Author Archives: Claire O'Brien

About Claire O'Brien

Claire O’Brien is the Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Decorative Arts, Painting and Sculpture.

The Breakfaster’s Conundrum

Few modern day breakfasters spend much thought on toast. Put the bread in the toaster and fetch it once it eagerly leaps into the air declaring it consumption ready. A century or two ago, the journey of the little toast that could was rather different. And for the upper classes, far more ornate. The fresh baked bread was sliced, placed in a fireplace toaster and carefully monitored as to not burn. Once the desired crunch was achieved, it was of utmost importance to maintain it, lest toast’s natural enemy, sogginess, take hold. An inevitability if simply piled on a plate. And so, the toast rack was conceived, providing a way to serve the crispest of toast in an elegant fashion. The design was simple: several rows were created by a metal scroll, separating each piece. The racks often holding 4-6 pieces at once. Convenient, accessible, structurally sound toast at your disposal. The only downside being that to retain crispness, heat was sacrificed with the opportunity for air to circulate between each piece.

Christopher Dresser. Manufacturer: Hukin & Heath, Birmingham and London. Articulated Toast or Letter Rack. 1884‑1885. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Charlotte B. Filbert Bequest Fund, BMA 2006.84

Christopher Dresser. Manufacturer: Hukin & Heath, Birmingham and London. Articulated Toast or Letter Rack. 1884‑1885. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Charlotte B. Filbert Bequest Fund, BMA 2006.84

Toast racks first appeared as early as the late 1700’s, but didn’t become common until Victorian times. Perhaps one of the biggest names in toast rack design, if not industrial design in general, Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) created quirky yet functional pieces to liven up the breakfast table. In this design currently on view in the American Wing, Dresser evokes the image of a Japanese bridge. He was a botanist fascinated by the arts of Japan, inspirations which can be seen throughout his work. After Japan opened its ports to Western trade in 1853, the influence of Japanese art and style swept through Western artists of the time, creating a phenomenon called Japonisme.

 

Archibald Knox. Manufacturer: Liberty & Co., Ltd.. Toast Rack. 1905‑1906. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Albert H. Cousins Bequest Fund, BMA 2015.150

Archibald Knox. Manufacturer: Liberty & Co., Ltd.. Toast Rack. 1905‑1906. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Albert H. Cousins Bequest Fund, BMA 2015.150

A contemporary of Dresser, Archibald Knox (1864-1933), was a designer of delicate metalware who would become one of the chief creative minds behind Liberty & Co., a London-based firm which played a large role in fostering the Art Nouveau movement. Like Dresser, Knox was deeply influenced by a particular culture. Unlike Dresser, Knox’s influence was not Eastern. Instead, he drew upon his own heritage, playfully incorporating Celtic knots, crosses and other interlacing designs that he saw scattered across the countryside while growing up on the Isle of Man.

The two toast racks differ dramatically. Knox’s dainty metal arms form small, elegant knots near each peak, giving the impression of a continuous, graceful line. Dresser’s, on the other hand, boasts the sturdiness one would expect of a bridge. The base curves, but the rest are 90 degree angles, a ball skewered at each intersection of the arms. Despite their stylistic differences, both men skillfully incorporated the aesthetics of distinctive cultures. Moreover, their work was not reserved only for the elite. Each also designed fashionable, effective and affordable pieces for the home. Inviting a new class of patrons to partake in the genius of their design.

Nowadays, toast racks are rarely seen on the breakfast table. Many are used as letter racks, as the design provides a convenient solution to postal organization. Perhaps they began disappearing from tables when breakfast became a meal consumed increasingly on the go. This on the go mentality could have caused a third option to arise between toast rack (cold, crisp toast) and plates (warm, soggy toast): eating directly from the toaster (warm, crisp toast). Convenient to be sure, but not nearly as elegant.

BMA Voices: The multi-purpose chair

Designer: Nils Holger Moormann. Manufacturer: Nils Holger Moormann GmbH. Bookinist. Designed 2007, this example 2008. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Gift of Jim Piper, Gift from the Estate of Aleeza Cerf‑Beare, and Bequest of Gertrude Rosenthal, BMA 2008.141. © Nils Holger Moormann GmbH

Designer: Nils Holger Moormann. Manufacturer: Nils Holger Moormann GmbH. Bookinist. Designed 2007, this example 2008. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Gift of Jim Piper, Gift from the Estate of Aleeza Cerf‑Beare, and Bequest of Gertrude Rosenthal, BMA 2008.141. © Nils Holger Moormann GmbH

Claire O’Brien, Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Decorative Arts, Painting and Sculpture

Walking into a furniture store today, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with choice when looking at seating options. The showrooms tout impressive displays of objects devoted to leisure and relaxation. Some are straightforward and exquisitely comfortable, while others are stylish but unwelcoming. Perhaps my favorites are the ones that are utilitarian in nature, serving multiple purposes at once. Cup holders are almost mundane when looking at possibilities of built-in fridges, speakers and even massage capabilities; eliminating almost every reason for the lethargic to leave the chair’s warm embrace. This idea of multi-purpose furniture is hardly new, but it’s fascinating to see its evolution.

The recently reopened American Wing has two great examples of such chairs. Although lacking a built-in fridge, the 1835 Reading Chair is an early example that mixes comfort and utility. There’s a certain air of regality about it, which is only right as it was an imitation of a design made for the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III. The handsome armchair has a walnut frame and a black tufted leather cushion, adding to an appearance which seems to demand to have kingly work done in it. By far, the most interesting aspect of the piece is the adjustable bookstand which can be moved to accommodate both those left handed and right handed. The stand provides a convenient place for writing all of those laws and is a perfect rest for particularly heavy books. All that royal work has you toiling late into the evening? Fear not, it is equipped with a candlestick for all of those all-nighters.

Reading Chair. c. 1835. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of John Beverley Riggs, BMA 1997.459 s

Reading Chair. c. 1835. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of John Beverley Riggs, BMA 1997.459

Perhaps less comfortable, but equally fascinating, is Nils Holger Moormann’s Bookinist, 2008. The quirky chair is reminiscent of a push cart, sporting a large rubber wheel front and center, creating a portable workstation. It is very much a self-contained unit, full of hidden storage and whimsical objects. An estimated 80 paperback books can be shelved in the chair. Tired of reading? Then open the compartment containing a magnifying glass, notebook, bookmarks, pencils and a pencil sharpener. Getting too dark? Simply flip the switch for the jaunty lamp. Thirsty after all that reading? Take advantage of the handy cup holder.

Designer: Nils Holger Moormann. Manufacturer: Nils Holger Moormann GmbH. Bookinist. Designed 2007, this example 2008. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Gift of Jim Piper, Gift from the Estate of Aleeza Cerf‑Beare, and Bequest of Gertrude Rosenthal, BMA 2008.141. © Nils Holger Moormann GmbH

Designer: Nils Holger Moormann. Manufacturer: Nils Holger Moormann GmbH. Bookinist. Designed 2007, this example 2008. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Gift of Jim Piper, Gift from the Estate of Aleeza Cerf‑Beare, and Bequest of Gertrude Rosenthal, BMA 2008.141. © Nils Holger Moormann GmbH

Both of these diverting chairs have made me drastically re-evaluate my expectations for furniture. I now appreciate a certain versatility in furniture’s function, wanting more than mere places of rest for the weary. It will definitely be interesting to see how the latest innovations influence future designs. Maybe we really will never have to get up – a dangerous idea indeed.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.