry, Winifred Gill by the Pool at Durbins, 1912
Private Collection

Part of Fry’s motivation in establishing the workshop was to find a way for young artists to make a living. At the time, Fry was accused of choosing the name Omega because the current usage of the word was “the last word,” meaning that he thought the workshop’s products were the last word in decorative art. But Winifred Gill wrote that Fry chose it because:

He was looking for something, some trademark, that had a name of its own that everybody knew. I think it was very effective because everyone could say Omega and remember it.

Omega also had a ready-made, recognizable symbol, Ω, and all the work of the Omega, produced anonymously, was marked with the Greek letter (and occasionally incorporated into designs.)

Roger Fry, Design for Cadena rug, 1914

Young artists would drop by the Omega, seeking employment, but often Fry politely turned them down—he liked to scout out artists for himself at art schools and exhibitions—and even artists who came highly recommended had to show a portfolio before being taken on. Gill wrote that some of the young artists, like Wyndham Lewis, broke with the Omega because they resented the anonymity of the work—they wanted to claim credit and recognition for their designs.

Omega Workshops, painted lamp bases, 1913

I seem to remember a long time painting the legs of tables. It had come as a surprise to me that black and white size paint would produce blue. When Venetian red was added, a warm mulberry colour resulted which I always connect with Vanessa. She was very fond of it, and we used it a good deal for background on our furniture. Trays too we painted. O yes, and endless candlesticks. When I remember Nina Hamnett at work it is always a candlestick she has in her hand.
Letter from Winifred Gill to Duncan Grant, 1966

Winifred Gill was invited by Roger Fry to join the workshop in 1913. Like Fry, she came from a Quaker family in Surrey, and was, at the time, working as an assistant to Fry’s sister Joan at her philanthropic foundation, as well as attending art classes at the Slade. Gill’s attraction to the Omega was not only for the artistic aspect and because she lauded the attempt to provide support for young artists, but because she also deeply believed in Fry’s pacifist social agenda. Gill played an essential role in running the workshop and beginning in 1915 she served as the workshop’s business manager. During her time at the Omega, Gill made woodcuts, paintings, designs for toys and household objects. In 1919, Gill designed some artificial flowers with Vanessa Bell on commission, to be used as part of a theater set.

Roger Fry, Still Life with Omega Flowers, 1919
Oil on canvas
Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg

Gill also designed marionettes with articulated joints which portrayed dancers and musicians. The marionettes were used in a 1917 production of War and Peace: A Dramatic Fantasia a pacifist play written by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson which was attended by W.B. Yeats, Arnold Bennett, G.B. Shaw and Lytton Strachey.

Winifred Gill with her clown puppet Joey, c.1920
The Bodleian, Oxford

The Omega Workshops came to an end in 1919, defeated by the effects of the war, the unreadiness of the British public to embrace new ideas and internal disagreements. However, thought it lasted only six years, the influence of the Omega carries on to the present day.

1946, Miller’s Galleries in Lewes held an exhibition of Omega Workshops products, displayed in a similar fashion to the arrangements at Fitzroy Square. At the time Winifred Gill wrote to Vanessa Bell about the possibility of an Omega room as a permanent fixture at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Vanessa Bell replied:

I hope it may happen for I thought the things at Miller’s in Lewes looked very good, especially the pottery…How long ago all that time seems—it was very strange having it revived for a while…

Painted version of Omega mark used on ceramics

Dagobert Peche, Genius of Ornament

Posted in Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Furniture, Jewelry, Textiles, Wallpaper, XC with tags , , , , on July 28, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Dagobert PechePortrait of Dagobert Peche, c.1920

Dagobert Peche (1887-1923) was a brilliant, versatile and eclectic designer who, in fewer than 10 years with the Wiener Werkstätte, created more than 3000 decorative objects of great beauty, energy and imagination that were full of movement, light and playfulness. Peche’s decorative objects were wonders of linear grace and inventiveness; his jewelry designs were exquisite miniature sculptures; and his textile and wallpaper designs, with their extraordinary radiant color and pattern, are perhaps his greatest legacy.

