NEW YORK, NY -- Carlo Bugatti’s (1856-1940) ornate and idiosyncratic designs for furniture, interiors, and jewelry are instantly recognizable. While Bugatti’s style communicates the Art Nouveau aesthetic through forms adapted from Moorish, Japanese, and Islamic art, these disparate influences and the unconventional materials Bugatti employed create objects that evade origin and time.
Bugatti began producing furniture in Milan around 1880. Milan, in the years following the Risogimento, was less industrialized than many other parts of Europe; Bugatti's artisanal manufactory limited the scale of his production yet enabled an unending variety of detail and ornamentation, making each object distinct from the next. By 1904, Bugatti had relocated with his family to France, where he spent the rest of his life in Paris and Alsace.
The Doyle+Design auction on June 6 offers a circa 1900 armchair that exemplifies Bugatti’s singular approach. One can identify patterns, shapes, and materials from the Middle and Far East. The back and seat are made from stretched vellum adorned with stamped metal, and the ebonized wood legs are inlaid with bone and slivers of pewter depicting abstract birds, insects, and bamboo. Head-on, the armchair is wide and sturdy, but the side-view exposes delicacies of its design. The chair's front legs curve into an elegant bow and its upper and lower halves are joined by fragile spindles reminiscent of Moorish columns. A nearly identical work, acquired in 1970 by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is skirted with long, grassy fringe.
Other examples of Bugatti's chairs are documented in 1895 in the opulent Turkish Salon at the newly-erected Waldorf Hotel in New York. (The former Waldorf and Astoria Hotels, which opened respectively in 1893 and 1897, occupied the current site of the Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets.) The Waldorf's Turkish Salon represented the latest in over-the-top, Orientalist fashion. Nearly 125 years later, Bugatti's asymmetrical Throne Chair was featured in the 2017 sci-fi film Alien Covenant: it is one of a handful of items -- alongside Michelangelo's David, Piero della Francesca's Nativity, and a Steinway piano -- used to illustrate an early-22nd-century conversation about art and humanity. That Bugatti's work is equally at home in these revivalist and futuristic settings is a testament to its utter timelessness and unsusceptibility to trend.
Carlo Bugatti's two sons, Ettore (1881-1947) and Rembrandt (1884-1916), were also artists. Ettore, the elder, founded the automobile company Automobiles E. Bugatti, and Rembrandt was a sculptor of animals. Rembrandt's prized and valuable bronzes largely depict wild animals: panthers, lions, baboons. A standing elephant he sculpted decorates the radiator of Ettore's propulsive Bugatti Royale, one of the largest and rarest cars in existence. (A 1913 cast of Rembrandt Bugatti's Petit Elephant au Repos sold at Doyle in 2013 and set a world auction record for the sculpture.) Carlo and his sons formed an artistic dynasty whose creations are linked by their assimilation of the exotic into the accessible and domestic.
Works born of the unique and fantastical sensibilities of artists like Carlo Bugatti endure changing taste. The upcoming Doyle+Design sale showcases objects, like this armchair, that demonstrate this versatility.
-- Hanna Siesel
Auction June 6, 2018
Exhibition June 2 - 4
Carlo Bugatti Parchment, Ebonized Wood, Copper, Pewter and Inlaid Bone Armchair