This week’s object is a favorite of Diane Dolbashian, Librarian, Rakow Research Library
Recently, research librarian Gail Bardhan surprised me with a group of original drawings by Auguste Herbst, a designer and artistic director at the glass firm founded by Emile Gallé. The Herbst drawings seemed to epitomize all that I admire in the stylistic sensibilities of Art Deco design—architectural, faceted, geometric, and both luxurious and functional in its simple elegance. Above all, the drawings appealed to my penchant for order.
The fact that relatively little is known about Herbst’s life beyond his association with Gallé only deepened the mystery of the man and the allure of these drawings as clues to who he may have been. We immediately see that Herbst was a proficient draftsman. His technique was faultless, with each line precisely envisioned and executed, as in an architectural blueprint. Witness the drawing of a formal Art Deco ceiling light fixture. Designed to cast its glow upward, it resembles an inverted skyscraper!
An even bigger surprise came when Gail opened a second box of drawings. In style and execution, these contrasted sharply with the first set. They appeared to be spontaneous sketches, almost improvised, and yet were also carefully framed allusions to nature and classicism. The Art Deco aesthetic was still clearly predominant. However, the geometric rigor had softened into fluid lines and organic shapes, while the decorative elements, so evocative of warm seas and marine life, floated freely through the objects. Here were two radically different moods of the same man.
It is an extraordinary privilege to work in the Rakow Library. I never know when I may encounter an artist from a century ago or have the chance to admire an inextinguishable talent. The day I saw the Herbst designs was certainly one of those moments.