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The Ordinary As Object of Desire

A kettle by John G. Rideout (1936)

EXHIBITION REVIEW “What Was Good Design? MoMA’s Message 1944-56” runs through Nov. 30 at the Museum of Modern Art, (212) 708-9400

Museum of Modern Art Website

Article By Roberta Smith

From the New York Times, June 5, 2009

“What is good design?” may not be one of life’s great existential questions, but it ranks high among those that plague modern times. It is at least as old as the Industrial Revolution and the accompanying rise of factories, cheap manufactured goods and urban crowding. These developments created problems and opportunities that city planners, architects and designers have been triumphing or tripping over ever since. The results have ranged from brilliant to tragic, as a casual look at any American city will tell you.

This question became the title of a series of five exhibitions, “What Is Good Design?,” initiated by the Museum of Modern Art in 1950. But there were countless other shows not as effectively branded: a series titled “Useful Objects” that began in 1938, and exhibitions with more pedestrian names, like “Printed Textiles for the Home” (1946) or “New Lamps” (1951). The Modern also sponsored international design competitions that fed into these shows.

With these astutely coordinated efforts, the Modern promulgated not the High Modernism of Picasso and Braque, et al., but the modernism of everyday life. It was a museum with a mission: shaping consumer taste by presenting objects that people might want and could afford. The design ideals were largely Bauhaus derived, starting with truth to materials and forms that followed function and including the notion that good design should be available to all and like good nutrition was essential for a healthy life.

Now the Modern is revisiting its role as design arbiter with “What Was Good Design? MoMA’s Message 1944-56,” a selection of more than 100 objects from its design collection, organized by Juliet Kinchin, curator, and Aidan O’Connor, curatorial assistant, in the architecture and design department. These objects include furnishings, tools and implements of recreation. (For example a broom, rake, hunting bow and fishing rod, all in sleek metal, are on view now.)

Many familiar classics are on hand, like Tupperware, the Chemex coffee maker, Ray and Charles Eames’s multicolored storage unit and Greta Von Nessen’s ingenious “Anywhere” lamp (1951), which could sit or hang. Also here is the butterfly (or B.K.F.) chair. A staple of 1950s and ’60s American life, the chair was invented in 1938 by the Argentine designers Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy (hence, B.K.F.) and has been widely knocked off.

Nearly everything on view originally appeared in one or the other of these exhibitions. Among the veterans of the “Useful Objects” shows are the 1932 Wear-Ever rotary food press, which looks almost as primitive as a butter churn, and John G. Rideout’s 1936 tea kettle, whose hemispherical form and thick wood handle — at once streamlined and sturdy — seem almost timelessly modern.

The “What Is Good Design?” shows in particular were organized by Edgar Kaufmann Jr., one of the trust-funded, dollar-a-year curatorial types who were so important in MoMA’s early years, working under the optimistic title director of good design. The shows were essentially “best of” selections that Mr. Kaufmann drew from semiannual displays at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.

Department stores could order promotional materials from the Merchandise Mart or MoMA that included the museum’s black-and-orange Good Design logo. There was advertising synergy all around. The Modern’s seal of approval helped promote consumer products and the museum’s identity.

This show is slightly camouflaged because it is installed at one end of the design collection’s permanent galleries and tends to blend in with the other displays (a testament to the inadequacy of the Modern’s recent expansion — a major design flaw in itself). In addition, many items on view are extremely familiar collectibles thanks to art and design fairs, lifestyle magazines and, in no small way, MoMA itself, especially its vaunted gift shop. But the show is full of interesting information and has a kind of transparency about the Modern’s history that is unusual. And there is a fairly high frequency of interesting trivia. For example the precursor to Tupperware, designed by Earl S. Tupper, was called Welcome Ware, as if it were something to be put out for guests.

Included among the classics are beautiful everyday objects not necessarily seen every day, like the brass-and-steel plumb bob, a must-have on any construction site, designed by O. J. Kuker of Seattle around 1948. And there are several little-known idiosyncratic pieces, including a chair made from an inner tube and string netting that William H. Miller Jr. designed around 1944 in an attempt to put surplus materials from the war to peaceful uses. The designer Davis J. Pratt achieved better results by covering a folded inner tube with a material so thickly woven it suggests a closely cropped shag rug; the fuzzy yet pneumatic shape that results is one of the show’s standouts and, were a poll taken, would probably be the one most people would like to try out. But the most elegant use of unexpected materials is Gio Ponti’s spindly Leggera side chair (1951), whose seat is woven from cellophane rush.

Several objects resulting from MoMA’s competitions are on view, along with the large panels that detailed their construction schemes. One surprise is a back-to-basics chair using wood and string, designed by Alexey Brodovitch, the influential art director of Harper’s Bazaar. In contrast the historical aura hangs thick around the Eames white plastic chaise. Inspired by Gaston Lachaise’s 1927 “Reclining Nude” sculpture and wittily named La Chaise in his honor, this rather abstract form also evokes a cloud-and-moon motif by Magritte reinterpreted by Jean Arp. Entered in the Modern’s Low-Cost Furniture Competition of 1948, it was passed over for a prize for being too “specialized in use.” The original full-scale model shown here was given to the museum by the designers in 1973. It is surprising to learn from the label that it did not go into production until 1990.

Mr. Kaufmann, the Modern’s maestro of good design, appears here in a newsreel, impeccably suited and gallantly guiding an attractive young woman through one of the earlier exhibitions, demonstrating chairs, lighting fixtures and Lazy Susans. He also has the best line in the current show, quoted in a label: “A good design will never pretend to be more than one thing at a time.” An anti-Surrealist principle to live by, it annihilates much of what passes for contemporary design today.

Another idea is that good design should never be more than it needs to be, and that notions of restraint, economy and efficiency should be built into it. This may speak even more resonantly to our shopped-out, overequipped times, when it is nonetheless often lamented that today’s children may not enjoy a better, more comfortable standard of living than their parents. The idea that American materialism will not continue its unabated, soul-deadening growth seems more an occasion for celebration than regret. This exhibition suggests that when it comes to standards of living, a bit less in the way of consumables could result in a lot more spiritually.

About Mark Walhimer

Mark is Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC, a museum planning and exhibition project management firm of interactive educational environments for Science Centers, Children's Museums and Natural History Museums. You can reach Mark at mark@walhimer.com.

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