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Deck The Halls Year Round With Decorative Art Museums

Decorative Art Museums, Applied Art Museums and Design Museums

(Pictured above) London’s Victoria & Albert Museum — the Grandfather of Design Museums — the greatest. the oldest and the largest


are museums that should not be missed. And to make visiting them even easier — those descriptions of, “Decorative, Applied Art and Design” are titles that are usually interchangeable. But why visit a museum you’re never heard of?


Most art museums display painting and sculpture that people visually admire Whereas Decorative Arts Museums display objects that people — from palace to peasants – use every day: furniture, silverware, ceramics, glassware, clocks, watches, candle sticks to candelabra – even jewelry.


No one can better state the importance of visiting Decorative Arts Museums than the design historian from whom I’ve learned so much Marilyn F. Friedman, the author of the recently published book, “Making America Modern: Interior Design in the 1930s” (a definite must for lovers of Art Deco). Ms. Friedman advises, “Design is both a prism through which to view history and a means of effecting change in the way we live. Museums dedicated solely to contemporary and historical design are important because they do not require design objects to compete for space and attention with art.” 


Chances are you’ve already visited Design Museums — within sections of the world’s largest and greatest museums.

We visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and the Hermitage to see paintings and sculpture collected by royalty and the rich. It’s just as fascinating – maybe even more so – to see how they lived and lavished themselves –- and what chair they used when they sat while gazing at their paintings. You get a good introduction to Design Museums in New York by visiting the Met’s 18th-century French Wrightsman Rooms. So while you’re visiting a painting in the Met by Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter, Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun, stop by the Wrightsman Rooms to visit one of Antoinette’s most cherished personal belongings on exhibit nowhere else in the world. It’s Marie Antoinette’s dearest possession – for her dearest possession — her exquisite blue velvet doghouse.


While visiting the Louvre — skip the lines for the more popular collections and visit the overly opulent, completely furnished state rooms of Emperor Napoleon III and Queen Eugenie – and you’ll probably be overcome by overdone. You can’t escape St. Petersburg’s Hermitage without visiting Tsar Nicholas II’s Neo-Gothic Library, which was also the office of his Revolutionary successor, Alexander Kerensky — for two seconds in 1917.


City Museums as Decorative Arts Museums – Like the world’s major Art Museums, many City Museums around the world serve as a good introduction to Decorative Arts Museums. And many City Museums have period rooms loaded with Decorative Arts. City Museums with period rooms are also environmentally sound — frequently saving great historical rooms from destruction by recycling them for posterity. In addition, I’ve yet to wait in long lines at a city museum.


My favorite City Museum is Paris’ Musee Carnavalet, which has many period rooms covering the history of French interior design from the 17th century through the 20th century. And they’re housed in two magnificent 17th-century townhouses – one even with an interior courtyard’s small French formal garden. In the mid 19th century, while the great urban planner, Haussmann, created the world’s most beautiful planned city by destroying much of the old Paris – many of the most beautiful rooms were saved and on view in the Musee Carnavalet.


Some Carnavalet period rooms even belonged to great historical figures such as Madame de Sevigne – the great 17th century diarist. The museum has many other design objects on exhibit dating from Roman Paris to the present.


As a New Yorker, I don’t have to go far by visiting City Museums viewing the period rooms at the Museum of the City of New York and the Brooklyn Museum. There’s a museum in Manhattan that’s great to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there – the Tenement Museum. You’ll even find period rooms in some small museums in smaller cities such as RSDI’s in Providence, Rhode Island.


The first major museum dedicated incorporating the many different forms of Decorative Arts from Ancient Rome to the 21st Century into a single building is London’s Victoria & Albert Museum – which is also the world’s largest and oldest Decorative Arts Museum. Prince Albert’s first international exposition in London in 1851, The Great Exhibition, spurred interest in science and design – the V&A was founded the next year, 1852. While the British Museum and National Gallery are on everyone’s first-time London sightseeing list – my favorite London museum is the “V&A.”


