I’ve Been Working on This Chair When I Should Be Doing Other Things

Having a degree in music and being a fan of Wagner’s operas means that I get to drop the word Gesamtkunstwerk in casual conversation around the house. Most often translated as “total work of art” it has, when applied to architecture, come to mean a control freak fantasy of designing everything in the house down to the paperclips.

The English architect C.F.A. Voysey (1857-1941) caught the Gesamtkunstwerk fever early in his life and drew up all furnishings down to the desk accessories in the houses he designed for clients. When I spotted some of the quirky chairs he produced in the years before WWI, I knew I wanted to set about replacing the random dining room chairs in our living room with a sextet of Voysey’s “One-Heart” chairs. I liked the strange devil-like horns, the fuddy-duddy heart, and the odd hexagonal, tapered legs. Voysey used the heart motif almost to excess in his work, so much so that his client H.G. Wells made him invert the symbol to make a spade.

I’m almost finished with the prototype that I based on a photo and from a measured drawing of one of Voysey’s “Two-Heart” chairs, by woodworker Nancy Hiller. The last step will be to weave a rush seat insert. Thankfully Los Angeles hosts not one, but two caning and rush seat supply shops–Franks Cane and Rush Supply and Cane and Basket.

Voysey’s original chair has an eye-catching dovetailed back splat. While aesthetically pleasing the design is a woodworking no-no as it involves grain tied together in two different directions with no allowance for wood movement. On most of the originals, unsurprisingly, the back has split. I omitted the dovetails in my Voysey chair remix opting for an unglued mortise instead. This small detail illustrates why designers and craftspeople need to be in dialog with each other.

Voysey said, “To produce healthy art one must have healthy surroundings; the first effort an artist should make is to sweep ugliness from him.” In our degraded and utilitarian times I’ve come to the insight that the pursuit of beauty is a good thing in itself and a moral obligation. Have a look around our cities and the places we live and work and you’ll see a whole lot of ugly. How depressing that art and music are some of the first things on the austerity chopping block. In our homes and communities we need to start sweeping away the ugliness and get to beautifying. We need to stop telling our children and young people that art is a waste of time. We need to plant gardens, make music and build happy, healthy and beautiful places to live and work.

A Brief History of Cat Art

Cat drawing by Arthur Tomson.

The cat art meme lords of the present day interwebs aren’t anything new. Over the weekend I was thumbing through a digital copy of the 1894 issue of The Studio an Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, a highbrow art, architecture and craft periodical published in England and the U.S. between the years 1893 and 1925. After several hundred pages of some daring, racy and avant-garde stuff I was surprised to find a review of an exhibition of the cat art of a Mr. Arthur Tomson,

It has been recognised that he has, amongst contemporary painters of cats, eminently succeeded in expressing the suppleness of their action, their grace, and fascinating waywardness. His illustrations to a charming book of poems “Concerning Cats,” contributed to and selected by Graham R. Tomson, at once placed him in the ranks of the masters of this particular branch of animal painting. Those who are acquainted with the work of Burbank, the English painter of cats, Gottfried Mind, called the Raphael of cats, Hokusai, the Japanese genius, the Dutch artist Cornelius Wisscher, Delacroix, whose sketch-books were full of studies of cats, and J. J. Grandville, will understand how completely Mr. Tomson’s work justifies the position it takes amongst the work of these artists.

Would that the latest edition of Art Forum dedicated a few paragraphs to the contemporary masters of cat art. Not wanting to wait for that slim possibliity, I thought I’d take a closer look at the review’s short list of cat artists of the past.

Gottfried Mind painting.

Let’s start with Gottfried Mind (1768 – 1814) the “Raphael of cats.” An autistic painting prodigy, Mind painted cats not from life but from memory hours after he saw witnessed their antics. Other than the occasional bear, Mind focused almost exclusively on cats.

Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾 北斎 (1760-1849) painted a lot more than just cats. His work reached the West at a time when there was an interest in all things Japanese.

Cornelius Visscher 1629-1658 was a Dutch Golden Age engraver. His 1657 print Cat Sleeping has a bit of an Albrecht Dürer vibe.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) is the most famous of this short list of cat artists. He liked to fill the margins of his sketchbooks with cats and, as you can see from the examples above, his work shows the hand of a masterful artist.

J. J. Grandville (1803-1847) a French caricaturist, wins the award for wacky. His anthropomorphic cat series makes him the best candidate for the title of 19th century cat meme lord.

