Sunday, 28 October 2018

Villa Cavrois

Villa Cavrois is what can result when wealth and status consciousness meet invention and ambition. Paul Cavrois had accumulated his fortune in the textile industry and was looking for a family home on a scale that reflected his success in business. Cavrois felt a need to distinguish himself from his fellow plutocrats and was open to a contemporary design. The work of Robert Mallet-Stevens was known to him from seeing his contributions to the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs and the publicity arising from his designs for ultra-fashionable clients, Paul Poiret (fashion designer) and avant-garde patron, Vicomte de Noailles. Cavrois owned a large vacant plot in an upper class suburb of Roubaix and in 1929 (just months before the Wall Street Crash) commissioned Mallet-Stevens to design a large scale family home in a Modernist idiom.

When the house was completed in 1932 the Cavrois family moved into a remarkably spacious home in which almost every piece of furniture and every aspect of internal decoration was the work of the architect, Mallet-Stevens. The Cavrois fortune comfortably absorbed all the extra cost of purpose-built furnishings in return for a bespoke dwelling in which no detail, from light fitting to door handle or from radiator covers to wall clocks was left to chance. Modernism without excessive formal purity was the result - the harshness and doctrinaire control associated with the movement was neatly sidestepped. For the occupants there was the excitement of living in a home like no other surrounded by elegance and comfort, all wrapped up in sweeping, curving forms influenced by Art Deco. Mallet-Stevens designed a system of stretched yellow bricks, adaptable to concave and convex curves, lintels and corners, and laid exclusively on the stretcher side. The inspiration for this came from Dudok’s recently completed Raadhuis Hilversum.

The Art Deco influence on the exterior can be seen in the cylindrical belvedere tower and the extended sun decks – internally the chromed fixtures and fittings and the proliferation of circular forms continue the theme. The Cavrois appetite for Modernism didn’t run to paintings and sculpture, there are few artworks on the walls in period photos, but Mallet-Stevens themed several of the major rooms around aspects of Modernist painting. In what is described as the Young Man’s Room, the interaction of flat-painted geometric panels and forms resembles the abstract compositions of De Stijl. Unsurprising, given we know that Mallet-Stevens collaborated with Theo Van Doesburg on an earlier project. In the dressing room for the lady of the house, strong curved forms in the chairs, mantelpiece and mirror counterpoint the linear geometry elsewhere to give a Cubist feel to the room. At the centre of the house is a duplex sitting room with double height glass doors on to the sun terrace. The luxurious orange marble fireplace is equivalent to the onyx wall in the contemporary Villa Tugendhat by Mies van der Rohe.

During the war, the Villa Cavrois was requisitioned by the Wehrmacht whose heavy presence caused immense damage. When the family regained possession they commissioned a complete and conservative redesign of the interior which remained in place until the death of the last family member in 1986. At this point it fell into the hands of developers whose intention was to divide the grounds into individual plots. Various attempts to give the building legal protection were frustrated by the developer until a Prime Ministerial decree settled the matter. The developer responded in the time honoured way by allowing the building to deteriorate through vandalism. After a prolonged local campaign, the French state bought the Villa in 2001 – it was opened to the public in 2012 after 10 years of restoration to original condition.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Animal Intelligence

There’s much speculation around about the rise of artificial intelligence and its potential to eclipse the human variety. But we could be looking in the wrong direction if these images are anything to go by. It would be much more alarming if animal intelligence were to make a sudden evolutionary leap, leaving humanity far behind. Perhaps the best we could look forward to is domestication in the service of a new breed of super-dogs, at whose feet we may be permitted to lie for as long as we are able to maintain the necessary level of servile ingratiation. These illustrations for children from a book titled Clever Animals, offer sentimentality and cruelty in equal measure as the subjects are forced into demeaning costumes or made to perform ridiculous tasks. Despite which they contain the occasional sly touch of incongruity inserted by the artist, intentionally or otherwise.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Jacob’s Crackers

The brand name Jacob’s can be seen on every UK supermarket shelves but its independent corporate existence ended as far back as 1960 when it became part of Associated Biscuits. Since then it has tumbled around in the capitalist vortex, forever changing hands as the disciplines of the market dictate. It remains a part of United Biscuits, itself since 2014 part of Pladis, owned by Turkey-based Yildiz Holdings. The story won’t end there – in August it was reported that Pladis was looking for a buyer to take it off its hands.

