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NEW YORK — Austria’s artistic wünderkind Dagobert Peche is having a coming-out party on Fifth Avenue.
Ivory tiaras, whimsical textiles, fanciful wallpaper and “Alice in Wonderland”-type tables are among the 400-plus pieces of his handiwork on display through Feb. 10 in “Dagobert Peche and the Wiener Werkstätte,” the first major retrospective devoted to the designer, at The Neue Galerie, Ronald Lauder’s jewel box museum.
Born outside of Salzburg in 1887, Peche dropped painting to train as an architect at his father’s request, and in 1911 joined the Wiener Werkstätte, a design collective that produced simple objects for everyday use. During Peche’s stilted career — he died at 36 — he delved into ceramics, jewelry, furniture, wallpaper and textiles.
The way Peche saw it, everyday objects didn’t have to be boring. A bird-shaped silver sculpture — complete with plume headdress — doubles as a candy box, and a tabletop is made to look as if it’s floating.
But beyond its whimsy, the show offers a lot more than first meets the eye. “The danger of this material is, if you don’t let yourself get involved emotionally, you might just think it’s ornamental,” says the exhibition’s curator, Christian Witt-Dörring.
The show has many items that have never been publicly displayed or were considered lost, such as the cabinet of the Vienne Kuntscschau of 1920. More than anything, the curator wants visitors to recognize the sensuality and artistic expression before the function.
“It’s like Contemporary Art in that you can’t ask too many questions before you let yourself in,” Witt-Dörring says.
The curator was drawn to Peche, who Josef Hoffman, one of the founders of the Wiener Werkstätte, once described as “Austria’s greatest genius in ornamentation since the days of Baroque,” because he didn’t understand the artist.
“We in Vienna like things you can’t grasp immediately. We like a certain ambivalence,” he says. “When you look at his work, it goes in one direction and as you are about to reach that direction, you deviate, because it’s boring to reach your goal. It’s very difficult for Americans to understand because they are so goal-oriented.”
The artist’s tendency to put practicality on the back burner is something he practiced in his own life. In the gallery that serves as a scrapbook of his life, a photo of his Viennese apartment reveals how his curtains were hung on the wall, not the full-length window. Another image captures the dilapidated space he lived in at the end of his life. His wallpaper frames the shabby room, despite a gaping hole in the floor. Even his handwritten letters defy function — his penmanship looks like the delicate, meandering lines of his wallpaper.