Kat Murrell

Old Home and New Design

By - Jan 6th, 2011 04:00 am
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Admittedly, it’s fun to see inside other people’s homes; to see what they live with and what they love, to check out different senses of decor. Two exhibitions, both closing soon, satisfy this curiosity and create virtual time capsules of style separated by nearly one hundred years.

The Grand Pabst

Photo courtesy Pabst Mansion

The Pabst Mansion is regally decked out in its Christmastime finery through Sunday, January 9. The former residence of Captain Frederick Pabst and his wife, Maria, was completed in 1892 and is a hold-out of the stately age of Wisconsin Avenue, just west of the Marquette campus. The Flemish Renaissance Revival mansion continues to be restored, bit by bit, to its original self. Open year-round, anytime is a good time to visit and soak in the turn-of-the-last-century ambience, but the holiday decorations amp up the eye candy even more.

“Gilding the lily” is a phrase that comes to mind, as the interior details of elegantly decorated walls and ceilings, fine carving, paintings and furniture are further embellished by winter garlands and Christmas trees galore. And glitter. There really is a lot of glitz in this stately old home, but its remains in keeping with festive celebration rather than Vegas excess.

The home is a jewel box of late-nineteenth-century craftsmanship and a sampler of architectural approaches: the reception hall has tones of the German Renaissance; the music room is Italian Renaissance; the dining room is French Rococo, as is Mrs. Pabst’s parlour, held in readiness for leisure and conversation. Captain Pabst’s study, a.k.a. the smoking room, is a particularly intriguing place, diminutive by today’s McMansion standards. And dark, too. Thick glass rondels fill the windows and filter the sunlight, creating a wall of color. Epitaphs in the ceiling speak of personal values concerning friendship and matters of the heart. Upstairs, the English Regency-style bedroom of the youngest daughter, Emma, is the most recent success in restoration, with painstaking reclamation of furnishings and gorgeous pale green silk wall coverings. It’s a lot of detail, and maybe over the top for some tastes, but undeniably beautiful even today.

Modern at MAM

“The Mortal Coil bookcase” Ron Arad (1993). Photo by Philips de Pury & Co.

For a tour of more modern decor, catch European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century at the Milwaukee Art Museum before it closes on Sunday, January 9. This exhibition is a survey of Eurostyle treatment in couches, lamps, bookcases, and clever kitchen utensils; even the humble dish rack and watering can make interesting appearances.

The exhibition (reviewed in October by Lee Ann Garrison) is organized in stylistic groups. Objects of everyday life take on expressionist qualities, are imbued with postmodern properties, or most interestingly, wink with a surrealistic sense of play. An example in this latter category is a puffy cloud that hovers and breathes like something out of a Rene Magritte dream, belying its utilitarian identity as a light fixture.

It’s an exciting exhibition, but even after seeing it on several occasions, the one sour note that sticks out for this viewer is the Dyson vacuum cleaner parked in a solo vitrine. It’s hard to connect with this machine, usually seen covered in dust and cat hair, as an object of aesthetic delight. Maybe it’s the end result of that old dynamic between familiarity and contempt. But more likely it’s just that this piece lacks the sleekness and sensuality (apparent in most other selections) that makes this show so enjoyable.

European Design Since 1985 underscores the streamlined tendencies in our late 20th century lives, and it’s a fascinating contrast with the overt opulence of the late 19th century Pabst Mansion. The decoration of yesteryear emphasizes sumptuous surface embellishment, while today’s pared-down forms yield lines of supple, subtle distinction.

The Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion: A Grand Avenue Christmas — through Sunday, January 9, 2011. Click here for hours and details. European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century at the Milwaukee Art Museum — also through Sunday, January 9, 2011. Visit MAM online for hours and details.

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