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Design Notes

Polishing a Tradition

Italian furniture is getting new respect for its contributions to the decorative arts.

November 08, 2001|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Italians have always taken their furniture for granted," says Fausto Calderai, historian of Italian furniture from Florence, Italy. "Furniture was considered nice but a minor art form, not a superior one like painting or sculpture. Since the decorative arts were everywhere, they weren't seen as that important."

This despite the fact that the world auction furniture record is for a piece of Italian furniture: $15.18 million for the so-called Badminton Cabinet, circa 1725, at Christie's London in 1990. Calderai will lecture on Italian furniture Nov. 17, at an all-day seminar titled "The Grand Tradition of Italian Furniture, 1550-1900" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Things are changing in the field of historic Italian decorative arts, Calderai says. "In the last year, some scholarly books have been written and documents have been translated about Italian furniture, so now it's seen as more important. There are several things to remember when looking at Italian furniture. The aspect of sculpture in it is vital. It was never designed just for function as much Anglo-Saxon furniture was. Beauty was always necessary. And the furniture is always tied to the architecture of the time."

Martin Chapman, curator of European decorative arts at LACMA, agrees that interest is growing in Italian furniture. "Even the Parisian dealers are starting to sell it," he says, laughing. "What makes Italian furniture so interesting is that different regions had different responses to its design from the Renaissance through the 19th century. Unlike French furniture, which follows a strict program, Italians did whatever they wanted to. I think we respond to that exuberance."

Calderai gives examples of this diversity: the great artistic freedom of 18th century furniture from Turin, the Medici influence in Renaissance Florence, Baroque furniture in both Rome and Florence, and 18th century Venetian furniture that incorporated ideas from all over the world. "It would be difficult to consider any Italian furniture provincial," he says.

In addition to the talk by Calderai, the seminar will feature a tour of LACMA's Italian furniture collection, conducted by Chapman. "Among others, we'll see two pieces from 18th century Turin, one by Pietro Piffetti (circa 1700 to circa 1777) who is arguably the greatest cabinetmaker in 18th century Italy," he says. Also at the seminar, Catherine Hess, associate curator of decorative arts at the J. Paul Getty Museum, will lecture on 19th century Italian furniture and take attendees on a walk-through of the Getty collection in Brentwood.

Registration for the seminar before Nov. 17 is $60; $50 for Decorative Arts Council members; $75 at LACMA on the day of the event. A box lunch is included. Call (323) 857-6528 for more information.

The Italians aren't the only ones who feel that furniture, sculpture and eccentricity are compatible. Contemporary Japanese artist Sumio Suzuki, 39, creates furniture that Rene Magritte probably would've been happy sitting on. Chairs have ears, cabinets have lips and stools fit the contours of backsides.

"Suzuki designs all these pieces himself, and then three Indonesian craftsmen carve them for him. He moved from Japan to Bali to be near good materials and craftsmen," says Ko Goto, owner of Dan Gallery, where Suzuki's works may be seen through December.

"He works in teak, rain tree and banana-colored jackfruit woods," continues Goto, "but he only uses wood that's been thrown away. That way no trees are cut down, and the wood's been aged, dried and has a wonderful patina."

Suzuki especially likes using the roots of palm trees that are left over after a palm is felled. He collects the roots, some of them weighing as much as 300 pounds, cuts into them, makes them into bowl shapes and then figures out what he's going to do with them.

"He says that when he looks at the raw material, it tells him what to do. For example, one material had a hole in the center, so he crafted an ear around the hole. Lips and ears are almost his logos," says Goto. This aspect of whimsy is also found in a chair with carved flowers on each side. It's meant to gently make fun of royal thrones festooned with flowers.

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Dan Gallery, 7966 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 782-0080, is open Tuesday through Saturday and is the only venue for Suzuki's work other than his own gallery in Bali.

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