Bygone grandeur revisited

The museum that's also an Art Deco masterpiece

by Victoria James

Museums are usually places for looking at things in, not places to look at themselves. Some, though — like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York — are works of art in their own right, and the Teien Art Museum in Shirokanedai, Tokyo, falls squarely into that category.

Completed in 1933 to serve as the palace of Prince Asaka and his wife Nobuko, a daughter of Emperor Meiji, the Teien is the masterpiece of Art Deco designer Henri Rapin.

After the war, the palace passed into the hands of the state, and in 1983 it finally reopened as an art gallery that, most months of the year, hosts exhibitions from around the world. Unfortunately, though, when the exhibits come in, the curtains are drawn and protective covers sheath the walls. Visitors tour the rooms largely oblivious to the chandeliers by glassmaster Rene Lalique or to the artistry of the few original furnishings and fittings left visible, from sumptuous paneling right down to humble ventilation-shaft covers.

Once a year, though, the Teien exhibits nothing but itself, with attention paid in turn to different portions of the interior and aspects of the construction history. Covers come down, doors are opened, items usually kept in storage are restored to their original place — and, best of all, light floods the spacious interior. “It is,” says Tomoko Okabe, the Teien’s curator, “a time for the museum just to be itself. We open it up so that it really feels like a house.”

This year, the focus is on the Grand Guest Room and the Dining Hall, two of the principal reception rooms downstairs. The ground floor was the public space of the Asaka Residence, as it was originally known, with the upper floor being the family’s private apartments. It was in these downstairs rooms that Lalique’s creativity and Rapin’s flamboyant refinement were given freest rein.

The approach to the Grand Guest Room was through Lalique’s fabulous glass portico doors, bearing winged goddesses. Visitors were next confronted with the quasi-Grecian “perfume tower” — a vast porcelain urn that wafted the aroma of scent poured into it. More doors then led into the Guest Room itself.

Now, though, there is a side entrance, and the etched mirror-glass doors are closed, sparkling in the sunshine pouring through four ceiling-to-floor windows. Restored to their original golden-brown tones, the flanking pilasters of lacquered sycamore evoke the room’s former grandeur.

Even the details are a delight, such as the fire grate that match the radiator covers, both designed by Rapin. Their ironwork motif — of fish swimming through vertical wavy fronds of weed and the horizontal waves of a current — is repeated under the bay window of the adjoining Great Dining Room. But the decoration of this second chamber is so extravagant that such details tend to go unnoticed.

Instead, the eye is immediately caught by a heavily plastered, silver-painted stucco wall that faces diners entering from the guest room, its incised floral pattern the work of the artist known simply as Blanchot. This competes for attention with the mantelpiece on the north wall: A panel painting by Rapin sets a red pergola against a peaches-and-cream sky; the scene’s unlikely coloration was intended to match the white-veined yellow marble of the fireplace below and the facing of the interior.

Almost over-the-top, the dining room’s decoration is redeemed by its functionality. There is no art for its own sake, no statues or vases, simply the everyday made artistic: in other words, the essence of Art Deco.

The Teien is not only the sole surviving example of the Art Deco style in Japan — its pedigree has few rivals worldwide. Its design sprang from the very source of Art Deco inspiration, the definitive “Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes,” which Prince Asaka attended in Paris in 1925.

Rapin and Lalique were the stars of the exposition, which ushered in the “1925 Style” that we know today as Art Deco. When Prince Asaka set to creating his own home in 1931, its interior design was entrusted to the two French artists, though construction of the building itself was the preserve of the then Imperial Household Ministry.

For the three years it took to build the residence, the ministry’s master craftsmen wore white gloves and robes throughout, as their undertaking was a sacred one. As Rapin never came to Japan, and all the items were made under his supervision and shipped over for re-assembly, one can only imagine the workers’ surprise when the crates were opened. Reportedly, the slender ornamental pillars for Prince Asaka’s second-floor living room caused the greatest stir.

Still surprising and still stylish, 70 years on, the Teien’s elegant interior deserves its place in the sun — before the curtains are closed for another year.