Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Love of beauty is Taste. Creation of beauty is Art.” In 1924 when Edgar Brandt, the renowned artist-blacksmith, fulfilled a commission for the Cheney Brothers Textile Company in New York, these sentiments came to fruition.
Originally of French origin, the Cheneys opened a silk manufactory in South Manchester, Connecticut in 1838. By 1924, the firm was prosperous and signed a lease for the first four floors of the new Madison-Belmont building on 34th Street and Madison Avenue, New York City. Previously, Henri Creange, the Cheney’s artistic director had seen Brandt’s work in Paris. Creange hired Brandt to design a show in the Louvre for the new fabric line “Prints Ferronnerie” that was inspired by the ironsmith’s metalwork. This successful show led the Cheney brothers to offer Brandt a large commission for both the interior and the exterior of the New York building. The two wrought-iron and gilded bronze entrance doors, the outside bull-nose molding, and window framing can be seen today.
In 1925, the world saw Edgar Brandt’s huge contribution to the art of metalsmithing due to the work he did for the Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. At the same time that Brandt created the objects needed for that immense project, he worked on the Cheney assignment. Just as Brandt aligned industrial methods to the technique of traditional blacksmithing, the Cheneys brought a modern mindset to the presentation of their superior fabrics.
Brandt brought a playful, yet elegant aesthetic to the Madison-Belmont ironwork. In addition to modular grilles for fabric display, he forged a variety of fanciful wrought-iron trees. Cheney silks or velvets were draped on a tree; and sometimes the material went around the tree and was then looped through hooks high above the trees. In the lobby, marble niches held a pea-pod tree. Other showrooms included a cactus tree, a weeping willow, a palm tree, and a tree with birds. One could also see a tree with snake-plant type branches that curled at the ends, perfect for draping fabric.
The tree, offered in this sale, is the largest example that has ever surfaced to this date. The flowers on it have two basic elements. Some flowers have nine leaves surrounding a center of small C-scrolls; other leaves are made simply of C-scrolls or C-scrolls with a linear center section. The flowers, positioned and angled in a lyrical manner that facilitated the artful hanging of the textiles.
All the ironwork for this project, fabricated in Paris, was than shipped by boat to New York.
Remarkably, all of it fit within one-sixteenth of an inch. Brandt may have gotten the idea for the trees from a sixteenth century drapery seller’s sign that he saw at the Paris Exhibition of 1900.
The Cheney tree offered here is an exceptional piece of iron forging, but its exact placement in the design scheme is unknown. Perhaps it stood in a niche on the ground floor, painted in tones of pink and gray. Alternatively, this lyrical design may have stood in an upper floor showroom for the display of heavy upholstery fabric.
The tree could have been part of a window display, as the Cheney windows were famous at the time. They were 30 feet high and featured bolts of fabric cascading down and up on rollers placed on the fourth floor. The 34th Street windows had mannequins dressed in frocks of Cheney silk. The huge tree would have been very visible given the large scale of the window. These displays were very popular and people would stroll by in the evening to see the lighted windows.
Brandt’s memorable iron designs inspired Cheney silk designs. In this tree, we see how the two disciplines conjoined to offer good taste, a bit of whimsy and the creation of beauty.
We would like to thank Joan Kahr for her assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.