Artist's Midas touch ran riot

Austrian designer Dagobert Peche made practical objects sparkle. The Neue Galerie is displaying 400 of his works.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Most people, seeing an apple orchard full of fruit, would make applesauce. Dagobert Peche made an aesthetic statement.

Spending a summer day in the Swiss countryside around 1917, he suddenly dashed off to scour the nearest village for gold foil.

Then he plucked the most perfect apple, covered it in gold, and hung it on the most flawless branch.

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"Look at the magic I made!" said the Austrian designer.

Through Feb. 10, New York's Neue Galerie is exhibiting more than 400 of Peche's magical designs in the first US survey of his work. The museum, which is devoted to early 20th century Austrian and German art, continues its streak of impeccable, intriguing shows to fill in the gaps in art history.

Visitors to the exhibit, "Dagobert Peche and the Wiener Werkstätte," will have a sense of alighting in a galaxy filled with the bizarre imaginings of a fertile mind. Textiles, wallpaper, jewelry, furniture, and metalwork are adorned with a riot of fanciful ornament.

"Overcoming utilitarianism" was Peche's stated goal. Through ornament, he made objects express not their function, structure, or materials – as Modernists preached – but his own creative spirit.

He was as bold with color as with decoration. A desk, for instance, is painted in a harlequin diamond pattern in green and sulphurous yellow.

Peche lived from 1887 to 1923 and was a member of the Wiener Werkstätte, a group of Viennese artists who pledged to improve the quality of applied art and interior design. Founded by Josef Hoffmann and others in 1903, its goal was to "start with function; usefulness is our first requirement."

When Peche began to collaborate with the group in 1911, its objects conformed to Hoffmann's severe, simple style. Goods were austere and precise. If they featured ornament, it was geometric.

But when Peche became a full member in 1915 and hit his personal stride in 1917, he transformed the genre. Rationality and moderation went out the window. Emotion, excess, and whimsy came in the front door.

His work, of course, was not universally approved. One critic at the time called Peche's decorative objects "virtually monstrous," pronouncing two cabinets "in the most unrestrained bad taste."

However, Peche saw his objects as armature on which to stack baroque baubles.

A silver box begins in the calm shape of an apple. From its lid explodes a swollen stem, festooned with scalloped leaves, vines, and clusters of grapes.

A jewel box shaped like a silver stag spits a fountain of arrowhead-shaped leaves, tendrils, and grapes from its mouth. One critic termed this fizzy format for luxury items: "champagne style."

Peche had fun with form. He conceived a pumpkin-shaped teapot and a gilded picture frame shaped like a square wreath of fluffy leaves.

And his furniture! You have to look to Michael Graves's postmodern Disney buildings to find such a pastiche of motifs.

One armoire has chunky blue-and-white tassels rendered in wood. Another has polychrome grape clusters, pyramids, and a figurehead protruding from its surface.

An idiosyncratic desk has almost no flat surfaces, except the actual writing space. Carved wooden grapevines morph into arrows and circles, protruding from drawers.

Rhythm is the major force in Peche's work. It's an offbeat and syncopated rhythm – more like ragtime than a Viennese waltz – that gives an improvised, capricious spin.

His wallpaper, inspired by vegetal imagery (flowers, leaves, and fruit), makes the galleries the antithesis of a typical, "white box" museum installation. One room is papered in orange, crisscrossed by green boughs.

A virtue of the show is that it not only displays Peche's original drawings, it brings them to life. A sketch of a long table, hung with white ruffles of fabric, is realized as a table displaying his fabric swatches, which seems to float on a cloud.

One gallery, wallpapered in black punctuated by large white cornucopias, includes a minipavilion in black and white, which Peche designed to display goods.

In this room, the influence of the English artist Aubrey Beardsley is most evident.

Peche's other sources for his hybrid style include folk-art embroidery (heart-shaped leaves), antiquity (his Neoclassical pediments and obelisks), and chinoiserie (an adaptation of Far Eastern embellishment).

Around 1920, Peche – his mind teeming with invention – began to express fear of not living to realize his conceptions. He worked like a fiend night and day. He died at age 36.

When his mentor, Hoffmann, heard of Peche's death, he said: "Dagobert Peche was Austria's greatest genius in ornamentation since the days of the Baroque."

Peche wrote longingly of "a place where you can dream of paradise without forgetting the world." His work achieves this synthesis, clothing real-world objects in joyful froth.

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