For over thirty years, Eugene and Clare Thaw have collected superb examples of historic staircase models, particularly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which demonstrate a stunning mastery of design, conceptual thinking, and construction skills. Staircases have been part of building design since about 6000 BC, initially as stone additions to exterior walls. Using as a guide the average length of the human foot, staircase desgin was both practical and military. Changes in domestic architecture contributed to the development of central interior staircases. In the late fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, fortified castles gave way to a more welcoming and sociable residential architecture, and with it, more impressive interior staircases. Evolving social customs furthered their popularity: wide, graceful staircases allowed residents to make grand "entrances" to social events, and accorded their owners prestige by establishing their place in class hierarchies. As is evident in the Thaws' collection, the sense of grandeur and elation associated with stairs has inspired beautiful results, including the invention of complex configurations such as single or double helixes, elliptical spirals, and cantilevered designs. Models have served for centuries to test design theory and the practical elemenets of construction, as well as to display virtuosity. To achieve the three-dimensional realization of a design, the makers learned to perform wood- and metalwork on a miniature scale as well as develop fine conceptual skills. The resulting staircases were therefore archetypes of both architectural design and furniture craftsmanship. Made to Scale: Staircase Masterpieces is the fifth installation in the Nancy and Edwin Marks Gallery exhibition series devoted to the permanent collection.
Although called “in the English style” in France, this model is at least a work of acceptance—if not a masterwork—in compagnonnage. It shows a complex, self-supporting multiple spiral, with veneering on the underside of the stairs.
This double-revolution staircase model is similar to one described as being “in Renaissance style for a store,” in plate 17 of a folio by E. Delbrel, published in Paris in the 1880s. The upper level is self-supporting and the railings’ balusters are turned.
This fine triple-height staircase model is similar to one designed by Robert Adam for 20 Portman Place in London. The model’s sustaining pillars ensure stability in place of the walls used in Adam’s staircase. The pillars are joined in a manner characteristic of a builder rather than a compagnonnage-trained cabinetmaker.
This double revolution staircase is unmistakably a masterwork, confirmed by details such as the carefully turned, ebony balusters and the sophisticated veneering used to create an inlaid “carpet.” A hint of revolutionary politics is introduced through a juxtaposition of Sèvres biscuit porcelain busts of the French philosophers Voltaire (left) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (right).
The technical skills featured in this model indicate it is a compagnonnage masterwork. A spiral stairway leads to a carved pulpit attached to a central column, both with molded paneling. The canopy is scroll-carved and the base is inlaid with a lozenge pattern. André-Jacob Roubo’s book, L’art du menuisier (1769–75), depicts a similarly formed pulpit.
This masterwork is a virtuosity of joinery. Its ogival turrets with turned finials are a sign of the mastery of roof-making. In the mid- to late-19th century, masters of compagnonnage who combined their talents on a masterwork sometimes paraded the piece through the city in which it had been made or was to be exhibited. This staircase may be one such collaboration.
The ellipses of this double staircase are so elegant that the maker actually signed this with his adopted compagnonnage name, “Ugen.” New compagnons often took a symbolic name to show allegiance and to protect their true identity from those in traditional guilds wishing to seek punishment for those outside the guild system.
With stairs that double back without apparent support, this model is further elaborated with undulating sides and Gothic-style arches. Possibly an acceptance piece, this example shows a high level of skill without necessarily being a full masterwork.
This style was popularized by the important master of compagnonnage, Agricole Perdiguier.
This maîtrise (masterpiece) in the 17th-century Italian style, is one of the finest examples of the combination of architectural design and structure with staircase modeling.
This drawing, like the others on view, was executed by a received compagnon doing his “tour de France.” These drawings are from a series executed in Marseille, Tours, and Lyon over several years during the 1880s. The model relates to a specific design problem similar to that shown in the drawing.