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Multiple Ways of Knowing Pierre Chareau
Madlen Simon

November 4, 2016-March 26, 2017
Jewish Museum

Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s design for the Pierre Chareau exhibit at the Jewish Museum introduces visitors to multiple ways of knowing the designer and his oeuvre. The exhibit engages our senses, imagination, intellect, and emotions in a choreographed sequence of mysteries and revelations. The designers deftly mixed new technologies with traditional display of objects, moving viewers through a series of experiences that changes pace from slow walking to pensive reading to twirling in their seats. Like good teachers, the designers offer information in multiple formats, addressing a variety of learning styles.

The visitor enters through a series of scrims on which outlines of furniture merge with flickering silhouettes of the inhabitants. We are invited into the history of Chareau’s interiors. Moving among the ghosts, we are transported to Paris between the World Wars. Rounding the scrims, the figures melt away, revealing the three-dimensional reality of the furnishings. We transition from feeling to knowing. We shift abruptly from a kinetic, monochromatic environment to a static presentation of sensuous materials, unified color palette, exquisite joinery, and a juxtaposition of luxurious finishes with industrial components. We see fixed forms that suggest dynamism and machine-like elements designed for action. The movements of the ghosts prepare us to understand the lived experience of these pieces. The exhibit designers astutely introduce us to the parts before the whole. The furniture and furnishings expose the tectonics and materiality that we will later recognize as the totality of Chareau’s masterwork, the Maison de Verre is revealed.

From the parts, we move to the whole; from the richly physical to the abstract; from the human scale of the furniture, to a set of drawings and models scaled to fit within our visual field. These objects draw us close and require careful study. The meticulous pen and ink drawings of the Maison de Verre, by Kenneth Frampton and students, offer up both knowledge and mystery. The private spaces of the house, in particular, defy easy understanding. We puzzle over the crisp lines of the plans, wondering how they translate into spatial volumes for human occupation and use.

The next piece of the exhibit answers our questions with a remarkable combination of technologies. We enter a small, darkened room where a large spotlighted plan occupies the center of the floor. A large monitor rolls across the plan, displaying a sequence of section cuts revealing the spatial development of the various zones. As the section scrolls across the mysterious spaces, videos appear on the side walls, revealing teasing glimpses of the private life of the house. A towel-clad man and woman slide open secret windows, turn on water, step out of showers, inviting us into intimate domestic moments. The rapid oscillation between the intellectual experience of matching section with plan and the sensuous experience of the videos is delicious.

Now that we have been initiated into the experience of the house and artifacts, it’s time to learn the history of the designer. Exhibit curator Esther da Costa Meyer’s cultural history is offered in a traditional display of photos and text. We slow down, look carefully, and read. We learn the history of Pierre Chareau and his wife and partner Dollie, situated within the context of World War II and its aftermath. We learn of Chareau’s cultured circle through his commissions and collection. Probably the greatest revelation of this history is why this brilliant designer’s career was so brief. Da Costa Meyer weaves Chareau’s Jewish identity through the story of his clients, his flight from the Nazi occupation of Paris, the loss of many works to the Nazis. In the United States, Chareau failed to successfully restart his architecture and design practice. Photos and text tell the disturbing story of his derailed career in intricate detail, revealing a chapter of Nazi history through a focus on Chareau’s life and work. This section of the exhibit brings forth deep emotions, invoking anger and sorrow in the visitor. We can no longer just view the Maison de Verre as the delightful visual, spatial, tactile, playful environment that we have been introduced to. Our understandings of the house and its designer are now shaded by a sense of loss. However, this is not to be our last impression. The exhibit designers created an immersive experience that nearly knocked this visitor out of her seat.