At the V&A, of course, you’ll see the expected ubiquitous period rooms but also with a twist. In the children’s annex you’ll even see dollhouses with miniature period rooms. While London’s National Gallery has some of the world’s most famous portraits – the V&A has an its own outstanding collection of the world’s smallest portraits in the form of miniatures ensconced in jewelry. And it has design from all over the world including furniture, tableware, glassware, ceramics, clocks, and even toys. It has an all-encompassing collection of textiles that complement their most expensive design category – jewelry. And the V&A has textiles that have graced the walls of rooms – and it even has wallpaper.


And if you can’t get enough of the V&A you’re in luck. It just opened its first branch — the V&A Dundee in Scotland.


Also in Kensington, not far from the V&A, is the new London Design Museum featuring mostly contemporary decorative arts and special exhibitions with a permanent collection that’s free of charge called, “Design Maker” – tracing how design changed the way we live — including the evolution of manufacturing with everyday objects including a Model T Ford, Sony Walkman, Olivetti typewriter and even a Coke bottle. It’s interactive so it’s great for families with children.


London has another great design museum that’s almost virtually unknown. (And by now you know — “Unknown = No Lines.”) Like Paris’ Musee Carnavalet, London’s Geffrye Museum – aka “The Museum of the Home” — has period rooms dating from 1600 to today in an 18th-century Georgian alehouse that in itself is worth the visit. However, you may have to wait just a little longer since it opens early this year after a two-year renovation.


Different Varieties of Decorative Museums — In addition to “All-Inclusive Decorative Art Museums” (covering all types and periods of design) such as the V&A and City Museums with period rooms — there are many other categories of “Decorative Art Museums.” Here are a few other categories of Decorative Arts Museums — “Single Style Decorative Art Museums “covering just a single design style – and usually a single period such as the 18th century or a style associated with a specific king or emperor such as “Louis XV Style” or “Empire Style” — associated with Napoleon. (Yes, the “King’s” home, Graceland is also a style setter representing the 1950s through 1970s.) The more unusual and rare are “Single Item Decorative Art Museums” and “Single Designer Decorative Art Museums.”


Single Item Decorative Art Museum — The most unusual “Single Item Decorative Art Museum” is in Vienna. It’s the Imperial Furniture Museum – a treasure trove of furniture from the Habsburg Dynasty. Besides the actual pieces – what makes it so extraordinary are the groupings in which the furniture is displayed — rooms devoted to just one type of furniture. There’s a room with only hat stands — many different hat stands from many different periods. In the room of wheel chairs – you’ll find a wheel chair that looks nothing like the 21st-century variety — Maria Theresa’s (Marie Antoinette’s mother) luxurious, padded and tufted wheel chair – looking more like a an elegant comfy side chair. The room which children gravitate to is what I call a “waste of time” – primitive chamber pots, elegant commodes and early toilets. The most unusual commodes are disguised as chairs with flip-up seats.


Jewelry Museums – Are the most luxurious and ubiquitous type of “Single Item Decorative Art Museum.” There are more of these exclusively exclusive jewelry museums that I ever imagined including the World Jewelry Museum in Seoul; the Schmuckmuseum — a museum of jewelry history in Pforzsheim , Germany; Museum of Silver Jewelry in La Barieza (Leon, Spain). In London you wait for hours to see royal jewelry – the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. Or you can just walk into the Royal Jewelry Museum in Alexandria, Egypt and see the collection of the Royal Mohammed Ali Dynasty. Here’s my skip-the-royal-jewelry-line tip – French Royal Jewelry is located in an ordinary gallery in the Louvre. And the gallery is nearly as ornate as the jewelry but never crowded.


Single Style Decorative Art Museums” – There are many single style Decorative Art Museums with many functioning as such without that official nomenclature and many others are obscure, but great. Here are a few of my favorites.


