Baroque and roll: The opulent style of French kings is making a comeback
Saturday 11 July 2009
Baroque is having a moment. It seems that the style that dominated Europe throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries with its dazzling expressions of wealth and opulence could turn out to be a surprising but perfect antidote to our gloomy, penny-pinching times.
Take a look, say, at the achingly hip interiors of the newly opened Mondrian South Beach Hotel in Miami. Its look was masterminded by Dutch design supremo Marcel Wanders, who likens the end result to Sleeping Beauty's castle. Both inside and out, the hotel is sprinkled with Baroque references, featuring plays on scale and shape plus oversized architectural and decorative elements – a huge pillar here or a giant chandelier there. Neo-Baroque chairs dot the edge of the swimming pool and the entire hotel has been imbued with a Baroque sense of the theatrical.
The re-emergence of the style today is in keeping with its history of finding life in a succession of vastly different eras. As the current exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum shows, Baroque is arguably the world's first truly international style. Following its birth in the Rome of the 1620s, it quickly spread, with the help of Kings, colonialists and the ever-expanding Catholic church, as far as India, the Orient and Latin America.
Baroque's potential as a powerful tool of communication was instantly recognised by the Roman Catholic Church. Originating from the Portuguese word, barroco, which means a misshapen or imperfect pearl, Baroque's visual language was all about size: maximalism reigned supreme. As it spread throughout Europe, Baroque's influence manifested itself in many modes of expression. Painting, architecture, sculpture, theatre, furniture design and music were just some of its forms; Caravaggio, Rubens and Wren are just a few of the acknowledged masters of the period.
While the grandeur of the Baroque period and the profligacy of Versailles may seem far removed from our daily lives, many of the period's innovations still grace our homes today. The world of Louis XIV influenced where we place our furniture and gave us some of the first examples of upholstered armchairs, day beds, over-mantel mirrors and table settings. When, in 1682, Louis XIV moved the French court from Paris to Versailles, its transformation from hunting lodge to one of the world's most sumptuous palaces started in earnest. Louis' ultimate goal was for France to overtake Italy as the centre of the civilised world and Versailles' elaborately decorated salons and apartments, vast gardens and complex court rituals were his modes of expression. As displays of wealth and opulence go, it does not get more over-the-top than Versailles, the most impressive and lavish Baroque palace ever built.
As such, Baroque has proved fertile ground for a whole new generation of contemporary designers keen to explore the period's shapes, motifs and sense of scale, but spinning them with a modern twist. Scottish design company Timorous Beasties takes a more literal approach. Its "Bloody Hell" wallpaper embraces the style's concepts of the oversized and ornate but couples it with a witty subversion of the idea of imperfection. On closer inspection, the seemingly traditional designs reveal scenes of a more gruesome nature, involving tanks and rifles.
Philippe Starck's by now classic Louis Ghost chair for Kartell is one example of how a Baroque-style piece of furniture has been successfully translated into a contemporary setting. This popular stackable armchair borrows a historic outline, but is constructed with contemporary techniques which use coloured polycarbonate injected into a single mould. Starck is not alone: the Italian architect Ferruccio Laviani also bucked the trend with his Bourgie table lamp, fusing high-tech materials with a reworked Baroque silhouette that does not look out of place in even the most cutting-edge interior.
Others are designing with a nod and a wink to the period with equally intriguing results. Perhaps it is no coincidence that The Netherlands, one of the first countries to adopt the Baroque style of furniture design in the mid-17th century, is leading the way again. Dutch designer Jeroen Verhoeven's Cinderella table is a spectacular and whimsical example of the old juxtaposed with the new. This stunning, birch-plywood piece is inspired by the shapes of 17th- and 18th-century tables and commodes he found in the library of Amsterdam's Stedlijk Museum, but was realised using computer-aided design and manufacturing techniques.
Baroque is not, however, out of the price range of a budget-conscious design shopper. It has filtered down to the high street with quite impressive results. At home store Graham & Green, for instance, there are metal Baroque bookshelves that look like picture frames, while one of Heals' most popular products is its "Louis" range, designed by Michael Reeves. This ever-expanding selection – that includes a bed, dining table, console and chest of drawers – employs the outline of a Baroque-style piece, but is made from cast or injection-moulded techniques and covered with veneered or lacquered finishes. So it seems there is yet another lease of life for this uniquely inspiring style.
'Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence' is at the V&A until 19 July. See vam.ac.uk/baroque for details
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