Rococo: The Continuing Curve 1730–2008

Release Date: 
Friday, February 15, 2008

Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Presents “Rococo: The Continuing Curve, 1730 – 2008”

In March 2008, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum will present “Rococo: The Continuing Curve, 1730 – 2008,” a groundbreaking exhibition exploring the Rococo style and its continuing revivals up to the present day in multiple fields, including furniture, decorative arts, prints, drawings and textiles. On view in the first- and second-floor galleries from March 7 through July 6, 2008, the exhibition charts the progress of the Rococo style as it radiates from Paris, travels to the French provinces, migrates to other European countries and later crosses the Atlantic to the United States. The exhibition examines the forms of this free-spirited 18th-century style, tracks reappearances in Art Nouveau and continues its exploration through the 20th and 21st centuries.

“Rococo: The Continuing Curve” is organized by Sarah D. Coffin, head of the Product Design and Decorative Arts department; Gail S. Davidson, Ph.D., head of the Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design department; Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design; and guest curator Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, a specialist in French decorative arts. This is the first museum survey of the Rococo style and its ongoing resurgence that traces how the design movement was born, re-born and transformed across centuries and continents. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue explore these regional and chronological modifications and study the social, political and economic influences that affected the migration and assimilation of the Rococo style.

“This exhibition perfectly articulates the mission of the museum to explore the continuum of design as it surveys the Rococo style across centuries, continents and media,” said director Paul Warwick Thompson.

Rococo design—exuberant, opulent, theatrical and sensuous—emerged in Paris during the Regency of Philippe d’Orléans (1715–1723) in reaction to the imposing Baroque style of Louis XIV’s Versailles court. The term “Rococo,” first coined in the early 19th century, is derived from the French “rocaille” (the shell-laden rockwork often found in grottoes) and the Italian “barocco” or Baroque; it came to signify an aesthetic, as well as a lifestyle, spirit and attitude, which preferred wit and pleasure to pomp and circumstance.

The exhibition begins with the work of the prodigious designer and silversmith Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, whose creative genius, production and publications were a wellspring of ideas for candlesticks, tobacco boxes, sword hilts, watch cases, wall paneling and furniture, through prints made after his designs. The epitome of Rococo design, an extraordinary silver tureen designed by Meissonnier for the Duke of Kingston, on loan from the Cleveland Museum of Art, which features a body and cover comprised of shell, crayfish and vegetable forms, will be on view in the exhibition alongside Meissonnier’s “Oeuvre” and other 3-D objects.

The gallery also presents other expressions of high-style Rococo design in 18th-century France, with opulent silver, gold and other precious objects, exquisite furniture, ceramics, design drawings and prints, lavish textiles and wallcoverings. “Rococo: The Continuing Curve” will display many of the finest works from the high Rococo period, including Sèvres porcelain, from vases and basins to teacups and tureens; gilt furniture and tables; and extravagant metalwork, such as silver candelabra. Also on view will be drawings and prints of François Boucher, the most famous painter of the Rococo period, who was also intimately involved with the creation of Rococo decorative arts objects.

The exhibition will track the style’s movement to provincial centers across France, placing particular emphasis on fine ironwork from Nancy, France. A highlight of this installation will be the display of fine Rococo ironwork from Nancy’s Place Stanislaus (a World Heritage site), alongside a specially commissioned video, which will allow viewers to imagine standing in the middle of the town square, surrounded by marvelous ironwork.

The burgeoning taste for the Rococo style across 18th-century Europe will be demonstrated through important period objects from England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the Iberian Peninsula. On view will be chairs and mirrors, porcelain and silver, borrowed from international museums and collections—including works from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, not previously seen in the U.S.—as well as many works from Cooper-Hewitt’s own collection.

In each locale, certain characteristics of the original style were modified or refined according to the aesthetic sensibilities and tastes of the day. The migration of the Rococo style across Europe, through craftsmen and objects, especially the snuffbox, will be explored. Snuffboxes—vanity objects often given as royal or aristocratic presentations to ambassadors to store the newly-fashionable powdered tobacco—captured the imagination of designers and took a variety of forms that fit into the palm of the hand. Several snuffbox varieties will be on view, including gold boxes outfitted with diamonds, boxes topped with watches and a porcelain box. Also on view will be such Rococo fashion and accessories as watches, shoe buckles, fans, brooches, necklaces and other jewelry spanning the 18th to the 21st centuries.

