Pillbox

Decorative arts take a journey through time

From the late 17th century up to the present, our everyday objects have evolved in response to the ongoing struggle to balance beauty and function.

Chairs, for example, take us back to the basics, and in the Past Meets Present: Decorative Arts and Design exhibition in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Bruce Galleries, it’s all about redefining what we only thought we knew.

The display goes beyond the conventional — beyond the furniture we might find in our dorm rooms or even in our own homes. By opening our eyes to new designs, we can observe chairs that fool us with geometry, intrigue us with shape, comfort us with upholstery, and impress us with strategically carved details.

Upon entry, the visitor can immediately observe Nicolas Petit’s “Fall-Front Desk,” originating from 1780. Don’t roll your eyes: This isn’t just any desk. This impressive piece of work goes beyond the function of being a place to store office supplies; it gives the visitor a visual history lesson. Through intricate patterns and decorations, the facade is a scene portraying the leisurely life within dreamy landscapes of classical and Renaissance architecture. More than anything else, the desk is said to illustrate an important value of the 18th century: antiquity. Once again, we find that art can often take us to places that time simply cannot.

Throughout this series of galleries, portraits and scenic artwork complement the furniture, giving context to various time periods and bringing us back to the fundamental reason of art: to express one’s values.

William Alexander’s “Sideboard” (circa 1840) shows how a static object can imply movement. Through detailing, craftsmanship, and a selection of grain so fluid that it catches the eye, the visitor rediscovers the countless decisions that make up the design process.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, an American designer, captivates the visitor with a subtly different interpretation of mosaic art. His leaded glass window panels, dating back to the early 1900s, prove that cathedrals aren’t the only places we can find this kind of beauty. Here, the pieces display original stained glass windows from a Tudor-style mansion once located at 6500 Fifth Ave. in nearby Shadyside. In explorations typical of the Art Nouveau era, Tiffany experimented with form, color, and light through three corresponding mediums: glass, paint, and light. His work reminds us that sometimes art tells a story better than any textbook could.

On a journey through time, this exhibition guides visitors through various time periods, from neoclassicism and historicism to modernism. It also invokes the realization that these words are not just some artsy jargon; they’re something much more. Encompassing the evolution of design over the past few centuries tells us a story of how we’ve used art to express our values both as individuals and as a society. Architects and artists alike have wondered throughout the ages: “How do I design both physically for the human figure and psychologically for the human mind?” If you want to see what kinds of things they’ve come up with, then Past Meets Present: Decorative Arts and Design gives you the perfect opportunity to do so.