Most histories of 20th century design, as epitomized by the Bauhaus and its progeny, exalt the brightly lit subject of function, while eliding mention of Modernism’s mystical and even Symbolist shadow, an origin opposite to the official Modernist Genesis story of design and a new visual style driven by the imperatives of industrial production.
A few great scholars of architecture, decorative art, and design, notably Joseph Rykwert and David Brett, trace with erudition and subtlety the Modernist obsession with function and progress back to roots consumed with form, symbol, and mystery. In David Brett’s slim, seminal book, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Poetics of Workmanship, he locates Mackintosh’s early inspiration in the European Symbolists, imbibed through the person of Jean Delville (1867-1953), the Belgian Symbolist artist who taught Mackintosh and his future wife Margaret MacDonald at the Glasgow School of Art in the early part of the first decade of the 20th century.
Joseph Rykwert’s illuminating 1968 essay, “The Dark Side of the Bauhaus,” reminds us that in its beginnings the Bauhaus owed as much to the artist and Zoroastrian devotee, Johannes Itten, who wore a monk’s habit while teaching color theory, and to Wassily Kandinsky, the Bauhaus’ greatest artist, deeply interested in Theosophy and the writings of Rudolf Steiner--who revived European interest in Goethe’s color theory-- as to the steely rationalism of Walter Gropius and, later, Moholy-Nagy. Itten’s practice and belief, according to Rykwert, was that “the whole personality must be involved in the work; the designer’s and the artist’s activity must involve the mind, the body, the senses and the memory, and the unconscious urges. Of Itten, Rykwert concludes his essay with these words, “It may be that [Itten] represents the Bauhaus at its darkest. But then, I think it was also the Bauhaus at its richest.” The Weimar Bauhaus of 1919 was a school bifurcated between the firmament of reason and the deep waters of something close to religious belief.
Exactly such depths, such shadows, both literal and metaphorical, attend the Modernist clarity and clean lines of interior designer Charles Burleigh’s design of a small Greenwich Village apartment. Rectilinear planes intersect or divide the space, yet their solidity is always in question, always floating. It is an almost Minimalist interior--Mies van der Rohe’s sternly beautiful leather daybed is there-- and yet there are dark corners one does not readily associate with the cult of plainness. Diaphanous cream sheer curtains both admit and mute the sunlight, fomenting an almost hypnotic feeling in this otherwise shipshape space. Colors stream in through art works: a red abstract painting, the lime green of sofa and vase, a silvery coverlet in the bedroom.
In Greenwich Village, Burleigh may have created a compact machine for living, but how much more intensely has he made a space--within the great city-- for contemplation.