He may very well be the most influential modernist pioneer you’ve never heard of. But you can change that – and see something you may never see again – with a visit to the Jewish Museum in New York, where the first-ever U.S. exhibition on the life and work of Pierre Chareau is on view through March 26.
Born in 1893 in Bordeaux, Chareau became a sought-after interior and furniture designer by the 1920s and ’30s and built a landmark house in Paris with Dutch architect Bernard Bijoet that is recognized as one of the most original of the 20th century, Maison de Verre, or House of Glass. That from a man who never formally studied architecture and built very few buildings.
The exhibition, Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design, traces the arc of Chareau’s creative and personal life, and that of wife Dollie, in highly innovative fashion, with virtual reality stations and shadows on white scrims that suggest a persistence of activity alongside displays of furniture and architecture. The exhibit was designed by the firm of Diller Scofidio and Renfro, which counts among its accomplishments NYC’s High Line and the renovation and expansion of Lincoln Center.
“This exhibition,” says the firm’s Elizabeth Diller, “is a rare opportunity to see so much of Chareau’s creative output brought together in one place. The challenge in undertaking its design was to provide a multifaceted and imaginative backdrop that would highlight but not compete with his exceptional mastery of detailing and assemblage.”
The museum says Chareau balanced the opulence of traditional French decorative arts with interior designs that were elegant, functional and in sync with the requirements of modern life.
Because he produced only custom furnishings and never had pieces mass produced, seeing his designs and architecture together – much less seeing them at all – is a rare opportunity that may not come along again anytime soon.
Chareau and wife Dottie were Jewish, and with the rise of Hitler, their existence was threatened and lives changed forever. Chareau catered to a wealthy Jewish clientele, and as they fled Paris after the occupation of 1941, he and Dollie were forced to follow suit and sell belongings, including part of their carefully built art collection, which had included pieces by Mondrian and Modigliani among many others. And as Chareau set out for America, Dollie heroically stayed behind to continue to sell what she could to raise money for their new life.
In New York, the couple continued to seek out art and artists, and Chareau developed a friendship with Robert Motherwell that led to the building of an innovative home on Long Island with, naturally, dramatic use of glass ala Maison de Verre. It was his only significant work in America.
Chareau approached the Museum of Modern Art in 1950 about mounting a show of his work. But it declined. He died that same year, largely unknown in this country. Until now.