Richard Meier - Ein Stilraum

On April 25th 1985, Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst (at the time still called Museum für Kunsthandwerk) moved into the Richard Meier building in Schaumainkai 17. On the occasion of its thirtieth year in these quarters, the museum is presenting a cabinet exhibition entitled Richard Meier: A Style Room, which is more than a design show. In it, visitors can learn what historical references the architect drew on for his plans: what early twentieth-century design examples did he look to for orientation, and what cultural contexts of the 1980s underscore his approach?

The Style Room inaugurated by the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt/Main to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Richard Meier’s first construction in Europe is not a traditional architecture or design exhibition. By choosing a small gallery in the museum and refurbishing it in much the same way an inhabitant of one of the architect’s villas would have in the 1980s, it immerses visitors in the style, cultural context, zeitgeist and tastes of the architect and his clients.

We all surround ourselves with objects that are not necessarily from the same era. On our office desk an iPhone can sit next to a 1970s plastic ashtray or a lamp inherited from an ancestor who died long before we were even born. The Style Room functions in much the same way, as it casually brings together Meier’s designs with his artistic and architectural references to reflect his personal vision. It lets visitors imagine the room’s inhabitants, play a game of chess on a board conceived by Josef Hartwig at the Bauhaus in 1923 or simply sit on a sofa designed by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand around the same time.

As in most houses, there is a big shelf with books – about Meier, naturally, but not only. There is also literature on Frank Stella, one of his best friends, for whom he designed a loft; about Le Corbusier, one of the architects whose formal vocabulary he frequently quotes, notably in Frankfurt, with a ramp reminiscent of Villa Savoye (1928–1931); and about artists who left their mark on the New York scene of the 1980s, such as Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman or Robert Mapplethorpe. Among these publications is also the rare »Five Architects«, which documents a conference in 1969 during which Meier, along with Charles Gwathmey, Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk and Michael Graves, formulated the beginning of a critical love relationship with modernity.

Postmodern, neo-modern, retro-avant-garde: the terminological debate continues to this day. Yet whatever the exact definition of their endeavour, there is no doubt that a number of architects in the 1980s distanced themselves from the dogmas and isms (functionalism, hygienism, rationalism ...) of modernity. Meier mines the past, liberally appropriating designs and concepts from the early twentieth century. In keeping with the general behaviour of his contemporaries, he looks at history for inspiration, but what marks him out is, quite simply, a sure taste when it comes to choosing his references. And the whiteness of his buildings durably removes them from the sphere of short-lived architectural fads.

But Meier also loves the Viennese Secession. In a perspective drawing of the former Museum für Kunsthandwerk he uses people and chairs drawn by Otto Wagner in 1913, and the first furniture (white, like the rest of his architecture) for the museum restaurant was purchased from Thonet. Accordingly, that chair also features in the Style Room, but so do glasses designed by Joseph Hoffmann in 1911 as well as a reproduction of a teapot invented by Kasimir Malevich in 1923. The latter also inspired Meier when designing a silver coffee set for Alessi in 1980. Last but not least we should mention Frank Lloyd Wright, whose furniture clearly influenced the chair Meier created for Knoll in 1978, or even Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose geometry based on squares resonates in the museum’s furniture.

In a display case in the Style Room, a sober menorah designed by Meier refers to his Jewish origins, which he mentioned with pride in his speech for the inauguration of the museum (recorded in Michael Blackwood’s little-known documentary on its construction). Next to it appear several other objects he designed for the table, including a candle- stick, cups and plates. Their date or materials matter less than the formal and geometrical principles governing them: the square and the circle, black and white, simplicity and mannerism.

Music is one of the best time-travelling devices, as it often determines the atmosphere in a house. More importantly, it can also be a formidable translation of architectural concepts (is not Goethe wrongly credited with saying, ‘I call architecture frozen music’?). »Glassworks«, an album released by Philip Glass in 1982, features music based on minimal (albeit decidedly romantic) motifs, which are repeated with a certain degree of obstinacy. Its function echoes that of the 1.10 metre-long squares Meier identified in the layout of Villa Metzler and on which he based the grid for his modern extension. Simple geometric patterns are repeated, shifted and imbricated to create a generous and complex arrangement.

What are the inhabitants of Meier’s villas in the 1980s reading? Marguerite Duras, who won the Prix Goncourt for »The Lover« in 1984; Robert Musil, whose 1930s epic »The Man Without Qualities« was rediscovered by readers in the 1980s; essays by Susan Sontag; Umberto Eco, whose novel »The Name of the Rose« was successfully adapted to the screen in 1986; and, as was to be expected, Milan Kundera and his »Unbearable Lightness of Being«, published in English in 1984, which like no other work of fiction en- capsulates the spirit of the times: a mixture of post-Cold War détente and a sense of unease about the future.

The Style Room would not be complete without the (discreet) presence of a small-scale model of a white Ferrari Testarossa. White like Meier’s architecture, of course, but, more importantly still, white like the Testarossa driven by Sonny Crockett in »Miami Vice« (1984–1990). More than just a pun, it reminds visitors that the tacky TV series marks the rediscovery of Florida’s modernist architectural heritage and its elegant naval references – references which can also be found in the handrails at the Museum Angewandte Kunst. But the Ferrari ultimately symbolises luxury. Because when all is said and done, Meier builds houses for wealthy clients. This makes him the architect of a cultivated elite who enjoy contemporary music, world literature and modern, i.e. timeless, design. A life and taste that we invite you to share here for a moment.

Richard Meier, Ein Stilraum
Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt/Main (Germany)
Since April 23,  2015

Curated by Thibaut de Ruyter
Exhibition architecture: Thibaut de Ruyter (with the assistance of Gaisha Madanova)