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Oh, What a Relief!

One of the best aspects of being a designer is constantly being challenged to find creative solutions for each space. Or, as Bunny put it in her book Love Affairs with Houses, “Problem solving is the essence of design—and often the catalyst for a more interesting room.” 

To the client, a designer’s answers to these challenges might seemingly materialize out of thin air. More likely, though, they are the result of inspiration absorbed over time. When we look back at Bunny’s travel photos we can sometimes identify the beginnings of an idea: an architectural detail that we now recognize in a mirror frame, or colorful terrazzo floors that have since been translated in her own kitchen. 

One challenge we’ve all encountered is what to do with a large empty wall. Yes, Bunny assures us that not every wall needs to have artwork, but hanging a large-scale piece over a sofa, bench, or mantel can lend exciting scale to a room. To that end, we want to take a closer look today at the Garden Panel, an oversized plaster relief mural that has held its place in the Bunny Williams Home collection for years.

The Bunny Williams Home Garden Panel.

Now cast in plaster in New York, the panel is inspired by one originally hand-carved in a little village outside of Semarang, near the Java Sea. The bas-relief mural depicts a garden of the Art Deco Era, with small critters tucked away among stylized flora and fauna. Its matte white finish is available in interior grade plaster or exterior grade plaster that can withstand the outdoors.

Photo of a bas-relief salmon in the Abri du Poisson by Don Hitchcock.

Bas-relief as a sculpting technique is as old as our earliest ancestors. Some of the first examples are engravings found in caves, like this meter-long depiction of a salmon in the Abri du Poisson, a rock cave in France, that dates back 25,000 years. (There was once an attempt made to steal the sculpture, hence the drilling that surrounds it). A relief depiction like this one, where the image is raised from a background, differs from petroglyphs that were typically carved into the stone.

A table in a client’s entryway holds antique intaglios. Photo by Melanie Avecedo.

This distinction between relief and carved counter-relief can be subtle, and the terms variable. (As much as we’d love to expound on the technical differences between cameo and intaglio, we’ll save that for another day.) Bas-relief refers specifically to low-depth sculpting, carving, or molding where the subject matter protrudes only slightly from a flat background.

The Farragut Memorial, designed by Stanford White and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Examples of the art form abound in our everyday lives. We carry mini bas-reliefs with us daily in the form of common coins, and the observant eye will notice it decorating doorways and facades around New York City. In Madison Square Park, one can encounter an excellent example in the Farragut Memorial. The monument has a large pedestal base with bas-relief decoration and was Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ first public commission. Saint-Gaudens learned his craft while apprenticing for a cameo-cutter, and the memorial solidified his status as a skilled sculptor.

(It still stands where it was first dedicated in 1881, though the city replaced and replicated the sandstone base in more durable granite in 1934. The original base now lives at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish.)

La Chasse (The Hunt) by Raoul Dufy, printed on cotton. Dufy created colorful block-printed silk and cotton fabrics featuring the exotic motifs of the Art Deco era. 

While Saint-Gaudens work on Farragut was praised for its naturalism, our Garden Panel takes inspiration from the Art Deco era when floral motifs were highly stylized. The panel evokes depictions of dense, exotic landscapes like those found in prints by Raoul Dufy, a prolific Fauvist painter turned Art Deco textile designer.

Jeanne Lanvin’s Paris apartment by Armand Albert Rateau c. 1924-1925. Marble, bronze, glass, plasterwork and stucco. Photo from  Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Or perhaps we might look to the work of Armand Albert Rateau, also a major proponent of the Art Deco movement. In the Paris apartment he designed for fashion designer Jeanne Lanvin, a bas-relief mural wraps an alcove around the tub. Based on a drawing by Rateau, it shows a stag surrounded by a lush wooded landscape.

Flipping back through Bunny’s travel photos, we found multiple snaps of bas-relief detailing from a bygone trip she took to the Middle East with her husband John Rosselli. This one might look familiar, as it was taken at the Taj Mahal. (And at the golden hour. John’s faint silhouette can be seen to the right).

A closer up detail of a detailed flower relief at the Taj Mahal, carved in marble and surrounded by pietra dura inlay. Vegetal motifs play a predominant role on the exterior, as Islamic art traditionally opposes the representation of human or animal forms in religious art and architecture.

In another bas-relief detail captured from the same trip, an inner panel with more stylized plants is surrounded by geometric motifs. 

The Garden Panel at the Bunny Williams Home showroom some years ago. 

While we do encounter large-scale bas-relief through architectural detailing, we don’t see it nearly as often as freestanding interior decoration. Our Garden Panel seeks to change that, and at 60” x 60”, it’s an alternative to traditional artwork that easily commands an empty wall.

Our Garden Panel in a room designed by Miles Redd and David Kaihoi. Photo by Douglas Friedman. 

It’s always rewarding to see BWH pieces make their way into interiors by our talented design community. We love how Miles Redd and David Kaihoi of Redd Kaihoi used it here against a colorful wall treatment.

Our Garden Panel on an outdoor patio designed by Savage Interior Design. Photo by Emily Followill.

The panel can also be cast in exterior grade plaster to withstand the elements, as seen on this patio by Savage Interior Design—a spot we’d love to kick back with a glass of iced tea after a long week. Oh, what a relief! 

Learn more about the Bunny Williams Home Garden Panel here.

Posted to Collection on August 14, 2020

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