The second half of the exhibition outlines how Rococo design emerged as a conscious reinterpretation or revival of the original style. Rococo design first enjoyed a revival in early 19th century England, due in part to the enthusiasm of the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent and George IV). He commissioned lush silverware, furniture and interiors, delighting in the exotic and fanciful. Several works from this time period are presented in the exhibition.

In mid-19th-century America, new technologies facilitated an outpouring of furniture and decorative arts objects with lavish curves, which were ideally suited to the Victorian parlor. Curvilinear parlor pieces such as a ‘causeuse’ love seat and the undulating floral furniture works of John Henry Belter, which were particularly popular in America’s southern states, highlight this section. Prime examples of other bent wood and papier-maché chairs are also featured from this period.

Some of the most expressive re-interpretations of Rococo occurred during the late 19th- and early 20th-century Art Nouveau movement in France, Belgium, Germany and the United States. The single most important influence in the development of Art Nouveau graphics and decorative arts was Japanese prints with their asymmetrical compositions and their glorification of the natural world. Superb examples of Art Nouveau design that reveal the influence of nature will be on view, including exquisite Louis Comfort Tiffany vases; lamps and gourds by Emil Gallé; and jewelry by René Lalique.

The Rococo re-emergence appeared in the graphic arts in the late 19th century and the enormous production of posters planted the movement into the public’s conscience. Examples of posters by Alphonse Mucha, Toulouse-Lautrec and the Belgian designer Henry Van de Velde also will be on view. Van de Velde’s celebrated “Tropon” poster, a recent Cooper-Hewitt acquisition, features vibrant colors and a dynamic design of sinuous curving lines.

In the 20th century, rather than an integrated movement, Rococo inspiration appears in the work of individual designers, including Alvar Aalto, André Dubreil, Carlo Mollino, Gerald Summers and Verner Panton. In reaction to modernism’s classical symmetry, contemporary designers often employ natural materials, asymmetrical forms and sensuous curves. The rise of new materials, such as plastic, also enabled 20th-century designers to conceive and execute their flowing designs, as seen in the mass production of Panton’s stacking side chair. The radical new treatment of traditional materials also encouraged and sparked new designs, as evident in the renowned American glass blower Dale Chihuly’s experiments with glass, which enabled him to create his lyrical forms.

Rococo’s “S” curves are supremely evident in chair designs of the late 20th century, and the exhibition showcases prime examples, including Ron Arad’s “Looploop” chair, Frank Gehry’s “Cross Check” and “Bubble Chaise,” and late 1990s furniture design by Tom Dixon and Marc Newson.

Graphic design of the mid- to late 20th century also contributed to the culture of the curve. Designers, including Wes Wilson and Peter Bailey, appropriated ideas and imagery from Art Nouveau graphics, merging word and image across surfaces that writhe with sinuous lines and intense colors. Among the other works on view in this section are a number of poster designs by Ralph Schraivogel, as well as textile designs by Jack Lenor Larsen and surface design by Nicolette Brunklaus.

In the first years of the 21st century, the Rococo style has appeared wholly, in part or remixed with characteristics from other movements in the work of many young designers, particularly those from the Netherlands and the United States. Highlights in this section include designs by Marcel Wanders, Tord Boontje and Ted Muehling, all of whom incorporate Rococo’s nature-based asymmetrical forms, theatricality and sensuous curves into their work.

Cooper-Hewitt will publish a full-color catalog with essays by the exhibition curators, Coffin, Davidson, Lupton and Hunter-Stiebel, in addition to contributions from leading Rococo scholars, Reinier Baarsen, Jason Busch, Peter Fuhring, Melissa Hyde and Ulrich Leben.

“Rococo: The Continuing Curve, 1730-2008” is made possible in part by the Mondriaan Foundation.
The exhibition is also made possible in part by The Grand Marnier Foundation, Kay Allaire, the Consulate-General of The Netherlands, Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and an anonymous donor.
Media support is provided by Smithsonian Magazine.

About the Museum
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution is the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. Founded in 1897 by Amy, Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt—granddaughters of industrialist Peter Cooper—as part of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the museum has been a branch of the Smithsonian since 1967.

Cooper-Hewitt is located at 2 East 91st Street at Fifth Avenue in New York City. Hours are Mondays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Fridays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Public transit routes include the Lexington Avenue 4, 5 and 6 subways (86th or 96th Street stations) and the Fifth and Madison Avenue buses. General admission, $15; senior citizens and students ages 12 and older, $10. Cooper-Hewitt and Smithsonian members and children younger than age 12 are admitted free. For further information, please call (212) 849-8400 or visit The museum is fully accessible.
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