Category Archives: Decorative Arts

Video: The Art Connection

We just wanted to say thanks to everyone who came out on Sunday, April 14 to mark the opening of The Art Connection Annual Student Exhibition! Check out the video to see our student artists hard at work in the museum’s studios as they prepared for this year’s exhibition. Throughout the school year, students in grades 5–9 worked through the creative process with the help of teaching artists in the museum’s galleries and studios. Artworks in this year’s exhibition reflect the influence of recent exhibitions such as White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes, Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Art at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939, and Cory Arcangel: Masters.


Objects of Desire: Dawn’s Pick

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.


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.


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.”

Object of Desire: Katie’s Pick

Working at museums has taught me that nothing can compare to the real thing; no image, however high resolution, can capture the experience of standing in front of an object and exploring it in space, and in relation to your own body. Yet somehow, I never cease to be surprised!

I thought that I knew the objects in the exhibition Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939. As the head of publications at the museum, I dove into the show about three years ago, as we began to develop the exhibition catalogue. The curators made decisions about objects and asked outside scholars to write about them, and our intrepid rights and reproductions coordinator, Laurel, began to track down images for the book. For close to a year, as we reviewed photography together and edited texts, I felt like I lived with all of the objects in the book—and fell in love with a few of them along the way. But some I passed by without giving them a second thought. The Vase Bertin by Sèvres was one of those; I knew it was “important,” and it seemed pretty enough, but it didn’t move me.

Then I saw it in the gallery.

I guess I hadn’t really paid much attention to the dimensions when I was editing the checklist, because the sheer scale of it left me speechless. I had lived with it for so long as an image bounded by the white space of a printed page. Then, as I began to walk around it, the amazingly beautiful decoration of the underwater scene completely drew me in—fronds of seaweed with translucent stems, the fine whorls of mussel shells, the jaunty upturned chin and crossed spindly legs of a frog kicking up to the surface. I visit it whenever I pass through the galleries, and discover something new each time.

Jules-Constant Peyre, Léopold Jules Gély, and Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, Vase Bertin, c. 1855, glazed porcelain, The Cleveland Museum of Art

I’m incredibly proud of our catalogue (buy it!), and it will keep the exhibition alive long after the objects have returned to their own museums and collections; but for now, as long as I have the chance, I’ll make a point of going up to visit the real things.

Installing the Presepio

Art handler Matt Cummings takes on the delicate task of installing figures in the middle of the scene for the Neapolitan presepio.

Every year on the Monday—Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, Carnegie Museum of Art staff installs the museum’s remarkable Neapolitan presepio. Beloved by Pittsburghers as an annual holiday tradition the presepio is an incredible multi-media work of art, created by 18th-century artisans in Naples.


We install the stage set within the steps of St. Gilles in the Hall of Architecture. The set is made up of dozens of platforms topped with miniature buildings, bridges, roads, rocks, and a stream. The various pieces are unified by the application of conservation-safe moss cloth.

A member of the so-called “Turkish band,” a common sight in the bustling Mediterranean port of 18th-century Naples.
Watch out—his sheep has a wild look in his eye.


In come the figures on rolling metal carts. More than 100 human and angelic characters, plus another dozen animals, and countless finimenti or finishing touches (tiny props like walking sticks, assorted foods for the marketplace, and tiny ceramic and silver jars and platters. If all goes well, we finish the day by suspending the host of angels overhead.

Museum staff place figures in the foreground, while the yellow ladder at back will help us install the angels overhead.
During the rest of the year the presepio figures rest in carefully padded and outfitted drawers like this one.


We polish off the installation with a green velvet skirt, gold stanchions, and didactic panels, as well as a special display case that provides an opportunity to see one figure up close.

The Moorish King Balthazar
This lady even has carefully crafted miniature earrings.
Work in progress: this is the cheese seller’s stand, which is ultimately set up with dozens of tempting hard and soft cheeses for his customers. As we place figures it looks like he is keeping an eye on our vegetables and fruit.
The fisherman is the oldest figure in the presepio, dating to 1700. A natural fit for a streamside spot, he also serves as an allegory for Christ, who was called the “fisher of men.”

This begging dog is quite a character with his upward gaze and wagging tail.
Art handler Steve Russ arranges items based on photographs from a previous year.

Objects of Desire: Jason’s Pick

From the first international exhibition in London in 1851 to the New York World’s Fair in 1939, more than 90 events were held in 22 countries. With the opening of the Crystal Palace in 1851, world’s fairs became the most important global forum for debuting technological advancements and defining fashionable tastes.

Among the objects at the fairs were those laden with historical associations, demonstrating the relevance of motifs and forms from the past on the decorative arts of the present. As a decorative arts scholar, I have always been intrigued by revival styles and how they coincided with the advancement of modern machine production. Science and ingenuity were united with the decorative arts at a pivotal moment in the nineteenth century, and revivalism became the platform for debuting inventive and progressive processes that contributed to an increasingly modern world. The uneasy coexistence of historicism and modernism reached its apex at the 1900 fair in particular, an event that symbolically looked forward and back at the turn of the century.

William C. Codman, designer, American (b. England), 1839–1921; Gorham Manufacturing Company, manufacturer, United States (Providence, RI), 1831–present; Dressing table and stool, 1899, silver with mirrored glass, ivory, and modern upholstery; Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., in honor of Dr. Charles L. Venable, 2000.356

One of my favorite examples from Inventing the Modern World (and I have many favorites) is a dressing table and stool by Gorham Manufacturing Company shown at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. An impressive masterpiece, the objects required more than 2,300 hours of labor and 1,250 ounces of silver to create. This was the grandest example in Gorham’s new line of handcrafted Martelé, or “hammered” objects, showcased at the 1900 fair. At a time when machine production was increasingly dominant, Gorham proved that there was still interest in meticulously handcrafted objects.

At the time this object was made, the Art Nouveau was immensely popular. Artists and designers were eager to move away from the imitative revival styles in order to create a new, modern international aesthetic. While the table and stool are decorated with sinuous vines and leaves and clusters of floral motifs characteristic of the Art Nouveau, their pronounced cabriole legs with ball and claw feet reference Rococo designs that were popular in colonial America. Both forward and backward looking, the dressing table and stool encapsulates the tension between historicism and modernism that was so prevalent at the fairs.

Over the next few months, you’ll be hearing from other Carnegie Museum of Art staff about their favorite objects in the exhibition. Stop by the galleries and let us know about your top picks!

See other objects of desire from the exhibition.

The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalogue.