new design times

Wintherthur / Musée des Tissus

In the world of museums it's rare that one feels at home as most often museums are designed to be public spaces where people pass but don't stay. The architecture of a museum can be masterful in its own right but most often it remains very impersonal. Today we've selected two museums that are among the most interesting in the world and in which, however exceptional, one feels the personal touch of a place designed on a very human scale: Winterthur and the Mus?e des Tissus in Lyon, France. Both of these museums are housed in buildings that were originally private homes, and both have magnificent collections in the area of the decorative arts and more especially in decorative textiles. Winterthur, in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware, is the former home of Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969). The property was first developed in the first half of the 19th century by the Bidermann family of Switzerland. Antoine Bidermann, the son of one of the then most prominent European investors in Dupont de Nemours & Co. (which at the time produced gunpowder) was sent by his father from Switzerland to oversee the financial health of these American black powder mills. Upon his arrival however he grew so enchanted by the Brandywine Valley surrounding Wilmington that he never returned, and was later to marry Evelina du Pont. Winterthur, the Swiss town of his family's origin, was the name he gave to his new home. The property was eventually sold to Henry Dupont in the 1860's, and upon the death of his wife he asked his son Henry Francis to help manage the estate. Henry Francis, at that time a student at Harvard University, was particularly interested in agriculture and horticulture and later in the 1920's he developed a passion for collecting American decorative arts. Thus it was Henry Francis who was largely responsible for transforming Winterthur into the spectacular property that one sees today. In the beginning he focused mainly on collecting the arts of the Pennsylvania Germans but later his passion broadened to all manner of decorative arts and in no time his collection outgrew the house. Today the inventory totals more than 100,000 items! Most of what he purchased was used in the decoration of the house. Winterthur, a grandiose five floor estate perpetually groomed and fashioned in the style of an English manor house, was not only the place where he lived and entertained friends and family, but it was also a kind of majestic artwork in progress, meticulously sculpted and fastidiously attended, changing colors to coordinate with the changing views from each window overlooking its sprawling gardens. Homes of such regal stature are rare in the United States, but Winterthur is a worthy heir to its European ancestry, albeit with just the touch of American spice to render the place unique. What is exceptional at Winterthur: The landscape and the gardens. Agriculture and gardens were the first passions of Henry Francis du Pont and Delaware, with its pristine and naturally beautiful landscape, was an ideal place to develop his talents in that field. The grounds of Winterthur encompass roughly 1000 acres but in the 1920's its spread covered more than 2000. Whatever the time of the year there is much to see but for those passionate about flowers, the most spectacular period to visit is from late January through to the mid summer months. Henry Francis moved way beyond the border planting style of his father in making the entire grounds a symphony of flowering color that steadily and harmoniously changed with the progression of the seasons. Today what one views is the legacy of hundreds of thousands of bulbs that he personally ordered and had planted. The textile collection. As much as he was a connoisseur and collector of art and antiques, Henry Francis Dupont was perhaps even more enamored of antique textiles and he spent a good part of his life amassing one of the largest and finest textile collection in the world. Oddly it was he and not his wife who presided over the d?cor and who chose the drapery fabrics and tended to the minute details of upholstery. In fact, it was such an important element in the design of his home that in many of the rooms the drapery and upholstery fabric was replaced each season so that the furniture would coordinate harmoniously with the colorful and changing garden views from each window. In most textile museums relatively few pieces are exhibited to the public. In Winterthur however every room is decorated with sumptuous textiles that are either original or faithful copies of those that Henry Francis used in his time. And particularly of note is the marvelous collection of antique embroideries. Although the walls of the grand reception rooms are covered with dignified portraits and grand landscapes, the walls of the bedrooms are almost exclusively decorated with small, charming 17th and 18th century sampler style embroideries. The rooms. All told there are 173 period rooms in the mansion, all of which are impeccably furnished with beautiful textiles, furniture and works of arts. Not only does Winterthur present one of the rare occasions to see decorative arts in their true context but it's also a window into the lifestyle of the American elite in the first half of the 20th century. Upon closer look, one notices a certain consistency in the quality of the craftsmanship, whether it's in the carving of a period wooden breakfront from Philadelphia, the delicate painting of a fine piece of Chinese export porcelain, or the design of any of the 70 some odd complete porcelain dinner services which, along with the drapes and upholstery, were changed to harmonize with the flowering gardens of each consecutive season. American decorative arts:

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