Author Archives: Dawn Reid, Curatorial Assistant, Decorative Arts & Design

Objects of Desire: Dawn’s Pick


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Installation view, Carlo Bugatti, Cobra chair, 1902, wood, parchment with painted decoration, and copper, Berdan Memorial Trust Fund, Helen Johnston Acquisition Fund, and Decorative Arts Purchase Fund

Choosing my favorite object from Inventing the Modern World is nearly impossible—my “favorite” tends to shift by the hour or according to my mood (this says more about my love of objects than it does about my indecisiveness). There’s one extraordinary object however that stands out no matter the time of day or my disposition—the Cobra chair designed by Carlo Bugatti.

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Bugatti was one of the most eccentric European designers working at the turn of the century and his furniture is truly fantastical, bordering on bizarre. Inspired by nature, architecture, and decorative elements of the Middle East, North Africa, and Japan, he worked in unusual combinations of materials.

The Cobra chair was part of a suite made by Bugatti for the 1902 Turin Prima Esposizione d’Arte Decorativa Moderna, the first world’s fair devoted exclusively to decorative arts and design. The organizing committee declared that only original and innovative designs free of historical precedent would be accepted. It is obvious that Bugatti rose to this particular challenge.

cobradetail2The dynamic form of the Cobra chair blurs the boundaries between sculpture and functional design with a revolutionary assembling technique decades ahead of its time. Composite wooden elements were joined and shaped to create a curving silhouette that anticipates the cantilevered designs of the 1920s and 1930s by Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, and Kem Weber. Bugatti disguised and unified the composite parts with stretched and joined parchment, making the chair look like it’s a solid piece. The vellum is painted with stylized flowers, dragonflies, and geometric shapes while the applied copper disc on the back further accentuates the cobra imagery. Although the chair exhibits the exotic influences, organic shapes, and naturalistic references that typify Art Nouveau, the chair stands out as a thoroughly modern product of Bugatti’s vivid imagination.

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The otherworldly aspects of Bugatti’s designs are truly elucidated in the image of the Snail Room at the 1902 fair. One of three complete rooms Bugatti designed for the exhibition, the Salle de Jeu et Conversation (room for games and conversation) contained a spiraling banquette and table surrounded by Cobra chairs and circular panels mimicking the chair backs. The room is at once futuristic, organic, and exotic.

Though Bugatti’s Cobra is beloved by art historians today, it was a bit too radical to be widely accepted in 1902. Nevertheless, Bugatti was awarded a diploma of honor by the Turin jury. They clearly found the Cobra chair to be as unforgettable as I do. As one contemporary critic of the exhibition wrote, “the artist who knows how to give a truly individual imprint to his furniture is C. Bugatti.…Bugatti, living outside every movement and owing everything to himself and demanding everything from himself, is the exhibitor who most clearly remains stamped in one’s memory.”

Installing the Modern World


Worlds Fair-5253Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 is officially on view at Carnegie Museum of Art. The exhibition is a massive undertaking, the largest exhibition of decorative arts and design at the museum in nearly a decade. We’ve received a number of queries as to how we actually did it.

Worlds Fair-5191While some may say it takes a village to mount an exhibition like Inventing the Modern World, in this case it took more of a sprawling urban center. We owe thanks to a large network of talented individuals—including our colleagues in the Exhibitions, Registrars, Conservation, Publications, and Technology Initiatives departments, our skilled professional art handlers, our generous co-organizers at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and a host of dedicated outside contractors—all of whom were truly invested in creating this knockout exhibition.

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Co-organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (NAMA), the genesis of the exhibition extends back more than a decade. When chief curator Jason Busch and NAMA curator Catherine Futter were researching the topic over the last four years, they traveled across the globe on multiple trips, scouring museum collections for the most stylistically and technologically innovative objects exhibited at the fairs between 1851, the first international exhibition in London, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. With such a large number of examples to choose from, each object had to earn its space on the exhibition checklist. (See some of the highlights.) We worked hard to secure loans, negotiating with museums and private collectors on shipping, insurance, and display requirements.

Once the checklist was finalized, comprising nearly 200 objects from 45 lenders across the globe, it was time to start thinking about the layout for our venue. Jason and I worked with NAMA exhibition designer Amanda Ramirez for nearly a year to plan the layout and design of the show. At the same time, we were working with our Publications department to finalize the exhibition catalogue and beginning to compose the 200+ wall labels and text panels for the exhibition.

elevation1 floorplanSample elevations and floorplan of the exhibition’s entry gallery

For a show that was more than a decade in the making, we had only seven exhilarating weeks to deinstall the previous exhibition, prepare the galleries for construction, build new walls and platforms, paint, and install exhibition furniture as well as 238 objects—all while primping the galleries with final touches for opening weekend. Here’s a peek at what we’ve been up to leading up to the exhibition opening.

P1090143Weeks 1–2: Once the previous exhibition was deinstalled, it was time to clean the galleries and prepare for new construction. The space transformed quickly as the fantastic crew from Giffin Interior & Fixture Inc. began building new walls, bringing in custom platforms, and painting the galleries.

P1090130Week 3: We continued to build and paint walls and lay out furniture platforms as the custom-built exhibition casework began to arrive. With the assistance of Bob Tolnai, fabrication technician at NAMA, the casework was placed and the galleries started to look more and more like an exhibition space. Decorative features such as fabric treatments to evoke bunting from the 1851 Crystal Palace, vinyl graphics including one modeled after Siegfried Bing’s Art Nouveau at the 1900 Paris fair, and photo blow-ups of fair displays were installed to provide visitors with context. Our 2-D plan was starting to become reality!

P1090109Weeks 4–6: This is when the real fun began. Truck shipments full of crates containing artwork arrived. Curatorial staff, art handlers, and registrars worked alongside a special team from NAMA (associate registrar Jill Kohler, conservator Joe Rogers, and registrar Janet Hawkins) to unpack and condition report all objects prior to installation, making sure they arrived in the exact same state in which they left Kansas City. Small objects were installed in vitrines while larger artworks were placed on platforms as the exhibition truly started to develop.

P1090139Week 7: The galleries were ready for the finishing touches. Two-dimensional artworks were hung, along with didactic panels. Vinyl quotations were applied to the walls and platform and wall labels were installed. After one last final cleaning of the galleries, the exhibition was ready to open!

I hope you’ve had a chance to visit Inventing the Modern World during its opening week, and if not, we hope to see you in the galleries soon!