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The Rich Were Different

A century ago, they really knew how to spend money.

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Josef Hoffmann's 1913 dining room for Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler, at the Neue Galerie.  

I f you want to know what God thinks of money,” said Dorothy Parker, “just look at the people he gave it to.” Well, God’s still on the job. The wealthy of our period are a great disappointment. Narcissism, greed, pride, self-indulgence, vulgarity, hypocrisy, and arrogance are not the problem; those come with the bank account. The problem is that today’s rich are doing too little with their narcissism, greed, pride, self-indulgence, vulgarity, hypocrisy, and arrogance. A great fortune provides its holder with that rarest of luxuries, a chance to bring outlandish dreams to life. To astonish.

The failure of the contemporary rich to bedazzle—to open, for a moment, a window on paradise—came home with special force at the Louis Comfort Tiffany and Josef Hoffmann shows now at, respectively, the Met and the Neue Galerie. For those who aren’t initiates, exhibits about interior design tend to be worthy but dull, like gardening in Connecticut; the embalmed rooms and display-bound objects inevitably look musty. But these two shows successfully capture something of the bliss to be found in the creation of a perfected place. Although Tiffany (1848–1933) and Hoffmann (1870–1956) were very different, each was powerfully drawn to the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” in which the various arts are not divided but joined together to establish a full-bodied alternative to humdrum existence. Tiffany was not simply a glassmaker, nor Hoffmann just an architect and designer. Each was a maker of enchanted worlds.

“Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall—An Artist’s Country Estate,” organized for the Met by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, focuses upon the dream palace that Tiffany built on Long Island Sound at the outset of the twentieth century. A lost masterpiece—it was destroyed by fire in 1957—Laurelton was one of the great American concoctions, a sublime folly even more remarkable than the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Tiffany oversaw the design of every detail of the eight-level, 84-room house and 600 carefully landscaped acres. A private Eden that was self-sufficient, with a farm, livestock, and greenhouses to supply every need, Laurelton mingled art and nature until they seemed almost inseparable. Around a resplendent Fountain Court, Tiffany filled rooms with hundreds of pieces of his work—typically inspired by natural forms—ranging from windows and glasswork to pottery and painting. He also placed his many collections on view, among them selections of Asian art and Native American basketry.

The exhibit includes numerous works from the house (whose contents were sold at auction in 1946), some borrowed from the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida. The rescued architectural elements allow the curators to evoke, for example, the Daffodil Terrace, a glorious outdoor room that invited the garden into the house and the house into the garden. The many examples of Favrile glass on display are, of course, particularly beautiful. With their wisteria curls and exotic flickers, Tiffany’s creations are a version of Aladdin’s lamp: Laurelton itself sometimes seems to be a phantasmagorical apparition emanating from his moody, swirling glass. Refusing to kowtow to the polite, historicizing fashion of the time, Tiffany at Laurelton was a wild, lavish, excessive, over-the-top visionary. He denied fancy nothing. He represented the America that was boundless, not puritanical.

The façade of his vaguely Moorish mansion mattered less than its succession of magical rooms, of which there are many wonderful photographs in the catalogue. A magpie who loved sparkle, color, and Orientalist effects, Tiffany, some might argue, created just a plummy pastiche. But they’d be wrong. There was nothing typical about his excess or his mix-and-match. His lavish rooms were both organized—the various objects lived well together—and hallucinatory. They had the floating logic of dreams, where one neither wants nor expects consistency. Not surprisingly, Tiffany liked to animate his fantasies, using Laurelton as a stage for parties that make Gatsby’s look like coffee and doughnuts. At a “Peacock Feast” he staged in 1914 for “men of genius,” a young woman dressed as Juno entered at twilight from the gardens, bearing a peacock. Behind her came a procession of women in Grecian robes, the first three of whom bore silver salvers holding stuffed birds. In the show, you can see the young Juno’s exquisitely barbaric headdress, which includes a peacock’s head.

Hoffmann’s imagination was more rigorous and rectilinear than Tiffany’s, and he did not work with the same financial resources. But during the period covered by “Josef Hoffmann: Interiors, 1902–1913,” the Viennese designer also brought to serious money an extraordinary and otherworldly dream. The show at the Neue Galerie, which was organized by Christian Witt-Dörring, contains four complete interiors and a handsome selection of Hoffmann-designed objects. Hoffmann, who liked to design every possible detail of a place, did not create rooms that were just lovely containers. The objects inside were themselves organic parts of the environment: You would no more remove them than cut off your fingers. If there could be something airless about his rooms—a criticism often directed at utopian thought—there was also something both fantastical and reassuring. His rational eye established clarity; his playful eye summoned fantasy. The symmetries dance. In Hoffmann, you always sense order, which lets you know you are taken care of, which in turn makes it seem safe to float and dream—thereby creating a sweet, almost childlike version of paradise.

Like Tiffany, Hoffmann had a luscious eye, and he depended upon gifted craftsmen in a high-end workshop who were captivated by new ideas about materials and furniture. (He was the artistic director of the Wiener Werkstätte.) And like Tiffany, he turned his back on the historicized styles favored by the ordinary rich. If Tiffany and Hoffmann drew upon certain advanced ideas developed during the nineteenth century, however, they were also irredeemably idiosyncratic in their approach to the modern. They insisted upon making something fresh, something that stood on its own, something that advanced the cultural conversation of the time. They would have never built just another mansion, filled with name-brand art, in Greenwich.

Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall—an Artist’s Country Estate
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through may 20.

Josef Hoffmann: Interiors, 1902–1913
Neue Galerie. Through February 26.


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