In 1899, when Andrew Carnegie and his wife Louise began construction on a state-of-the-art, sixty-four room mansion on Fifth Avenue, they could never have dreamed that a hundred years later it would become home to the nation's only museum dedicated to contemporary and historic design. At that time 91st Street was quite far north of where the city's elite lived but it offered the Carnegie's the advantage of space, including room for a large private garden - unimaginable now, but a rarity even then. The home received landmark status in 1974 and in 1976 it was reinvented as the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution named after the granddaughters of Peter Cooper, the 19th Century industrialist, inventor and philanthropist who founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York.
But let's get back to the present. When my fashion forward friend Betty suggested we go to Cooper-Hewitt to see their current exhibition "Set in Style" I thought it sounded like a fun excursion. I'm always up for a show and as my readers know, I like variety! What greeted us was a sparkling homage to the masters of important jewelry, Van Cleef & Arpels, a showcase of their creativity, innovation and technical skills and a testament to their influence on high fashion since the firm was founded in 1896.
To be sure, the 350 outstanding pieces of very fine jewelry were breathtaking all on their own. But for me it was the imaginative installation by the French studio of Jouin Manku that brought the exhibition to life. Working within the historical framework of the home, the design team used the living spaces to show off the glittering gems. The former dining room was reinvented with a table "set" with precious trinkets. The Conservatory featured a huge glass dome in which jeweled and lacquered butterfly brooches seemed almost to flutter against the garden backdrop.
The exhibition was divided into six distinct themes each with fabulous examples taken from Van Cleef & Arpels own archives and international private collections. The first room featured "Innovations" with the House's signature "Mystery Setting" being the prime example. A short video demonstrated the process of designing and creating gemstone jewelry where the actual setting is invisible. The "Mystery Setting" was inspired by antique micro mosaics and involves a hidden armature into which perfectly matched stones are slid and set. As well as being gorgeous to look at, these are exceedingly complicated pieces and a tour de force achievement for any artisan.
Also fascinating was the room devoted to "Transformation" jewelry - pieces that could be taken apart and re-worked to be worn in different ways. Like a necklace that looks like a zipper that can be turned into a bracelet (see right), or a bird brooch whose wings come off to be worn as earrings, or a golden Colonne Vendôme that is actually a lighter!
There was a gallery dedicated to "Nature as Inspiration" where flora and fauna were recreated using precious gems and gold and diamond snowflakes were far more appealing than the ones that covered New York this winter! Another gallery focused on "Exoticism" and the influence of travel to Asia and Arabia was reflected in forms and decorative themes like a peacock patterned box or a Buddha head brooch (see below). And still another explored Van Cleef & Arpels' influence on and by the world of fashion from geometric Art Deco to the groovy swinging sixties.
The exhibition wrapped up with a look at jewelry commissioned and/or worn by famous personalities. Van Cleef & Arpels accessorized celebrities from the Duchess of Windsor to Jacqueline Kennedy, from Marlene Dietrich to Princess Grace and many many others. Style setting women from around the world have long recognized the beauty and distinction of a piece of Van Cleef & Arpel jewelry as something that went far beyond mere adornment. While I may never be able to own such a treasure, I certainly enjoyed this glimpse into the rarefied world of very important jewels. "Set in Style" in on view at the Cooper-Hewitt until June 5th.
P.S. Tonight I leave on a buying trip to Paris so please stay tuned as I share my travel and culture adventure with you! A très bientôt!