I couldn’t find much info on the English painter “Burbank” mentioned in the article other than this frontispiece based on his work. Update: Root Simple reader Annie tracked down Burbank for me. She says,

I believe “Burbank” is J. M. Burbank:

A Favourite Cat

The Gourmand

There is a bit about “A Favourite Cat” here:

And this book has a section on Burbank

Thanks Annie!

Beyond the cat-centricness of this post, if you’re looking for a few hours to kill I can’t recommend The Studio enough. You can find the whole shebang here. Notable is how seriously the editors considered the art of casual pencil drawing, since it was a skill more people practiced in a time before cheap, candid photography. Also notable is how risqué the art of the Fin de siècle period was.

Saturday Tweets: Parsley Poodle Sandwich

For the Locals . . .

On that foot sign
Alissa Walker, one of my favorite journalists, covers urban design here in Los Angeles. She wrote a great piece on our nieghborhood’s iconic podiatrist sign. Walker agrees with me that we need much more than kitschy signs to mark our neighborhoods. She concludes,

We need more reminders of what history predates our presence. We need more streets that are designed to connect us instead of being fast-forwarded through in cars. We need more parks. We need more bus shelters. We need more actual village oaks.

Signs will come down, businesses will move, but it’s the places we create to welcome everyone that truly strengthen our neighborhoods. Let’s build more of them.

Amen.

Medieval manuscripts at the Getty
While we live in the allegedly hippest neighborhood in America, home of the Silver Lake Shaman (Please read Jenni Avins hilarious article on the Silver Lake Shaman phenomenon), Kelly and I are more Medievalists than fans of the straw hat, $10 juices and hanging houseplant accoutrements of the SLS. So head thee to the 405 freeway adjacent Getty for two exhibits of (mostly) illuminated manuscripts. We were there, in part, to look for source material for a new Root Simple publishing concept. Stay tuned.

Bats and Brews
This Wednesday we attended Friends of the LA River’s second Bats and Brews event. The evening began with a beer and taco at the Frogtown brewery followed by a stroll down to the LA River with a wildlife biologist armed with a bat detector. The river was beautiful at sunset and I got to see a bat skimming the surface of the water. I think that there will be another Bats and Brews event in August though they haven’t listed it on the website yet. Check back on the FOLAR website and come down to the river in August! Thank you Chelsea and James for the tip!

A Great New Resource for Preserving Your Analog and Digital Memories

LA Central Library Octavia Lab.

If, like me, you’re feeling guilty about those boxes of photos and videos rotting in the garage, there’s a great new resource: the Memory Lab Network.

Pioneered by the Washington D.C. public library, thanks to a grant there are now seven more libraries that have a lab where anyone can come to digitize analog materials and learn how to preserve digital resources. Those libraries are: The Karuk Tribal Library, California; Houston Public Library, Texas; Pueblo City-County, Colorado; Los Angeles Public Library, California; New Ulm Public Library, Minnesota; Boyle County Public Library, Kentuky; and Broward County Public Library, Florida.

Kelly and I just attended an introductory lecture at the Los Angeles Public Library which just opened a memory lab and maker space called Octavia (named after science fiction author Octavia Butler, a frequent user of the LA Library). In addition to memory lab resources, Octavia also has maker goodies including a laser cutter, cnc router, embroidery machine, 3d printers and scanners and much more. I can’t wait to get my hands on that equipment. But first I have to archive some old family photos and video tapes.

In her lecture, librarian Suzanne Im warned of a coming “digital dark age” if we don’t collectively figure out how to preserve CDs, digital files and analog tapes. She noted the recently revealed news that Universal Music Group covered up the loss of thousands of master tapes in a 2008 fire. To prevent such losses Im recommended the Library of Congress’ “3-2-1” approach, “three copies, stored on two different media, and one copy located off-site, preferably in areas with different disaster threats.”

Im went on to describe, something I’m really bad about, how to include photo meta data in your digital photos. She also noted the Library of Congress’ guide to personal digital archiving. And she mentioned the Great Migration Home Movie Project that, if you are African-American, will digitize and preserve your family’s home movies and audio tapes for free.

If you’re in Los Angeles you really should check out the new Octavia Lab at the Central Library. Library card holders can book a 2 hour session once per week. Jump on this opportunity early as I suspect it’s going to be popular. If you’re not near one of the cities with a memory lab, I’d suggest having a conversation with your local librarian to help you get started dealing with that mountain of photos you’re hiding somewhere.