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Tiffany Studio's Ninth Century desk set (c. 1908): the perfect complement to any desk
  • Tiffany Studio's Ninth Century desk set (c. 1908): the perfect complement to any desk

It's easy to hustle through the Carnegie Museum of Art's Hall of Sculpture as if it were simply a hallway, especially if you're on your way to the adjoining Museum of Natural History. But if you take your time, you might spot a small but worthy exhibit tucked into an alcove called the Treasure Room.

Distinctive Desk Sets: Useful Ornament from Tiffany Studios exhibit collects an array of bronze desktop accoutrements produced by the Tiffany Studios between 1900 and 1930, some familiar and some anachronistic. While there are the familiar paper knives, inkwells, blotters and stationery trays, some objects have no equivalent in the modern workstation, and require decoding.

Most pieces in the collection were destined for the service of well-to-do men: A pen tray would cost approximately $128 in today's dollars; a full desk set $2,679. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many designs play to masculine fantasies of wealth and power. The nautical design might have suggested that you enjoy a life of oceanic leisure, even as you toiled over business correspondence; the Chinese, Spanish and Native American patterns insinuate a well-traveled connoisseur of the exotic; the ninth-century design and the gaudy simulated leather of the heraldic pattern suggest that you're not so different from a feudal lord.

But the exhibit also contains desk sets designed for the rest of the family: a gilt Louis XVI set scaled for a woman's desk (the paper rack, tellingly, is too narrow to hold business stationery), and a miniature child's set in blue paint and bronze, to introduce young scions to the adult customs and rituals of correspondence.

Whatever your interpretation of these domestic tools (which are on display through April 29), their pleasing aesthetics are sure to prompt a wistfulness for lost civility. And perhaps they'll inspire you to forget about the e-mail for once, and fill a dreary winter evening by writing a long letter to a friend.

Carnegie Museum of Art 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $10 ($7 seniors; $6 students/children). 412-622-3131 or www.carnegiemuseums.org

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