From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Siegfried Bing was broadcast on the 25th September 2022. You can listen to the audio here.*
Movements in design are often amplified by a single figure. Like Siegfried Bing, whose gallery in the centre of Paris gave its name to Art Nouveau. When Bing opened the Maison de l’Art Nouveau in 1895, the movement was well on its way, not just in France but across Europe. In Belgium, architects like Horta and Van de Velde had designed buildings filled with stylistic details inspired more by nature than any historical style. The department store Liberty of London was selling items by Arts and Crafts designers that had a curvy, floral quality. And in Barcelona, Gaudí had built his first house, the Casa Vicens, that was an exuberant blend of colourful tiling and quirky architectural details. In other words, design was moving in a new direction, unconstrained by what had gone before, and with a new desire for highly decorated surfaces and sinuous lines.
Bing seemed hardly like the man who would bring all this into focus. Born in Germany to a wealthy merchant family, he was in charge of the family’s porcelain business in France. In 1871 he made Paris his home and in 1880, he travelled to Japan. The country had only just opened up to the outside world and interest in it was particularly intense in Paris, where Monet and other Impressionist artists were captivated by the unique quality of Japanese prints. Bing was enchanted, too, not only by the prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige but also by the ceramics and the fabrics, and he set about importing much of it back to Paris. His passion led to him establishing an influential journal called Le Japon Artistique (Artistic Japan), which highlighted many aspects of the aesthetic of the country. As he saw the level of interest in it by contemporary artists and designers of all types, he began to promote their work, which led to him opening his Maison de l’Art Nouveau.
With interiors designed by Henry van de Velde and stained glass panels by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the gallery displayed fabrics by William Morris, glass by Gallé and jewellery by Lalique against a backdrop of older artefacts that Bing had collected in Japan. It was as though he was validating the new flair for decoration by showing the Japanese tradition of strong colour and asymmetrical composition along with their celebration of nature in everything from fabric designs to carving. It inspired the work of many artists as diverse as Aubrey Beardsley and Frank Brangwyn. Bing’s pavilion at the Paris Exposition in 1900 further magnified the style, with furniture and fabrics revelling in over-the-top colour and shape. The exhibition was the pinnacle of the Art Nouveau movement, with fantastical pavilions lining the Seine, every surface drenched in colour and design. Art Nouveau quickly became mainstream, leading to Viennese architect Adolf Loos’s famous essay ‘Ornament and crime’, in which he wrote how heavy decoration was the enemy of good design because it locked it into a moment in time. Certainly, when Bing died in 1905, the fashion had already begun to wane with people beginning to seek its opposite, which ushered in the simplicity of Modernism, encapsulated in the work by the Bauhaus. In some ways Bing’s moment was as short as the Art Nouveau movement itself but he was a seminal figure. The richness of a Gustave Klimt painting and the intensity of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass might have been a little duller without him. A man of his time who helped make it one of the most luscious in the history of design.
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