Eaten on its own, the Cream Cracker will instantly absorb the consumer’s saliva, leaving them with the problem of how to deal with the arid, pulpy mass that occupies the oral cavity. The addition of butter, cheese or spreads makes it palatable and it has its devotees, especially in Britain and some of its former colonies in North America, Southeast Asia and South Africa. The rest of the planet seems unmoved by its charms. Without the Cream Cracker it’s unlikely that the Jacob’s brand would have survived as long as it has.

These examples of Jacob’s advertising are from the 1930s to the 1950s and display a preference for the use of children as diminutive brand ambassadors. Pert and winsome juveniles can always be relied upon to unlock consumer resistance. Since 1910 Chloe Preston had been charming her audience with a series of illustrated books for children, featuring a cast of simpering super-cute infants known as Peek-a-Boos. So she was an obvious choice to produce a pictorial Alphabet for Children in which Peek-a-Boos encourage the junior consumer to sample the entire range of Jacob’s biscuits – each with their merits declaimed in alphabetical order.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Van Gogh – a life in six pictures

If there’s an artist whose existence has penetrated almost every consciousness, it must be Van Gogh. And the one fact most widely known is that he cut off all or part of his ear in a nocturnal frenzy brought on by chronic depressive illness, packaged it up and presented it to a sex worker of his acquaintance. The details of his short career and dramatic life have been minutely investigated and recorded by legions of scholars. It was a life endlessly romanticised in popular culture and subject to intense psychoanalytic scrutiny, to the point that a distinct effort is required to see past all the accumulated mythology when considering the paintings he left behind. Every one of his major works has been submerged in an ocean of critical over-interpretation which the viewer has to set aside in order to respond on a personal level. So it’s quite refreshing to see all this turbulence condensed into just six images.

This set of Liebig collector cards was issued in 1959 a few years after Vincente Minelli directed the film Lust for Life in 1956, itself based on Irving Stone’s biography of the same name that kick-started the mythologising of Van Gogh in 1934. The first card shows the young Vincent driven by a life long religiosity, addressing a not especially attentive audience of miners and their families on the path to salvation. In the second we see our hero taking a drink and smoking a pipe in a working class Antwerp bar. The Parisian premises of Goupil & Cie are the scene of the third card – the manager, Theo Van Gogh is greeting his troublesome brother, Vincent. Card number four shows the Gendarmerie of Arles visiting Van Gogh in the Yellow House in the aftermath of the ear severing episode in December 1888. By May of 1889 Van Gogh was a patient in an asylum at Saint-Rémy where the fifth card shows him painting at his easel while a nun brings him some refreshment. Van Gogh’s funeral at Auvers is the final card – the inconsolable mourner collapsed at the table is presumably Theo. For another view of the artist, see Van Gogh the Salesman, posted in 2012.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Maison Coilliot, Lille

Lille has many buildings of quality, but, despite its proximity to Flanders, it’s not a centre for Art Nouveau. The Maison Coilliot in rue de Fleurus is the only Art Nouveau landmark in the city. It dates from 1898-1900 and is a fascinating example of a style that flared into existence in just a few years before dying out with equal rapidity. Architect Hector Guimard was working on a portfolio of designs for the Métro Parisien at the time he was developing this commission for the proprietor of a ceramic business in Lille. The flamboyantly decorative lettering on the ceramic panel has a close affinity with the station signage he produced for the Métro. Two years earlier work had completed on the Castel Bérenger in Paris – the zenith of Guimard’s obsession with imposing organic decoration on architectural form.

The ground floor was a showroom for Coilliot's ceramics business, above was a 3 storey apartment, stepped back with an angled façade, for Coilliot and his family. Coilliot's factory premises and warehouse were situated behind the rue de Fleurus. The ground floor is composed of typically Art Nouveau organic teardrop forms while the upper storeys are more of a medievalist fantasy with a Gothic timber frame. An optician presently occupies the ground floor. The optician trades as Optique Coillot but the window display pays little respect to the building's design heritage. The inscribed plant-like forms in the rusticated stonework seem in good order but the building as a whole would benefit from some restoration work – cleaning the stonework and treating the timber superstructure would make a difference.

The interior was furnished and decorated by Guimard with the same attention to detail as the exterior – there is no public access but a short film from 1977 takes us briefly behind the scenes after a short verbal exchange between a young female student and a master of condescension.