Einstein’s Furniture tells his Story

Back in the 1970s, a series of books titled Nomadic Furniture promoted ideas about how to make lightweight beds, bookshelves and modules that were collapsible and easily reassembled for a peripatetic lifestyle. This kind of portable furniture would have been ideal for Albert Einstein who, from 1902 to 1933, moved from Bern, Switzerland, to Zurich, back to Bern, back to Zurich, then Prague, Zurich again, with summer escapes to Caputh, Germany, and then to Berlin, California, and finally Princeton.

Instead, as can be seen in Einstein at Home at the Historical Society of Princeton through Jan. 16, 2012, Einstein and his family lived with massive ornate bureaus, chests, trunks and tables, as was typical of the time he lived (1979-1955). These family heirlooms were acquired before the Bauhaus (1919-1933) stripped ornamentation from design.

You don’t have to know physics to appreciate this exhibit of family photographs, artwork, special memorabilia, and 17 select pieces of Einstein’s furniture from the Einstein Collection of the Historical Society of Princeton. The upholstered armchairs, desks, a sideboard and his victrola flesh out the story of Einstein’s life.

A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?” Einstein is quoted as saying in an exhibit panel.

In addition to the furnishings on display are personal items, such as his pipe, games, and photographs of the scientist at home working at his desk, meeting with notable visitors, playing his violin, and sitting in his favorite chair. Like the “At Home With…” column in The New York Times, Einstein at Home offers a glimpse into Einstein’s personal life at his Mercer Street home in Princeton, where he lived from 1935 until his death in 1955.

When Einstein and his second wife, Elsa, arrived in Princeton in 1933, according to legend, the first thing they did was to go to the Balt for ice cream (Einstein had first visited Princeton in 1921, the same year he won the Nobel Prize). The Einsteins lived at the Peacock Inn, then at 2 Library Place for a year-and-a-half. They moved into the Greek-Revival style house at 112 Mercer St. in 1935 where they lived with Elsa’s daughter, Margot, Einstein’s secretary, Helen Dukas, and his sister, Maja.

The 64 pieces of furniture, brought over from Berlin, were donated to HSP in 2003 by the Institute for Advanced Study, which owns 112 Mercer St. HSP’s collection includes decorative cabinets, a tall case clock, mirrors, lamps, beds and nightstands.

“These furnishings allow us to visualize Einstein contemplating scientific problems in his study at home; smoking a pipe while sitting in his well-worn chair; or talking with the many notable visitors he received at his home,” says the exhibition panel.

At one point, the Einsteins removed the rear wall of the house and put in a picture window for Einstein’s study. Einstein played chamber concerts with friends in this home (he began studying violin at age 6), and he was visited by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irene-Joliot Curie, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Paul Robeson and Henry Wallace, among others.

Einstein’s stepdaughter Margot lived in the house until her death in 1986. She willed the property to the Institute, which rented the house to faculty members who lived with these treasures. Most were made in Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries. By the end of the 1990s the furnishings were put into storage until the 2003 gift to HSP.

Many of the more ornate pieces came from Elsa’s family, which was also Einstein’s family – she was his first cousin on one side, second cousin on the other. Einstein divorced his first wife, Mileva, in 1919, the same year he married Elsa.

If you’re wondering how so many massive pieces of furniture fit into the house at 112, there are photographs on the walls showing Einstein and his family at home with these pieces. For example, there’s a photo of Einstein in what appears to be his favorite chair, right alongside the actual chair. In the photographs, you can track the changes in the upholstery of this chair. For example, there’s a 1938 photo of Einstein, wearing a leather jacket and no socks under his shoes, smoking a pipe in the chair that is now covered in a patterned upholstery. A 1954 photo shows the chair with the same upholstery it has today. In yet another image we see the chair with a striped fabric.

And Einstein did love his pipe. “Pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs,” he is to have said.

In fact, according to HSP Curator Eileen Morales, in 1935 Einstein and Elsa made a bet regarding whether he could stop smoking from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve. “He didn’t smoke during those four weeks, but he lit his pipe on New Year’s Day,” she recounts.

Most pieces in the show have undergone conservation by Milner and Carr in Philadelphia. Making the decisions on whether to show wear and tear was tricky, according to Ms. Morales. “We kept ink stains on the table because we knew he used it as a desk,” says Ms. Morales. “If it came from him we kept it, but if it was a structural issue, we repaired it.”

The goal is to conserve all the furniture, which is kept in a climate-controlled secure facility when not on display, and lend it to other museums, says Ms. Morales. A grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission helped with the conservation effort, and Wilmington Trust and PNC Bank helped to sponsor the exhibit.

Ultimately, when HSP offices move to the Updike Farm (scheduled to open in April), the second floor of Bainbridge House is scheduled for additional exhibition space to house some of the furniture.

Some of the more highly ornamented pieces come from the 1880s and 1890s, and is representative of the bourgeois lifestyle the Einstein family lived in Germany. There is a cabinet that is either Renaissance Revival or Baroque, with overlaid fretwork, gargoyles and cherubs in oak and other hardwoods.

“I don’t know that Einstein himself cared too much about wealth, but he wasn’t immune to concerns about money,” says Ms. Morales. Early in his career he worked as a patent clerk out of economic necessity. At night and on weekends, he did his scientific writing, until getting his first academic appointment in 1908. A photo shows the street in Bern where he lived while working as a patent clerk.

Another photo shows Einstein duded up in a three-piece plaid suit during the 1905 annus mirabilis – the so-called miracle year when he published five papers on the photoelectric effect; molecular dimensions; Brownian motion; theory of special relativity; and matter and energy equivalence (believe me, that’s all the physics this exhibit contains).

Mileva is pictured with the couple’s two sons, Hans Albert, who emigrated to the U.S., and Eduard, who developed schizophrenia while studying medicine to become a psychiatrist, and whose relations with his father was minimal.

A 1919 photograph of the Berlin apartment, with Einstein’s music stand that is in the permanent collection of HSP’s Princeton history room, looks vintage House Beautiful, with light washing through sheer curtains into a meticulously appointed room. “It may have been a magazine shoot, because already his opinion was being sought by journalists in all the isms: socialism, pacifism, internationalism,” says Ms. Morales.

Among the isms he fought while in Princeton was racism. When he learned that Marian Anderson, who was singing at McCarter Theatre, was refused a room at the Nassau Inn, he put her up in his home, and continued to do so every time she came to town.

The exhibit is suitable for the entire family, with flip panels asking such questions as where did Einstein like to eat in Princeton. (Hint: That restaurant closed in 2010.)

Einstein at Home is on view at Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau St., Princeton, through January 16, 2012. Hours: Tues.-Sun., noon-4 p.m. Suggested admission: $4; free for HSP members.  609-921-6748; www.princetonhistory.org.

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2 Responses to Einstein’s Furniture tells his Story

  1. Wonderful article, Ilene. There were so many things I didn’t know.

  2. Ilene, well written, fascinating, lively – you always enrich our lives.

    Here’s a motto all of us need – t shirt?
    “A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?” Einstein is quoted as saying in an exhibit panel.

    Of course, what Einstein needed most of all, and Princeton provided, was freedom. May we never lose it…

    Carolyn

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