Dagobert Peche—DeerDagobert Peche, Jewel Box, 1920

Josef Hoffmann, the founder, along with Koloman Moser, of the Wiener Werkstätte in 1903, said upon Peche’s premature death at the age of 36:

Dagobert Peche was the greatest ornamental genius Austria has produced since the Baroque Age…All of Germany has arrived at a new stylistic epoch thanks to Peche’s patterns.

Dagobert Peche—Schwalbenschwantz, fabric, 1911/13Dagobert Peche, Schwalbenschwantz, fabric, 1911/13

Josef Hoffman and Kolo Moser, who both taught at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Art), founded the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna in 1903. They were influenced by the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement in England and inspired by their work in establishing a creative interaction of art, design and craftsmanship. Hoffman and Moser published a brochure outlining this philosophy of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) in 1905:

The limitless harm done in the arts and crafts field by low-quality mass production on the one hand and by the unthinking imitation of old styles on the other is affecting the whole world like some giant flood…It would be madness to swim against this tide. Nevertheless, we have founded our workshop…
We seek to establish close contact between the public, designer and craftsman, and to create a good and simple household object. We start with function, usefulness is our first requirement. Our strength lies in good proportions and proper use of materials. Where possible, we shall attempt to be decorative, but not compulsively so and not at any cost. The value of artistic work and its design needs to be acknowledged and appreciated once more. The work of craftsman is to be held to the same standard as that of the painter and sculptor. We cannot and will not compete with cheapness; it is mainly achieved at the expense of the worker, and we feel that recapturing for him the joy of creation and a humane existence is our foremost obligation…

They did not want to rely on overly expensive materials, especially in their jewelry, so they used a lot of silver, gilt, enamel, and semi-precious stones—but no diamonds, rubies and emeralds.

Josef Hoffmann—BroochJosef Hoffmann, Brooch, 1910

Initially, the aesthetic of the Wiener Werkstätte and Josef Hoffmann was one of simplicity, clarity of shape (often square), and a strict adherence to form. When Peche joined the Wiener Werkstätte, his more fluid, ornamental style began to dominate.

Josef HoffmanJosef Hoffmann, seated in a chair of his own design, c.1890

Josef Hoffmann—cigarette caseJosef Hoffmann, Cigarette case, 1912

Josef Hoffmann—Pot
Josef Hoffmann, Pot, porcelain, c.1905

Josef Hoffmann—Spoon
Josef Hoffmann, Serving spoon,c.1905

Dagobert Peche was born in Lungau, Austria in 1887. He wanted to be a painter, but his older brother Ernst claimed that role, so Dagobert went to Vienna in 1906 and trained as an architect at the Technische Hochschule. In 1911, at a banquet honoring Austrian architect Otto Wagner on his seventieth birthday, he met Josef Hoffmann. Peche did freelance textile design for the Wiener Werskätte from 1912 to 1915, when Hoffmann invited him to become a full member. In 1917, after a brief, unsuccessful stint in the  army, Peche moved to Zürich to take charge of the new Wiener Werkstätte branch there.

Wiener Werkstatte, ZurichWiener Werkstätte shop, Zurich, 1917

Peche had gone to secondary school in Stüttgart where became interested in Baroque and Rococo design. He also greatly admired the work of Aubrey Beardsley and was passionate about ornamentation. To Peche’s credit, he incurred the wrath of Adolf Loos by gilding the apples on a tree with gold leaf—unable to see the beauty or humor, Loos fumed that Peche had destroyed a whole year’s crop. In his polemic, Ornament and Crime, written in 1908, Loos wrote that “ornamentation was a grotesque relic of humanity’s unwholesome past.”

Dagobert Peche—Box in the Shape of an Apple, c.1920Dagobert Peche, Box in the Shape of an Apple, c.1920

For the Wiener Werkstätte, Peche designed metalwork, ceramics, mirror frames, glass, textiles, wallpaper, furniture, books and jewelry.

