An exhbition in the Carnegie Museum of Art's fittingly intimate Treasure Room focuses on how man has, in recent centuries, artfully packaged a nocturnal necessity: artificial illumination.
Designed to Be Lit moves from luminescent receptacles (candelabra and oil lamps) to incandescent sources (i.e., electric lamps), with a few chronological digressions. Rachel Delphia, the museum's assistant curator of decorative arts, organized the exhibition exclusively with pieces from the museum's own collection.
The range of materials and styles in this 300-year cross-section of decorative artifacts is arresting. Delphia's selections are decked with or divested of ornament according to the dictates of practical function, era and fashion. Her groupings also reveal how often Western designers have looked to the East for aesthetic inspiration.
An example of the highly ornamented is a gorgeous, circa-1750 candlestick pair conceived by German modeler Johann Joachim Kändler and decorated by Meissen, Europe's first porcelain manufacturer. The candlesticks, which obtrude into all three dimensions, express a manicured and highly stylized organic chaos in gilded bronze and painted porcelain. Each stick bears a pillow-bound, porcelain Chinese lap dog, around which gilded boughs, ending in blooming flowers, appear to grow. Flower petals of hand-painted porcelain are individually formed, while index-finger handles at the rear indicate that Kändler intended the holders to be carried, rather than remain fixed.
But this candlestick set is more than an historical aesthetics lesson. It also reflects Europe's multi-century preoccupation with the luxury of porcelain. While genuine Chinese and Japanese porcelain, imported by the Dutch East India Company, had long represented affluence and urbanity, it was wildly expensive. European attempts to reproduce it, like the 1575 Florentine-made, kaolin-deficient "Medici porcelain," were considered inferior. Only Meissen, founded in 1710, made a viable duplicate: the highly refined collaboration with Kändler, in which Europe's cultural achievment is unmistakable.
Also revealing an Eastern influence is the exhibition's centerpiece, the frequently reproduced Tiffany Dragonfly Lamp. Designed by Clara Driscoll for Tiffany Studios in 1899, the lamp takes its central motif from Japanese art, in which dragonflies signify the end of summer. This patinated-bronze and leaded-glass version, whose design was honored for its beauty at the 1900 Parisian Exposition Universelle, bears an enigmatic regality, created in part by its dark, yet superficially opalescent glass shade.
Nearby is another captivating example of late 19th-century Orientalism. A silvered bronze candelabrum, produced around 1874, takes its angular design from Asian furniture, but incorporates the organic contours of bamboo leaves and their swollen stems. The work was produced by the pioneering French manufacturer Christofle, which innovated electroplating technology and would, less than a decade after this candelabrum's production, outfit the Orient Express with silver flatware.
By the end of the 1920s, however, Europe was shunning the Belle Epoch's decadent ornament. World War I had altered aesthetic sensibility, and designers sought to cleanse the calligraphic line of its profligate arabesques. Nowhere is this more evident than in French designer Jacques Le Chevallier's Desk Lamp, c. 1927-1930. Its flat discs, which intersect in three dimensions -- a conception inspired by Cubism's fractured surfaces -- are made of aluminum and Bakelite, the world's first plastic resin. A perfect manifestation of the Machine Age aesthetic, Chevallier's lamp would have fit perfectly on any desk in the Chrysler Building
While the Carnegie's approach is somewhat academic -- the sequential progression from object to object, each excised from its original decorative context -- Designed to Be Lit does allow visitors to see the decorative affinities recurring over the span of centuries. It also forces viewers to recognize these functional objects as genuine objets d'art, whose form may precede (without eclipsing) their function.
The exhibition's single disappointing facet is that, the show's title notwithstanding, most of the artifacts do not appear as they were designed to be seen: glowing from within, or gleaming in reflected candlelight. Although it might be necessary from an archival (not to mention security) standpoint, this denial of the artifact's original function is the only way in which Designed to Be Lit doesn't shine.
Designed to Be Lit continues through Sun., Feb. 10. Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131