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Portrait of a woman

Giovanni Moroni Portrait of a Woman

Shelf Appeal isn’t so much all about the art. There are much more interesting things on the shelf. Like design, fashion (or costume to be proper), graphics, books, toys..

But portraits have always had a pull. I’d long known of the painting The Tailor by Giovanni Morroni, a rare and lovely image in the grand style but of a working man. So I trundled down to the lesser-spotted (to me) Royal Academy to see their show of Morroni’s work. To see what else, or rather who else, he painted.

To find the tailor wasn’t the only or even the main pull in the exhibition. Morroni’s ladies were the thing. Absolutely mesmeric portraits of sixteenth century women of substance, status and intrigue. Women not smiling but thinking, looking elsewhere. Against tasteful putty grey backgrounds, with nothing to distract from the interest of their faces. Their costumes, too, were most beautiful. Morroni could certainly paint a pinked damask, slashed or woven silk, a lace collar. But the faces held forth.

This was my favourite face in the show; a portrait of a woman. I stood admiring her for a while as the Barbour-clad, blow-dried artelligensia shuffled past behind me.

Man in the kitchen

1961 Man in the kitchen Good Housekeeping magazine

In 1961 man was in the kitchen at the Good Housekeeping Institute. And doesn’t he look sharp. Not a spot of grease on that pullover.

This guide is printed on magazine paper and is nothing elaborate. But it is oozing meaty content. ‘A practical guide for any man who cooks for himself – whether from necessity or from choice.’ Subjects covered had robust titles like: ‘the tools for the job’, ‘man-sized meals’, ‘bachelor entertaining’ and ‘out of the tin or deep-freeze.’

As the guide was a co-production with the Gas Council, the lovely Mr Therm character is illustrated on most pages; holding the menu, popping out of a tin and holding serving dishes.

The photos, most in full colour, are lovely and credited to one Kenneth Swain, who seems to have been quite the food photographer. Front and back cover and one page inside (seen below eating fried breakfast on his Poole pottery) show us sharp dressed young men cooking and eating most earnestly. The double page centre spread, on the other hand, is a full colour picture of a dish of ham and pineapple coming out of the cooker.

And in case we imagined otherwise, Man in the Kitchen reminds us man meals in 1961 were meat based; morning, noon and night.

1961 Man in the Kitchen Good Housekeeping

Design trolley dash

Arabia ceramic factory in Helsinki

A lot of the things on these shelves are of Finnish origin. So a long weekend in Helsinki was always a pleasing idea. Rolling around in their design heritage was the plan.

Iittala, Arabia, Fiskars, Marimekko and the rest. I live with bits and pieces of this Finnish stuff every day. And me, I always want to see where they made it. After that I want to see where they sell it. And if there is a museum where they exhibit it, even better. London has several Finnish design shops so I’m quite spoilt. But nothing on the scale of Helsinki. The iittala covered whole walls there. There was a Marimekko department store (or what felt like one) and even the hotel had stacks of Kaj Franck pottery in the breakfast room and iittala glasses in the bathrooms. Almost design obscene it was.

And whilst Helsinki effortlessly embraces their lovely design heritage, the seeing of it was something we should have made more of an effort to plan. Pre-booking of factory tours was compulsory and odd opening times were ubiquitous. We missed the summer opening times bonanza and became the tourists that just missed it.

The city itself was hard to love in some ways – not my taste in architecture, all that grand stuff. Not built on a pedestrian scale. And built a little bit, it seemed to me, with it’s back to the lovely surrounding waters.

But it was no hardship at all to tram it to, and worship at the gates of, the Arabia factory. All my Franck pottery came from there. And to squeak in delight at the pots on show in the delightfully dusty Arabia Museum that we had to ourselves. Is there anything more lovely than a factory building? One that is still in use?

Lasts and patterns

Lord and taylor shoe sale card 1914

Shelf Appeal doesn’t contain a lot of American graphics and design. It’s a world of nice things I know very little about. And because I don’t know the material, researching becomes so much harder to kickstart. I have no sense of this person did this so that person might have done the other. But some few bits and pieces – usually related to American department store history –  have snuck on to the shelf.

This beautifully preserved fold out advertisement for a men’s shoe sale at Lord & Taylor has had me on a chase across the big old internet. As Lord & Taylor told me they knew nothing about any archive of theirs.

I thought this card was from the 1910’s. The layout, text and typography said it was so. Even if the illustration was rather more modern looking. Clicking about I came across the work of the American illustrator Coles Phillips, known for his use of ‘negative space’, which made me think. That chair our chap is sat on is very nearly a use of negative space, most unusual and distinctive. Phillips designed some beautiful magazines covers but I found nothing to connect him to Lord & Taylor. Yet chances are he might still have designed this; those department stores were no slouches when it came to using the commercial artists of the moment.

I did manage to date this to 1914 from a newspaper advert in the New York Tribune of that year, though. Which made me happy. All hail the Google search.

Whoever drew it – it is a cracker. The young man is owning his shoes, bowler and everything in between. And the way the slight sway of his walking stick echoes the curve of the chair. Joy.

Clackity clack

Gunnar Lundh photograph of two girls on sledges,1944

You wouldn’t have to click far through Shelf Appeal to spot the toys. Toys r us. The arrival of a new book (an equal favorite thing) about toys is as good as it gets. A smile for Swedish Wooden Toys, then.

The last toy book of substance to arrive on the shelf was the catalogue for the MoMA exhibition Century of the Child in 2012. Swedish Wooden Toys has a much tighter remit, yet its smaller geographical ground is approached in more interesting ways. Chapters on retailers and toys in Swedish photographs look especially tasty. That last because I have followed the Flickr group Playthings of the Past for a long time.

The Swedish wooden toys themselves are stunners, photogenic and completely moreish. I have a Brio toy I love longtime, a wooden stacking toy chef whose character is delivered through simple and beautiful design. And there are many more examples of that sort of winning toy formula in this thick juicy tome, most beautifully photographed.

The image of the two girls above, also in the book, is a beaut. From a photographer I have come across before – Gunnar Lundh. Look at those mini sledges for the toy rabbits. Just look.

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