Measured in relation to its historical significance, Pierre Chareau's material legacy is vanishingly small. The canonical Maison de Verre (1932), a glass and steel-frame residential structure in Paris, meticulously restored by its current owner, is the sole survivor of his mere five built works. A few examples of furniture pieces by Chareau are held in museum collections, with the exceptionally rare remainder secreted in private holdings, and the archival traces slight and scattered. These facts alone would have made the comprehensive exhibition at the Jewish Museum, the first in the United States, a feat of scholarly probing and curatorial muscle. But through the combined intuitions of the curator, Esther da Costa Meyer, and the designer, Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the show accomplished something more elusive still—something like an act of conjuring.
The brief flowering of Chareau's work took place largely in interwar Paris, suspended between two global cataclysms. Married to a Jewish woman, his own heritage murky, Chareau did not escape the vast displacements of the second. After he immigrated with his family to the United States at the beginning of the 1940s, his career foundered, untethered from an haute bourgeois clientele and, more profoundly, orphaned from a perished aesthetic and intellectual culture. The exhibition sketched out the architect's cultural circles and included examples from the Chareaus’ notable collection of modern art. In exile, the architect's talent was undiminished, as evidenced by the remarkable small house he built for the artist Robert Motherwell on Long Island in 1947 (demolished in the 1980s), but it struggled to find new outlets.
Meanwhile, Chareau's critical reception suffered another, classificatory, rupture—between his architectural production, dominated by the Maison de Verre (Glass House), and his work in interior and furniture design. Da Costa Meyer aspired to recover an analytical, historical, and biographical unity within a lifework marked by disruption and fragmentation.1 Played out in the space of the exhibition, this reconstructive impulse had an archaeological effect. Chareau's production came across as embedded in a distinct milieu, both material and behavioral: an environment of objects and gestures. A display case for ephemera at the entrance opened onto a much larger platform, a unifying register that cut horizontally across the exhibition walls; waist high and detailed in wood, it had the domestic quality of a desk strewn with papers and documents. Across the room, the visitor could see a white screen on which shadowed figures in period clothes moved in furnished settings, absorbed by everyday activities—the drying of dishes, the shedding of coat and hat—like lamplight silhouettes against curtains drawn on private worlds.
As a furniture designer, Chareau was an ensemblier, a profession on the rise in interwar Paris, focused on the orchestration of complete interiors, including furnishings, lighting, wall decor, and the volumetric shaping of the spatial container. An “ensemble,” notes historian Marc Vellay, was “a spatial response to a given activity.”2 Like other renowned Parisian ensembliers, such as Francis Jourdain and Djo-Bourgeois, Chareau designed a number of comprehensive interiors, both for private clients and for exhibition. These survive only in photographs and the vibrant pochoir prints that were the publishing and promotional complements of the trade. Eventually, the concept of space as behavioral register of cultured domesticity was displaced by furniture piece as objet d'art and luxury commodity. In the exhibition, fragments of Chareau's assemblages could be discovered behind the moving-image screens, the pieces silhouetted there voided of projected inhabitants—neither period rooms nor individual objects, but haunted ensembles.
The furniture designs bring to the fore the issue of “functionalism,” which has long bedeviled efforts to assess Chareau's architectural modernity. His approach was premised on deft and daring juxtapositions of nominally industrial forms and materials (cast iron, hammered-steel plates, ball-bearing hinges) with elegant detailing and luxury materials (brocade, lacquer, exotic wood veneers) that bespoke conspicuous consumption. Likewise, his fascination with function and mobility—folding chairs and table leaves, rotating desk cabinets, sliding vanity mirrors—conveyed not so much the efficient economy of machines but the stylized abstraction of movement as such, rhetorical like gestures. While the burgeoning modern movement sought to recast its bourgeois clientele as the new subject of a fully rationalized mass society, Chareau's work assimilated the force fields of instrumentality and mechanization within the sphere of domestic intimacy, conceived as the last refuge of preindustrial humanism. His preferred shape was the semicircle—a line inscribed by the rotating gear and the sheltering arm.
In the second part of the show, the material objects of display were filtered through a spectrum of technological mediations. Photographs, the sole surviving traces of Chareau's interiors, lined the periphery of a black-box room; four of them were joined with isolated fragments of extant furnishings in virtual-reality-aided reconstructions. Through the virtual-reality lens, the objects arranged against dark walls like forlorn actors before a CGI screen could be restored to the fullness of their original settings. Modern architecture's imaginary was, as we know, profoundly affected by the optics of photography and film. This is especially notable in the photogenic qualities of the Maison de Verre, exploited by generations of photographers. Among the selection of such images presented in the show was a group of spectral glass-plate negatives taken by Georges Thiriet in 1932. As in the famous prints by László Moholy-Nagy, the negative was an unparalleled medium for conveying the aspiration to the immaterial in modernism's cult of glass and steel. Those lines of light on glass were echoed in the show by the lines of ink on drafting film in the adjacent axonometric projection studies of the building, done in the mid-1960s by a group of architects led by Kenneth Frampton. Architecture, one was reminded, always operates in modes of abstraction and technological mediation.
The show's culminating room was a tour de force of technological reanimation. A 3-D rendering of the Maison de Verre was projected on a screen that moved back and forth, inscribing a virtual volume, like a digital counterpart of the preceding axonometric (Figure 1). As the screen moved, the image stripped away vertical slices of the transverse section, pausing periodically. Each pause isolated a detail, which then alighted on the adjacent wall in a video sequence filmed at the actual site, showing a couple acting out the everyday motions of the building's occupants. The animated rendering captured the spatial fluidity of the structure, while the filmed movements—sliding partitions and turning gears to open windows, rotating shelves—performed the house as lived-in mechanism. But what became apparent as one watched the building's sectional denuding and reconstitution was how much Chareau's fascination with mobility had to do with the negotiation of interchanges. The viscous translucency of the glass-brick envelope, he wrote, was to “draw a veil between the inhabitants and the outside world.”3 Diaphanous perforated metal screens, retractable stairs leading to the boudoir, turntables built into walls for the discreet passage of refreshments between rooms—all these choreograph lines in space and ritualized movements as provisional thresholds of intimacy. Chareau's subjection of the machine to the exquisite purposelessness of decorum brings to mind the analyses of Theodor Adorno, the philosopher of bourgeois culture's demise. The abstract, evanescent gestures of tact, he notes, existed to build “space enough between [people] for the delicate connecting filigree of external forms in which alone the internal can crystallize.”4