Dagobert Peche—ChairDagobert Peche, Boudoir Chair for an Elegant Lady, 1912

Dagobert Peche—Tea CaddyDagobert Peche, Tea Caddy, 1916

In all these pieces there is a quality of lightness, and a painterly, romantic touch. He integrated ornamentation into his designs, and often camouflaged the object’s function. He was pushing the limits of the Wiener Werkstatte’s philosophy of utilitarian design, but he justified it this way:

It is simply the product of art imposed on craftsmanship. The art enlivens the elements and branches of the craft in which the object to be created requires a certain look. Essentially, all of these are art objects, simply not fine art, for they generally have a function as well.

Dagobert Peche—Bird-shaped Candy BoxDagobert Peche, Bird-shaped Candy Box, 1920

Dagobert Peche—VaseDagobert Peche, Vase, c.1912

Dagobert Peche—Brooch
Dagobert Peche, Brooch, Zurich, c.1917-19

Dagobert Peche—fabric designDagobert Peche, Diomedes, fabric design, 1919

Dagobert Peche—Wallpaper designDagobert Peche, Wundervogel, wallpaper design, c.1914

Unlike the British Arts & Crafts movement which hoped to create a socialist state where excellent design and craftsmanship was universally available, improving the quality of life for all, the Wiener Werkstätte did not have such a clear agenda or widespread support. There was only a small segment of artistically engaged, wealthy Austrians who appreciated their efforts—among them the artist Gustav Klimt. His portrait below is of Eugenie Primavesi who, with her industrialist husband Otto, and cousin Robert, acquired a significant financial stake in the Wiener Werkstätte in 1914.

Gustav Klimt—Portrait of Eugenie PrimavesiGustav Klimt, Portrait of Eugenie Primavesi, c.1913-14

The Wiener Werkstätte closed in 1932. In future posts, Venetian Red will delve more deeply into the exquisite textiles produced by the Wiener Werkstätte and the interesting people, many of them women, who designed them. We can only imagine what amazing things Dagobert Peche would have designed if his life had not been cut short by a tumor misdiagnosed as TB. Toward the end of his life, Peche became nervous and solitary, and, frustrated with designing only for the wealthy, longed to create beautiful design that could be enjoyed by all.

To see many more examples of Peche’s designs and sketches, I highly recommend Dagobert Peche and the Wiener Werkstätte, Yale University Press, published with the Neue Galerie, New York.

Dagobert Peche—PosterDagobert Peche, Poster for Wiener Werkstätte Fashions, c.1919

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Furniture, Liz Hager, Mixed Media, Painting, Photography with tags , , , , on July 6, 2009 by Liz Hager

Museum of Craft + Design—Matt Kahn: Artist & Educator, through July 12.  Matt Kahn has been teaching design at Stanford University for 55 years.  People like IDEO founder David Kelley and textile artist Jean Ray Laury consider Kahn their mentor.

University of California, Berkeley Art Museum—Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet, through Sept. 27.  Eight artists travelled to eight UNESCO world heritage sites to respond to the questions of whether art can inspire conservation and vice versa.

Ben Aronson, Passing Taxis, 2008-9

Jenkins Johnson Gallery, 464 Sutter Street, SF—Summertime, through August 29. The exhibit runs simultaneously in New York and San Francisco and showcases the work of Nicholas Africano, Ben Aronson, Edward Burtynsky, Michael Eastman, Gerald Förster, Scott Fraser, Julia Fullerton-Batten, Lynn Goldsmith, Wes Hempel, Rene Lynch, Joel Meyerowitz, John Nava, Julian Opie, Yigal Ozeri, Sheila Pree Bright, Scott Prior, Chris Raecker, Kay Ruane, Francesca Sundsten, Nancy Switzer, Robert Van Vranken, Hiroshi Watanabe, Z.Z. Wei, Janice Urnstein Weissman, Don Williams, Sherrie Wolf, Michael Workman, William Wylie, and JeongMee Yoon. Not all artists in both locations.

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