In Paris I always “Go Comando” and visit the Musee Nissim de Camondo –overlooking beautiful Park Monceau. It’s a private residence built by a banker in the style of Versailles’ Petit Trainon and filled with 18th-century period rooms that are so authentic, it’s frequently used as the location for many movies and television series set in the 18th century.


The Grand Trianon Palace Versailles – Skip Versailles’ main palace, which is sparsely furnished since the French Revolution got rid of royalty and their palaces’ contents. Instead head to an isolated corner in Versailles Park for the Trianon Palaces – each with its own garden. The Grand Trianon Palace was sumptuously furnished for Emperor Napoleon with dazzling Empire Style furniture. A true hidden masterpiece.


You never know where a design museum is going to turn up. In Rome, on the grounds of the Neoclassical Villa Torlonia – Mussolini’s home – is the incredible Art Nouveau “Owl House.” (FYI: Typical for Rome, dig deeper under the Villa Torlonia and there’s yet another surprise – the ancient Jewish Catacombs.)


The Villa Majorelle — Nancy, France — An Art Nouveau gem designed by famous French Art Nouveau (and later Art Deco) architect Henri Sauvage for Art Nouveau furniture manufacturer, Louis Majorelle. (If you’re looking for straight lines – go somewhere else.)


The Bauhaus Museum Berlin – For lovers of straight lines make a bee line for the Bauhaus Museum featuring design for furniture and other every-day objects – tableware, lighting fixtures, etc. by the great Bauhaus architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. The Bauhaus Museum exemplifies a major design trend that really took off in the 20th century – great architects going beyond designing the building — filling the rooms they created with furniture they designed as well as lighting fixtures and even tableware — such as tea services.


Vienna’s MAK Museum – “Museum fur Angewandte Kunst” Vienna’s “Museum of Applied Art” — devoted mostly to a single design period – Secessionist (Austria’s Art Nouveau) very influential in late 19th century to early 20th century.


Cubist Museum Prague – My favorite design museum dedicated to a single style is to a style that most people don’t even know exists – Cubist Architecture and its outgrowth, Cubist Furniture. Picasso and Braque are known for Cubist Painting and Sculpture. Prague takes Cubism to its unique next step – Cubist Architecture and Furniture. And it’s the only country in the world where you can see Cubist Buildings. In fact, the Cubist Museum is rightly housed in a Cubist Building, The House of the Black Madonna, in the heart of Prague. To get total immersion in Cubism eat in the Cubist restaurant, Café Grand Orient, on the second floor. My advice if you want Cubist food when you order any drink — ask for ice cubes.


Single Designer Decorative Art Museums” – St. Petersburg’s fabulous Faberge Museum featuring the designs by the firm of Peter Carl Faberge — jeweler to the Romanov Tsars – is housed in a superbly restored Romanov-era palace itself decorative gem. Faberge created one of the most original design concepts ever – the Faberge Egg. There are also other dazzling objects such as realistic flowers in a transparent vessel of water. However, the flower is an enameled fake and the water is pure crystal. (It fooled me.) This is the one Decorative Arts Museum where you’re guaranteed to face long lines so book far in advance.


While Decorative Arts Museums of all kinds have compelling exhibits – frequently the appreciation of great design starts before you even enter the museum. The design experience starts when viewing the building’s exterior be it Prague’s Cubist Museum — which is housed in an actual Cubist building — or the Faberge Museum housed in a Romanov-era palace. And frequently to appreciate the design of the design museum you have walk around it and take in all sides. The building’s exterior is often the best advertisement for its interior exhibits.


One of my favorite Decorative Arts Museum buildings is Budapest’s Museum of Applied Art by Odon Lechner with its exterior in the Hungarian version of Art Nouveau. Zaha Hadid’s spectacular flowing organic Seoul Design Museum even showcases its compelling modern design from a distance – it’s so dramatic. And there’s the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany – “starchitect” Frank Gehry’s first European masterpiece. (The entire Vitra campus cannot be missed. It’s a “Who’s Who” of buildings designed by the world’s greatest architects of the late 20th century and early 21st century including Buckminster Fuller, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano, Herzog de Meuron.)


