(Welcome Anna! — Anna Hoffman is our new columnist for Retrospect, a weekly post exploring design history and its influence on current design & style)
For an obsolete item, the convex mirror is enjoying quite a renaissance. Barely an Elle Decor goes by without the classic bulbous form adding a glamorous shimmer to a room decorated by one of the contemporary masters of Hollywood Regency or Modern Classicism.
The convex mirror has, in fact, gone in and out of style since the Eighteenth Century, when glassmakers in Louis XIV's France figured out how to press plate glass into large flat mirrors (making possible the famous Hall of Mirrors at Versailles). Before that era, only the Venetians knew how to make flat mirrors — mirrors were otherwise blown by hand — and convex mirrors seem to have served the expected decorative function of adding light and reflection to interiors. Painters would also use the convex mirror as a tool of perspective. Jan van Eyck's famous 1434 Arnolfini portrait (Image 1) contains the first known image of a convex mirror, included in part to show off the technical skill it took to reproduce the distorted reflection. The mirror's frame is a crenellated sunburst, a Gothic harbinger of future styles.
The convex mirror was favored in the Neo-classical Regency and Georgian periods in England and America, in the early Nineteenth Century, often surmounted by eagles and surrounded by little spheres. It is this vintage of convex mirror that Dorothy Draper hung at the Greenbrier in the late 1940s, and that Billy Baldwin put in Diana Vreeland's New York apartment in 1956 (Image 2). Tony Duquette, obsessed with the sunburst motif, would put convex hubcaps in sunburst frames, a cheeky, modern twist on Baroque excess (Image 3).
Today, the sunburst convex mirror remains a popular choice for injecting a little tasteful froth to a contemporary interior, while the more simple, geometrical examples can offer a gently masculine sobriety (Image 4). Convex mirrors of both varieties can be found at places like Jonathan Adler and Restoration Hardware (Image 5), as well as at antique shops everywhere.
(Images: 1 Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (1434): National Gallery, London 2 The living room in Diana Vreeland's Park Avenue apartment, designed by Billy Baldwin in 1955: via Peak of Chic 3 Tony Duquette's hubcap screens, at his home, Dawnridge, redecorated by Hutton Wilkinson circa 2000: Tony Duquette 4 A recent Miles Redd interior: Thomas Loof/House Beautiful 5 Restoration Hardware "Marisol" mirror: Restoration Hardware)
Anna Hoffman received her Master's Degree in the History of Decorative Arts from Bard, and is now an instructor of Design History at Parsons.