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|Decorative Arts Diary
by Brook S. Mason
|"Furniture and documents from the Palace of Indore designed by Eckart Muthesius," Oct. 18-Dec. 3, 2000, at Rainbow Fine Art, 15 East 82nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
Move over Mies, two forgotten German architects are now on a high.
Decorative arts shows in art galleries are generally a snore but Rainbow Fine Art has one that even museums should envy. The subject? A relatively unknown but dazzling chapter in 20th-century design -- furnishings from the Palace of Indore designed in 1931 by the German architect Eckart Muthesius (1904-1989).
Rainbow's slender but pivotal exhibition focuses on chairs by Muthesius and features as well works by Hans Luckhardt (1890-1954) and period photographs of the palace. All have never before been shown to the public and they are a window into a kind of 1930s style not unheralded until now.
Muthesius is no household name, but his interiors and furnishings have the edge over what was coming out of the Bauhaus. The pieces Luckhardt commissioned and designed himself have a more streamlined feel. Plus, the palace alone is a real landmark edifice.
The story goes like this. In 1930, the Maharajah Bahadur, then the third richest man in the world, married one Nancy Ann Miller from Seattle. That event prompted scandalized headlines such as "The most degrading romance of recent years." The tabloid reports were less than fair to the Maharajah, who was a patron of Brancusi, among other things.
For his bride, the Maharajah commissioned Muthesius to design a palace in northern India to the tune of $1 million. Of stucco, steel and tinted glass, the magnificent edifice was called Manik Bagh (Jewel Gardens) and boasted the first air conditioning system in India.
For furnishings, Muthesius called on the most renowned European designers of the day -- Ruhlmann, Eileen Gray, Louis Sognot and Charlotte Alix along with Marcel Breuer and Hans Luckardt. The Art Deco designer Ivan da Silva Bruhns took a hand with the rugs while Jean Michel Puiforcat oversaw the china and silver.
Each example on view is spectacular. Take the 16 chairs designed for musicians in the ballroom by architect Luckhardt. They are the height of chic and sleek. In unusually high quality chrome with a black lacquer wood seat and back, the chairs were produced in Germany. They are priced from $20-23,000.
Compare the Luckhardt chairs to Mies van der Rhoe's tubular chair of 1930 or even a Marcel Breuer for a real design appreciation course. "Luckhardt's chairs are better than those of Mies," says Rainbow gallery director Frederic Fieux. Why none of Luckardt's designs have ever been reproduced should have manufacturers scratching their heads.
Then Luckhardt's armchairs with red leatherette cushions are another supreme moment in design. Check out the sublime lines of chairs without the cushions. The angle and position of the cushions are movable so it's a bit like a beach chair, only in chrome. The cost is $35,000. Unlike most vintage 20th-century furniture, which is shabby with metal surfaces nicked and chipped, Rainbow's offerings are in top condition. One reason could be that the materials were so outstanding -- no tinny chrome-plated metal for these designers.
Consider the Muthesius armchairs in nickel silver with red leatherette seat and back. They are so clean and crisp in design that they make the American take on this style a decade later positively pale. The chairs are $45,000 a pair.
Then the music stands by Muthesius are good enough to stand alone without any sheet music. Visually, they approach sculpture and in terms of furniture design, they beat the stark, industrial look of Jean Prouve by a decade.
By an incredible stroke of just plain sleuthing, Fieux turned up photographs of the northern India palace from Muthesius' own office right here in New York. In all there are 23 images, including one of the 30-seat dinning room. Each bears the architect's official stamp.
And one more thing, for those who talk about comprehensive design -- Muthesius also designed a hunting caravan a la Airstream and the jet of its day.
Sadly, Muthesius slipped into oblivion. With the death of the Maharajah in 1956, the palace was relegated to administrative government offices. The furnishings were sold at Sotheby's in Monaco in 1980.
Don't leave Rainbow without seeing a unique Charlotte Perriand sideboard with shelving system from 1950. The sideboard has both black and white sliding Masonite doors and black metal units punctuate the shelving above just over 12 feet in length. It's industrial and the rhythm of the black makes this a visual knock out. It's $150,000 and won't be there long.
BROOK S. MASON writes on antiques and the decorative arts.