A large dark cube is lined with major pieces of furniture from four interiors. The center of the space is occupied by four swivel seats and four sets of goggles. When I took a seat and donned the goggles, I was instantly in the Grand Salon of the Maison de Verre. The view was brilliantly beautiful and wildly disorienting. Thrust from the stable reality of the museum into the virtual reality of the house, the experience was breathtaking. This was not, however, a seamless experience. After touring each virtual room, the visitor had to doff the goggles, remember how to walk in real space, move to another chair, and don a new set of goggles to enter another virtual room. The word experience is key. This is not just about looking around; the technology enables an embodied experience of place. This experience gives a tantalizing look into the future of exhibit design. Diller Scofidio + Renfro utilized virtual reality to transport us to another time and place. This was a vivid visual and kinesthetic way of learning about the subject of the exhibit. This technology is in its early stages, and we can look forward to developing capabilities to increase the power of the experience. Current virtual reality technology affords the possibility of interacting with objects in the virtual environment. This aspect of the technology could transform the virtual reality experience of a space from a merely visual treat into an exploration yielding a kinesthetic experience of place. This would have been particularly meaningful in the case of the machine-like Maison de Verre, with elements for the visitor to manipulate.

The exhibit designers understood that virtual reality is one element of the exhibit designer’s toolkit. Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s achievement lies in their use of a spectrum of different platforms, from high tech to low tech, to engage visitors’ eyes, minds, and bodies in the act of learning. We glide gracefully around dim two-dimensional black and white shadows that morph into brightly lit three-dimensional objects. We peer closely at abstract models and drawings, alternating intense focus with short shuffles along the wall. We stand entranced by the kinetic sculpture of the plan/section machine with its video peep-shows. We move lugubriously through the saddening, maddening documents that break through the space and time of the museum to transport us to World War II era Europe and New York. And we plunge into the spaces of the house, as virtual reality catapults us from our seats in the museum to sunny spaces in happier times. The exhibit designers skillfully choreographed a series of experiences that stimulate curiosity and reveal information in carefully calibrated doses. This collaboration between curator Esther da Costa Meyer and exhibit designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro offers multi-faceted ways of knowing a complex architectural and cultural history.

This double movement of isolation and contextualization is achieved in the first gallery through moving images of silhouetted figures that appear as shadows of people and furniture projected on a shade-like backdrop. On one side of this backdrop, these images depict the silhouetted activities of daily life as if one were looking through a window with its shade drawn, while on the other side is furniture and its shadows. The use of projection becomes unabashedly contemporary in the second gallery, where virtual reality headsets offer 360-degree views of the interiors of Maison de Verre, Farhi Apartment, and Chareau’s own residence. In this gallery, one first finds several works, such as a chair and table, arranged on a raised matte-black platform; then, while looking at these pieces, one puts on the headset to find the same pieces in the same positions but now in situ, virtually. The effect is stunning, as is the third (and final) gallery, which focuses on the Maison de Verre by projecting a digital model on a large central screen. This screen moves forward and back as it displays a sectional progression through the house. On each pass, the progression stops at several locations and highlights in section an aspect of the house. At the same time, a short film begins to play a demonstration of that particular aspect of the house, such as opening metal louvers in the living room.

Walking out of the Jewish Museum after viewing the Pierre Chareau exhibit, one feels like one might have felt walking out of the Museum of Modern Art years ago, when the terms modern and contemporary were synonymous. Wonder and exhilaration in the use of new technology toward a new experience. Certainly, Chareau’s work is now historical, rather than new, but nonetheless it offers a relevant reminder of the project of imagining a progressive future. Chareau’s work and the design work of DSR also demonstrate that the Jewish Museum of New York, for the duration of the exhibit at least, eclipses MoMA as the institution most capable of offering this important reminder.

Hal Foster, “It’s Modern but Is It Contemporary?” London Journal of Books 26, no. 24 (2004): 23–25.

How to Cite this Article: Simon, Madlen. “Multiple Ways of Knowing Pierre Chareau,” review of Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design, designed by Diller Scofido + Renfro. The Jewish Museum, New York, NY, November 4 – March 26, 2017. JAE Online. December 17, 2017. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/multiple-ways-knowing-pierre-chareau/.