Many design-watchers like me will associate early spring with searching for new design by trudging around the Milan Furniture Fair. Instead, this year we can meander through one of the greatest palaces in Europe and still get our dose of contemporary design. Mighty Chatsworth, the seat of sixteen generations of the Cavendish family nestled in the heart of the Peak District in Derbyshire, is hosting an exhibition until late October, celebrating a range of recent and new seating installed along the tourist route throughout its rooms.
The frisson of placing new art and design in older contexts has become quite a familiar trope in the upper reaches of the heritage industry. At St Paul’s Cathedral, for example, there is now an altarpiece by video artist Bill Viola, and our national museums have been installing contemporary work alongside the historic collections since at least the 1990s, seeking dialogue between the different periods, and also sometimes courting controversy and debate. Last year a large exhibition of Ai Wei Wei’s conceptual art was installed throughout Blenheim Palace and its gardens in Oxfordshire in a conscious, and I trust successful, bid to attract a different audience to visit.
The success of these initiatives often lies with the degree of sensitivity between the new cuckoos and their historic nests. While Chatsworth house and its extraordinary contents is predominantly early eighteenth-century, each successive Duke of Devonshire has left his mark on the building and its collections with additions from his own era. This makes it both historic and contemporary and possible to understand the house as a dynamic, active domestic interior right up to the present day.
The exhibition, Make Yourself Comfortable at Chatsworth, is a direct result of the present Duke and Duchess’s interest in contemporary furniture, and many of the pieces are from their personal collection amassed in recent years. Therefore the contemporary designs one encounters in the historic rooms are continuous with the existing collections.
Several loans are clever or witty responses to the social order represented by the state apartments, for example Moritz Waldemeyer’s By Royal Appointment chairs that suggest thrones. The grand four-poster bed in the state bed chamber would have been the most expensive piece of furniture in its day, so it has been partnered, surprisingly but effectively, with the most expensive piece of contemporary furniture, Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge. Elsewhere, Sebastian Brajkovic’s photoshopped and distorted Lathe V rococo chair stands beside genuine French eighteenth century pieces.
The exhibition also includes several new commissions that will be retained by Chatsworth for the future, including Tom Price’s striking pair of benches called Counterpart. One is made of coal, referencing the mineral rights that literally and metaphorically underpin the family’s wealth. The other, made of resin injected with tar, refers to the mineral collection at Chatsworth amassed by Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire in the eighteenth century. Most striking and possibly the most enlightened commission is from Raw Edges who have entirely filled the sculpture gallery with Endgrain, a multi-coloured installation of stools and benches that appear to grow out of the floor.
Not everyone will agree with every choice, but each addition to the rooms is justified and together they add another layer to the many periods and styles, stories and people that comprise the living history of the house.
Gareth Williams is an independent curator, writer and lecturer about contemporary design, based in London.