All-Inclusive Decorative Art Museums” — Let’s return to the depositories of many different design styles over many different time periods of Decorative Arts all in one building — large comprehensive major decorative arts museum that literally do it all. Many of them are inspired by the grandfather of the All Inclusive Decorative Art Museum – the V&A.


You’ll be mad if you skip Paris’ MAD – (“Musee des Arts Decoratifs”) — Back to the Louvre – this time to a separate attached Louvre building that backs into it the larger museum. The MAD’s collection has a nice balance of period rooms from the 17th through the 20th century while also housing fashion and graphic design. The MAD’s basically French collection goes back to the 13th century. The museum’s piece de la resistance focuses on two uniquely French styles — Art Nouveau and Art Deco. In fact, the very term, “Art Deco” was derived from the “Exposition des Arts Decoratifs” held in Paris in 1925. A big drawer are the two major artists in glass, Emile Galle glass master of Art Nouveau, and Rene Lalique – glass master of Art Deco. (And if you like Lalique – Lisbon’s surprise – the great Gulbenkian Museum – has the world’s largest collection.)


The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague – Every time I visit Prague I return to Prague’s main decorative arts museum from which the separate branch — the Cubist Museum (above) evolved. There’s always a great special exhibit. My friend, Elyse Weiner, creator of the popular European iJourneys audio city guides, who visited after its recent renovation says, “Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts houses a great collection in a spectacular building. Its new permanent exhibit is spellbinding. It’s entitled, ‘The Stories of Materials’ and includes: ‘The Fire Arts’ – glass and ceramics; ‘Time Machines’ — clocks and watches; and ‘The Treasury’ – metals and jewelry and even toys – since toys ‘decorate’ children’s rooms. Extra bonus from the Museum’s windows: a unique vies of the tangled Jewish Cemetery behind.”


The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum – The official design museum of the Smithsonian – and you don’t have to go to Washington and brave the appalling malling crowds to visit. In fact, I hardly have to travel at all – it’s my neighborhood museum – better than even having a Whole Foods in the ‘hood.


While the Cooper Hewitt also draws its inspiration from London’s V&A and Paris’ MAD museum – technologically it’s firmly rooted in the 21st century. Out of all the Smithsonian museums – and all the museums I’ve visited in hundreds of cities in 117 countries – it’s the most fun for children and is a must see for families. The Cooper Hewitt, by far, is the most “memorable” museum (literally and figuratively) I’ve ever visited.


The Cooper-Hewitt is also the most interactive museum I’ve ever visited. As an Art Deco buff, my favorite exhibit was “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s.” While that exhibit closed on August 20, 2017 – I frequently revisit it whenever I want. To remember a visit to Cooper-Hewitt, all you have to do is download the entire exhibit – including the explanation cards — on a magic “pen” and then access the website on the admission ticket and transfer it to your cellphone forever!


Learning is a tradition at the Cooper Hewitt whether it masquerades as high-tech fun or opening a branch specifically dedicated to learning– an education center in Harlem. In fact, the Cooper-Hewitt even offers advanced degrees in design.


It’s only fitting that we also close with another quote from Ms. Friedman since she also knows the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum as a great center of education having received a masters in design there. “At Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, visitors of all ages can learn to appreciate the importance of design in their lives, and they can test their own design skills. On interactive tables, children and adults can pull up a specific object and then design their own version, which they can then save on a special pen designed for the museum. When visitors leave the museum, they return the pen, but they can download their designs to their own computers at home by logging into the museum website. They can also design their own wallpaper in an immersion room, which surrounds them with their own designs. As they are drawn into the design process itself, children can better appreciate and enjoy the exhibits of “real” objects displayed in the museum.”  

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