As an architecture buff, I am constantly drawn to those objects in Cooper-Hewitt’s collection that pertain to building design. Not surprisingly, I was intrigued by Cooper-Hewitt’s staircase model collection, and in particular this 19th century curved double staircase surmounted with individual busts of Voltaire and Rousseau. Architecture necessarily entails numerous design stages, from drawings to models, and many of these objects are represented in Cooper-Hewitt’s collection. The architectural model plays a crucial role in the evolution of a design scheme, helping both architect and client to envision and interpret a structure in three dimensions. Architectural models have been used since antiquity, and their resilience suggests the important role that models play in the design program. The staircase as a functional device has likewise played a crucial part in the evolution of built structures; like architecture itself, staircases have evolved to reflect their cultural, historical, and environmental milieus.
This object is particularly fascinating as it pertains to both architecture and to furniture craftsmanship. To a great degree, this model served to flaunt the talent of its maker, who was likely a skilled cabinetmaker who knew how to do veneers. Known as ébénistes, such makers were specialists in veneering ebony. We can identify the maker’s artistry in the complex joinery, the delicate curves throughout the model, its architectural detailing, and the model’s elaborate construction system. The maker also applies multiple veneers to the staircase to imitate a running carpet through an artful trompe-l’oeil effect. The model is constructed from various woods including mahogany, ebony, pear or sycamore, and oak. This object was the product of the compagnonnage guild system in France, for which masters would produce models such as Cooper-Hewitt’s to flaunt their craftsmanship. The Sèvres porcelain busts of Voltaire and Rousseau, placed at the highest point towards the top of the stairs, are a fitting conceit for the staircase model, which ascends towards the height of its enlightened thinkers. Like many of Cooper-Hewitt’s objects, this staircase model fuses both function and aesthetics; it is important to the greater narrative of the museum’s collection as it illustrates the creative discourse between different modes of design, from the decorative arts to architecture. You can visit this object and other staircase models in Cooper-Hewitt’s upcoming exhibition of models when the Museum re-opens in 2014.
You can read more about staircase models and compagnonnage in: Coffin, Sarah D. Made to Scale: Staircase Masterpieces, The Eugene & Clare Thaw Gift. New York : Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 2006.