Friday, September 18, 2009
Craft and Modernity
Shockingly, my most satisfying acqusition in 2009 has not been a perfume - though it is perhaps not entirely unrelated to fragrance. Bear with me and find out whether you agree.
It was on ebay.uk that I stumbled upon the tea service pictured above. I had to have it and to my surprise managed to snatch it for a ridiculously low price (as in: "$500 for a bottle of the original 1882 Fougère Royale is a ridiculously low price"). You may not find the design overly impressive - functionalist ArtDeco, a typical 1940s bauhaus-inspired design - until I tell you that this set is actually older than Fougère Royale - pre 1872 to be exact. It is attributed (by Harry Lyons, Christopher Dresser: The People's Designer, p.205) to Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) perhaps the most radical and pioneering British designer of all times. A botanist by profession, Dresser promoted the adaptation of stuctural principles found in nature in design, as evident in his textile designs, while his boldly geometrical metalwork was also inspired by travels to Japan. Dresser wished to combine aesthetics, functionality and serial production, as well as being one of the first designers to sign his work, making himself a brand. He anticipated many bauhaus ideas by half a century. It's not surprising that Alessi still offers Dresser designs - you can purchase his radical teapot for a mere 4,000 Euros, the toastrack is a bit cheaper.
Now you understand why I had to have this (Art Nouveau, Art Deco and 'bauhaus' are my favorite design styles), but where in Jacques Guerlain's name is the perfume connection? Well, bingo. The blend of traditional craft and industrial modernity Dresser embodies immediately reminded me of the birth of modern perfumery pretty much coterminous with my wonderful tea set and embodied in the names of Coty and Guerlain. Coty reinvented perfume by embracing the products of new distillation technologies - super-pure power-absolutes previously unthinkable as well as synthetics such as coumarin and ionones. Coty and Guerlain also represented a new era of, by previous standards, mass production and professional marketing aimed at the new affluent middle class equipped with leisure and money and prone to consume the new wonder world of products, many of which had previously been reserved for the upper crust. Jicky is known to us as perhaps the living monument of the new modernism in perfume, both technically, aesthetically and sociologically and many of the principles and innovations it embodies are precisely those that define the work of Christopher Dresser. Thus, nothing could be more consonant than to pour myself a cup of Hajua Assam from my avant-garde teapot while wearing a fine old Guerlain (I personally prefer Mouchoir de Monsieur - 1904 - over Jicky) on my handkerchief. And dream of the glory days of (perfume) design.