Saturday, August 6, 2011

Holy Odin! Viking Revival Furniture?

In previous posts you have heard me bemoan the fact that once you really feel you know a subject you encounter something that makes you inspired and shocked at the same time. Now, 700 years ago when I was in graduate school I was fascinated by the revival styles of the 19th century. Most who have spent any time studying this "Romantic" period from the 1830s-1900 are well aware of the usual suspects: gothic revival, rococo revival, greek revival, renaissance revival etc. They dominated the decorative vocabulary of the period until they were decried by the Arts and Crafts movement and supplanted by Art Nouveau and the proto-modernism of the Secessionist Movement but I digress. It was on a recent business trip to Paris that I was re-acquainted with the unusual revival subset: Viking/Celtic revival. Enter the Musee d'Orsay's very recent acquisition (2010): a monumental stained oak armchair by Tiffany Studios.
Now this particular model with its strapwork embossed leather and similarly carved oak was not such a surprise as I had seen it at auction once before... which begs the question... might they be one in the same?
Photo via Sotheby's
Detail, Photo via Sotheby's
This second example was offered at Sotheby's New York in June of 2008 but failed to sell at the hefty estimate of $180,000-240,000. Who knows if there was embossed leather lurking under that shabby later velvet upholstery. When this chair was up at auction the catalogue drew comparisons to another Tiffany commission, the well known Havemeyer home at 1 East 66th Street... more specifically the Rembrandt Room. Thankfully a chair from this long demolished somber study is preserved in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo via
As you can see they only vary in minor ways. The carvings are both derived from Scandinavian/Celtic ship carvings and metalwork. This nautical connection reminded me of Tiffany's earlier work at the 7th Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. Specifically the carved dado, ceiling and friezes of the Veteran's Room.
Photo via The Classicist Blog
This viking iconography fits within the realm of a military setting but one would have to think that in the domestic sphere it was just one of many exotic styles at Tiffany's disposal. Later on my trip I made my way to London and spent an afternoon at the Victoria & Albert Museum and was stunned to find yet another example of the viking revival style. Enter Norwegian designer Lars Kinsarvik's armchair presented at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Detail, Photo via
In reading the cataloging for this piece it became clear that this example was less about romanticism but more about nationalistic pride. At this point Norway was still under Swedish control and the designer was clearly looking at recent archaeological discoveries of Viking vessels for his decorative motifs. The chair supports are derived from anthropomorphic ship prows. The museum's research goes on to state that Norway insisted on having its own pavilion at the fair separate from that of Sweden. Thankfully Norway would have its independence some five years later. So within context this example is less quirky when understood as a nation's rallying cry. If any readers have other examples of this decorative subset I would be more than intrigued to see them!