Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Plain or Fancy?

I tried, really I did. But with a vintage Braun coffeemaker and Muji soap dishes, was there any chance I would prefer the items on the Fancy side of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s tiny new exhibit, “Plain or Fancy? Restraint and Exuberance in the Decorative Arts”? Not really.

I stood in front of the Dutch seventeenth-century nautilus cup—a pearly shell the size of a softball, surmounted with a golden Neptune riding a whale, out of whose mouth Jonah emerges (must not have been against the rules to mix mythologies). I wished the mount away. How much more beautiful would the shell be, how much easier to see its harmonic proportions, without all that glitz? For its owner, however, the unadorned shell didn’t show: the shell, like its neighbors made of stones of sardonyx and jasper, was a precious material without natural glamour. The lily needed gilding in order to demonstrate its worth.

The “Plain or Fancy?” exhibition, which is culled from the museum’s permanent collection of European decorative arts, begs viewers to stand in front of its forty objects and engage in similar internal disputes. Lists of synonyms for plain—masculine, severe, dull—and fancy—flamboyant, ostentatious, vulgar—are painted on walls that are gray and pink, respectively. Both the adjectives and the color choices seem a bit pushy, like putting words in the visitor’s mouth.