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Metal from Clay: Pittsburgh's Aluminum Stories

Metal from Clay: Pittsburgh's Aluminum Stories
November 7, 2019 By: Dawn Reid Brean, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts

Metal from Clay: Pittsburgh's Aluminum Stories

The Frick Pittsburgh is proud to be part of Metal from Clay: Pittsburgh’s Aluminum Stories, which opened last month at the University Art Gallery (UAG) at the University of Pittsburgh. The exhibition assembles objects spanning aluminum’s “myriad forms and uses across art, architecture, and design” from the nineteenth century to the present.

Aluminum leaf decoration was added to the breakfast room at Clayton during the 1892 renovation by Frederick J. Osterling, before new production methods for the metal had fully developed. At the time, aluminum was still regarded as an expensive luxury material. Dawn R. Brean, the Frick's Associate Curator of Decorative Arts, contributed an essay on the aluminum leaf decoration at Clayton to the accompanying publication, which you can read below. The exhibition catalogue features a detail shot of the decoration by photographer Jeffrey Krsul, who was commissioned by UAG to shoot tintypes of aluminum landmarks in Pittsburgh.

Jeffrey Krsul creating a tintype of the aluminum leaf decoration on the walls of the Clayton breakfast room for the Metal from Clay catalogue.

Metal from Clay is the culminating project for Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh, a consortium of local museums, galleries, and archives working together to share information and expertise and foster collaboration in research, teaching, and public engagement, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The exhibition is on view at the University Art Gallery through December 6, 2019.

Aluminum Leaf Decoration in Gilded Age Décor
Dawn R. Brean
Associate Curator of Decorative Arts, The Frick Pittsburgh

In 1890, Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick commissioned renowned architect Frederick J. Osterling (1865–1934) to oversee a renovation and enlargement of Clayton, his Point Breeze mansion. The resulting structure, completed in 1892, approximated the appearance of a Loire Valley chateau from sixteenth-century France. The interior was an elegantly refined mélange of design elements derived from antiquity and historicist revival, artistically blended in the prevailing aesthetic of the period. 

Although Clayton’s appearance was inspired by the past, Frick enhanced his home with the latest technology, undoubtedly influenced by his position and connections with fellow leaders of industry in the Pittsburgh region. The use of modern materials and technologies extended to the interior décor, including a striking and unusual treatment adorning the breakfast room—plaster tracery framing aluminum leaf decoration.

Intertwined bands wind across the surface of the walls and ceiling of the breakfast room in geometric compositions embellished with scrolling acanthus leaves. The raised plaster surface is piped on, similar to cake icing, while aluminum leaf fills the voids. The ornamental strapwork and foliage borrows freely from Byzantine and Renaissance style sources and relates to motifs seen throughout the home, but the historicist appearance belies the novel material it showcases.

The decoration was executed by New York firm A. Kimbel & Sons during the final stages of the 1892 renovation. The electrolytic process of producing aluminum had only recently been discovered in 1886; the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (later renamed the Aluminum Company of America) was founded in 1888. Before an affordable method for refining aluminum had been discovered, the material was considered a precious metal on par with silver or gold. While the electrolytic process lowered the cost of production, in 1892 aluminum’s potential applications remained largely untested and the material was still expensive, costing $1.00 per pound.1 In fact, the breakfast room decor cost $575, far more than the painted canvases created for other rooms of the house. The aluminum design at Clayton is quite possibly the first instance of aluminum leaf being used for interior decoration. It connoted luxury and opulence and served as a demonstration of one inventive use of a precious material.

Frick was likely well aware of the innovative material through his business network. Two of his closest friends were the Mellon brothers, Andrew W. and Richard Beatty, who made significant early investments in the aluminum industry in Pittsburgh. The Mellon brothers were frequent guests at Frick’s weekly after-dinner gatherings in the breakfast room at Clayton where the aluminum decoration served as a backdrop while they smoked cigars and played poker. See the decoration up close and learn more about life and technology in the Gilded Age on a guided tour of Clayton.

1Joseph W. Richards, “Statistics of the Aluminum Industry,” The Aluminum World 1, no. 9 (June 1895): 163.

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