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 Joel's Blog at Tools for Working Wood

Decorative Art and a Walk Through Central Park  


On a Sunday not long ago we took a stroll through Central Park. It was a nice fall day and with the leaves off the trees the glorious decorative architecture by Calvert Vaux and his successors rang clear as a bell. Most of the afternoon was spent sitting down while my son climbed Alice. The 1959 statue by José de Creeft is based on the original Tenniel drawings from "Alice and Wonderland" and is the most popular sculpture in the park. It was photographed hundreds of times in the hour or so while I watched my son play. As a kid I climbed the statue too and it's great that he can carry on the tradition. Next to the statue is the, now dry for the winter, model boat basin where Stuart Little piloted his sailboat in E. B. White's classic. Then we walked downtown through the park and my son stopped to climb every pile of rock we passed. The highlight of the walk for me was at Bethesda Fountain, where a performance group was doing this Fellini like opera(first photo). The giant bubble guy was fun too. However the real star in my mind is the terrace itself, build in 1864, where inside you can look up and see the wonderful ceiling of Minton tiles.
Why do I mention all of this. It's fun that's why. Imagine how dull all these places would be without the exuberant decorative surfaces. A year or so ago I was on Governor's Island and they had some big sculpture there made of I-beams in the middle of a field. The sculpture broke up the field and there was a big sign on it "Do not climb!" How much better is it to have objects the public can enjoy.

Since the Bauhaus movement of the early 20th century, furniture and architecture has become more and more severe and more and more uninteresting to look at. And cheaper. We have also lost critical mass in the decorative arts and producing carvings and sculpture in the quantity that decorates the Bethesda Terrace would be a major undertaking now. I'm buying wood for my next furniture project this week and it's going to be a simple piece, but with carved decorations on it so it hopefully won't look simple and will entertain the eye in addition to being functional.

N.B. Before you write to me and tell me that the Bauhaus and the post modernist objects are elegant and graceful in their own right and I'm just a Philistine I would like to mention in my own defense that yes some modern stuff is graceful in its form and simplicity. But it's a hard act to pull off and most isn't. Give me a wall of carved flowers any day. I think one big problem with furniture design today is that the decorative forms of the pre-twentieth century don't engage and seem dated to most people, but the post modern designs seem cheap and ugly. There has been wonderful twentieth century simple forms that exploit the beauty of the materials. And I love A+C furniture and Art Deco, although both forms really have their feet in the 19th century. Rietveld's furniture is both very easy to make, wonderfully simple, and 80 years on it still a modern feel of simplicity but continues to hold our interest. This, by the way, is the challenge of making modern furniture.

Tags:Historical Subjects,Misc.
Comments: 5
Hey Joel,
Enjoyed your thoughts on traditions even something simple like climbing on a statue. I fondly remember trips to the Museum of Science and Industry with the huge architecture created for the worlds fair. The Museum is loaded with buttons to push and wheels to turn for kids to see what they do in the exhibits. Full size planes soar the air above you in the rotunda,train engines call for you to touch and climb on, even a coal mine to explore when the steam whistle sounds. My father and mother took me, I have taken my children and grandchildren.Yes, some great traditions are still alive and well and should be preserved. Thanks for jarring the fond memories. Don

Are you familiar with Santiago Calatrava? I think his designs represent "modernism done right."
I don't think I have ever been in a Santiago Calatrava building and from a distance I think they look cool. But my guess is that up close and inside as a building I might have to work in every day, there doesn't seem to be small details that catch my eye.
There might be but I can't tell. Give me the Chanin Building or the Woolworth Building any day.
12/11/2012Doug from Duluth 

This is just one more reason I love your blog. Thanks for taking me on a weekend walk through the Park. You have given me many ideas for the next trip to the city. Bill and I love our new saws.
May you and your family have a Wonderful Holiday.
12/13/2012Eric Rusch Sr 
Great pictures Joel.
And I agree with your period perspectives.
Thank you.
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