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Tag Archive: set decoration


Review by C.J. Bunce

Arsenic and Old Lace?  Truth is often stranger, darker, and more insidious than fiction.  Where the classic horror comedy dramaticized the historic use of arsenic as poison via elderberry wine, a routine use of the substance killed an incalculable number of people, probably at least in the tens of thousands, over the course of a little more than a century.  Imagine everything around you right now that is printed in the color green is printed with an ink which, if you brush against it, inhale it, touch it, or ingest even a minute amount of it, would kill you violently?  A recent scholarly account weaves together a tale of 18th-19th century science and psychology, beauty, style, and design, products liability and corporate greed, political cartoonists and iconic leaders of art history, and a scholarly account of an artform and staple of the arts and crafts movement in the most unlikely of collisions with day-to-day life.  Lucinda Dickens Hawksley’s Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home is a book about wallpaper.  And it could be the most surprising and intriguing book you read this year.

At one level Bitten by Witch Fever could be a useful tool–included in its pages are facsimiles, and thankfully only facsimiles, of 275 color wallpapers from the 19th century.  It’s almost unprecedented and an ideal sourcebook for the period, for local or commercial set decorators, or for any artists and designers attempting to recreate in any medium the average household of the day or the most opulent business setting.  Yet each of the papers represented was tested by current scientists to include arsenic.  Predominantly tied to greens of a century of wallpaper style and taste, ultimately arsenic would be worked by designers into a broad spectrum of the color palette.  But mankind has known the harm of arsenic going back to ancient times, right?  It’s the complexity of the “Why?” that art and social historian (and Charles Dickens’ great-great-great granddaughter) Hawksley wrestles with in revisiting the use of arsenic in all its forms: as domestic poison, as health tonic, as pigment enhancer, and as murder weapon, and its rise in production with the rise of fashion of decorative wallpaper.  But why “witch fever”?  That reference in the title was from a comment by apologist William Morris–the arts and crafts movement innovator artiste–who also inherited from his father one of the few mines that produced arsenic.  To brush off arsenic safety scaremongers, he had responded, “As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.”  In part, the realities were fuzzy: many people lived with wallpaper with no ill effects, and yet others sleeping in a closed room with wall-to-wall arsenic coated papers would become violently ill.  Hawksley identifies cases of alleged crimes, court cases, alleged murders, and attempts to halt arsenic use.  Throughout the 19th century political cartoonists drew cartoons mocking the public’s continuing use of the poison in daily life.  Many of these cartoons are also included in the book.

The horrors were real:  young siblings die after pulling wallpaper off their walls and licking off the strange flavor.  From an ancient Greek physician using arsenic as an antiseptic to Nero using arsenic to murder Britannicus, to Napoleon rumored to have died in exile from arsenic poisoning, to the death of a Swedish king and the Borgias, the history of the substance crosses borders and social strata.  A few countries were quick to ban its commercial use, while factories where it was used were slow to address safety issues for workers.  In 1775 chemist Carl Scheele’s new green was so vibrant that the real fever was very much public fascination with new, beautiful colors.  It was used on walls, but also in flypaper, flocked papers, rodent and insect poison, asthma and eczema cream, as a Victorian aphrodisiac, face creams and soaps, artificial decorative fruits and vegetables, dress fabrics, mail labels, playing cards, all sorts of product packaging, and (gulp) cake icing coloring, candy, and lickable postage stamps.

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Yeah, Black Friday and Star Trek set decoration don’t really seem to go together, do they?  I’ll explain.

If you happened to be out and about on the retailers’ big day this week, and you happened to walk by the Target Portrait Studios inside your local Target Store, you might have seen this:

So what’s the big deal?  If you’re a Star Trek fan you might notice that Target is using some Italian-made “Calligaris Jam” counter stools for their photo salon guests.  Still no idea what I’m talking about?  These are the same style of chair that Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk is sitting in when he first meets Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, also sitting in this style of chair, in a Riverside, Iowa, bar, in the 2009 Star Trek movie.  This was the first ever meeting of these two characters in the Star Trek universe. The stools are visible at either side of the frame in this scene from the movie:

This isn’t an every-day chair, and set designer Karen Manthey selected these fairly high end stools along with chairs for the Riverside, Iowa, location filmed in L.A. from the Italian design company’s selection of futuristic colors.  Below is a screen-used version from the set of the film, in the transparent orange variety, which CBS Paramount sold at auction a few years ago with a handful of other props from this scene.  Target has the transparent red-colored version of the chair.  At $300-400 per chair, Target Stores must be doing fine in this troubled economy!

   

If you’re wanting to bring some of the Star Trek futuristic look to your own home, you can buy these online in the bar stool version or a chair version, which also was used in the Riverside bar scene in the film–for the Star Trek fan who has everything, as they say.

Or if you decide to use the Target Portrait Studio this season and you want to get a little sci-fi slant to your photo, ask to use this chair, and send the photo along and we might post it here.  Very unusual to see these obscure chairs as we roamed on Black Friday.

While we’re discussing the Riverside bar scene, below are photos of detail of a screen-used cadet sweater worn by background female cadets in the 2009 Star Trek film.  This is the same uniquely knitted costume sweater as worn by Zoe Saldana playing Uhura as she sat on the bar stools in the above scene in the film.

 

Although Anovos is scheduled to produce a Starfleet female cadet uniform for cosplayers, they haven’t yet announced whether they will produce a sweater for the set as used in the film.  Here is their prototype replica from their booth at Comic-Con this year:

Check out the Anovos website for other custom gift ideas for your favorite Trekker or Trekkie.

C.J. Bunce

Editor

borg.com

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