March 22, 2015

A Visit to the Musée des Arts décoratifs

Located on the rue de Rivoli, in the western wing of the Palais du Louvre, is the Musée des Arts décoratifs, the Museum of Decorative Art and Design.  Founded in 1907 by members of the Union des Arts Décoratifs, the museum was closed for a major renovation in 1996 and re-opened to the public ten years later.  It is now a very popular destination with a fabulous permanent collection of furniture, decorations and objets d'art from the 13th century to modern times.  In addition, the museum also features special exhibitions and that was the purpose of my visit the other day.

Now on view in the main nave of the museum is "Piero Fornasetti: La Folie Pratique" the first French retrospective of the life and career of the fabulous Italian decorator.  Known for his theatrical and fanciful interpretations of utilitarian objects, Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988) left behind a massive archive and an extensive body of work, of which over one thousand pieces are on display here.

Fornasetti's trompe-l'œuil imagery drew from a multitude of sources but he is probably most famous for black and white faces, the sun, moon and stars, playing cards, antique Roman ruins, butterflies and Surrealist forms.

A painter as well as a decorator, Fornasetti worked in a multitude of mediums including fabrics, wallpaper, furniture, plates, trays, umbrella stands, scarves and folding screens.  He created interiors for private homes, casinos and the first class staterooms on board the ocean liner Andrea Doria!

Piero Fornasetti's career reached its apex in the 1960s and while his designs had become a little less popular when he died at the age of 74, his son, Barnaba, continued the production of Fornasetti objects at the shop in Milan.  Today we have seen a revival of interest in these whimsical wares with vintage Fornasetti pieces fetching very impressive prices.  And no wonder - these charming creations are not only practical - they're fun!

Moving across the courtyard and into the main building we come to the second special exhibition now on view.  "Déboutonner la mode" presents for the first time a collection of buttons acquired by the museum in 2012.  As well as over 3,000 examples of buttons, from the practical to the sublime, the exhibition also features one hundred female and male garments where, you guessed it, buttons feature in the design.

For most of us buttons are not something we generally spend time thinking about, unless we lose one.  Briefly, the first buttons were created in the 13th century and by the 17th century they had become status symbols.  Now, for the first time, buttons did more than just close an opening - they became decorative.  Made from a variety of materials ranging from the simple (wood, shell, glass, leather) to intricate creations of enamel, jewels, painted porcelain or silk passementerie.

By the 19th century, the position of the buttons on men's clothing became almost more important than the button itself denoting the degree of refinement of the garment and therefore of the wearer.

Women's wear at the time featured smaller buttons but more of them.  Buttons appeared on shoes, gloves and even lingerie and they became objects of coquetry and even seduction.  By the 20th century, women's clothing featured buttons according to "a secret geometry that is the key to aetheticism".  Now, designers like Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli and later Coco Chanel, used buttons deliberately and thoughtfully to create an overall "look".

With the invention of the zipper and other fastening methods, buttons have lost some of their popularity, but they have never gone away.  A beautiful button, perfectly placed, can still make or break an outfit and is a useful tool for fashion designers.

This exhibition seeks to bestow a new stature to the lowly button and gives it pride of place in the history of costume and fashion.  I know it's given me a new appreciation for these little objects of practicality and fancy!

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