The show begins with a witty fantasy: six short filmed vignettes quickly conjure a luxurious interwar dwelling like those enjoyed by Chareau’s clients. Projected onto blazing white paper, these silent shadow plays show Chareau furniture being used by actors — all in silhouette. It is a bit slick, but it quickly sets the period mood and makes the furniture mysterious. In the dining room, a maid polishes silver. In the living room, a man on a sofa smokes a cigar. A butler who moves among the screens brings him a drink. Elsewhere, a frustrated young writer at a desk rises and paces past a daybed on an adjacent screen.
When you walk around the screens, the shadowy furniture emerges in three dimensions with a kind of ta-da. You begin to see how Chareau’s designs oscillate between lightening and refining familiar styles, like Art Deco, with subtle angles and pinches and works of rougher, more forceful originality. His more innovative side is visible, for example, in a semicircular bookcase harboring a round table that can swing out on a mechanical arm.
The bulbs of his La Religieuse (The Nun) floor and table lamps are shaded by shards of alabaster that are both Cubistic and wimplelike, held together by bits of welded iron, courtesy of Dalbet. The dining room furniture stands out for its eccentricity, especially a cabinet that resembles a solid block of walnut burl and is outfitted with two wide bands of patinated iron (Dalbet again) that provide legs, wall attachments and a big exposed hinge. It looks like something the Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre might have concocted as a lark.
A narrow gallery displays some of the Chareaus’ art collection, which they sold piece by piece to survive in New York. A rather clunky pair of early collages by Picasso with elements cut from a single piece of paper covered with sawdust fits the blunter side of Chareau’s sensibilities. A magical Max Ernst painting of five glass vases containing flowers speaks to his use of transparency.
Photographs of a Long Island house in East Hampton that Chareau designed attest to his ingenuity on a shoestring budget; it is cobbled together from a Quonset hut and a wall of windows from a greenhouse. Designed as a summer house for the Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell, it was a rare commission during Chareau’s American exile. The house, tragically, was demolished in 1985.
The virtual-reality treat comes toward the end. Against black walls, four spare displays capture Chareau’s ecumenical love of tradition and experimentation. Each display has a swivel stool to sit on and V.R. goggles for viewing. Suddenly you see each ensemble in its original interior, based on vintage photographs but rendered in bracing living color. Turning in the seat, you can enjoy a 360-degree view and glimpse adjacent rooms. The Maison de Verre’s double-story grand salon makes the most memorable impression — while also revealing that the Dalsace family had a protomodern Biedermeier dining room set.
The Maison de Verre hovers over this show like a sheltering presence, visible in photographs and architectural drawings, and is most present in the digitalized slide show. The slides pause at certain points and films flanking the screen show a man and a woman in that particular part of the house, including the bathroom. At one point the woman opens a curved metal closet door with some effort; elsewhere, she lowers a metal cover to reveal a mirror and demonstrates how a bidet swivels out from the wall. These last two especially are more gratuitous flourishes than conveniences.