Vase, France, ca. 1925, Jean Dunand

This object can been seen in the exhibition The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, now on view through August 20, 2017.

This vase is an outstanding example of the work of the early twentieth-century master metalworker, lacquerer, and innovator Jean Dunand. Born in Switzerland and educated there and in Paris, Dunand started as a sculptor, learning to work in a variety of materials including wood, stone, ivory, and metal. He turned to the decorative arts after 1902. Although his early designs were naturalistic, by the 1910s he embraced the strong geometric forms and designs that would become characteristic of the art deco style.

While Dunand worked with the sculptor Jean Dampt in Paris, he periodically returned to Switzerland where he studied the art of hammering metal with a coppersmith named Danhauer. In 1905 Dunand presented his first group of metal vases and objects, each formed and hammered from a single piece of metal in a technique called dinanderie. This term derived from Dinant, the name of a Flemish town known as a center of brassware production since the Middle Ages. Dunand would start with a circular sheet of metal such as brass, copper, pewter, steel, lead, or silver, hammering it first with a wooden mallet, then with a steel hammer. This laborious process required a thorough knowledge of the various metals and their physical characteristics and properties. Dunand began the hammering or chasing process in the center of a seamless metal sheet and ended at the edges, avoiding hitting the same point twice. Doing this changed the metal’s structure and hardened it. Dunand had to repeatedly heat the material to make it pliable again, sometimes requiring as many as thirty to forty reheatings to produce a vase or other form.

Fascinated by lacquer work early in his career, Dunand may have also been influenced by the Swiss enamelwork he saw in his youth. He also admired Japanese lacquerware, and in 1912 had the opportunity to learn the craft from a Japanese master, Seizo Sugawara, who was then living and working in Paris and sought Dunand’s advice about metalwork. In exchange, Dunand asked Sugawara to teach him traditional Japanese lacquer production and processes. Lacquer’s resilient luster requires patience, since multiple thin coats of lacquer are slowly built up in layers to achieve a final surface. Dunand not only learned the craft, but over decades refined it and experimented with colors, surface treatments, and design. Rather than slavishly imitating a Japanese aesthetic and motifs, he adapted the material to the bold forms and geometric treatments of contemporary art, as seen in the Cooper Hewitt’s vase of about 1925. This vase is a fusion of an understanding of the art of metalwork and the power of lacquer work, combining the texture of the hammer marks with an informed understanding of lacquer techniques to produce a cohesive design.

This essay is excerpted from the book Making Design, available through SHOP Cooper Hewitt.

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