“good design” at the Smart Museum

Lindig tea pot -Smart Museum, Chicago

Otto Lindig, earthenware tea pot (1929)

Typically when the phrase “Mid-Century Modernism” is bandied about (in Our experience at MoT, this happens most frequently among architects and design school faculty–who can bandy with the best of ’em), the speaker assumes everyone to understand that the century in question is the twentieth.  Those talismanic words should prompt the listener to instantly conjure heroic images of, say, anything that Mies van der Rohe might have designed, built, sat on, worn, drank from, driven or smoked.  This is the typical image of what “Modernism” means; it is a picture painted primarily by a group of critic/historians like Sigfried Giedion and Carl Condit, who arranged design history of the post-Industrial Revolution era into a neat, tidy ascending line beginning with the “functional” aspects of the British Arts and Crafts and finding its apex in a narrow, if undeniably significant, band of work that fits within the confines of the International Style.  In this story, proper twentieth-century design is industrial, ahistorical, purely “rational” and above all else über-functional.  If the theory is taken to its extreme, We would have to say that twentieth-century designers really had little imaginative involvement in the calculation of practical objects: don’t blame (or praise) me; the zeitgeist made me do it.

Marianne Brandt, metal tea pot (1924)

A more recent development in criticism and scholarship recognizes that the movement which still commonly commandeers the term modern (the problem with this word-hijacking is another tale for another day) is much messier and harder to pin down.  It appreciates that the Mid-Century Modernism of Mies, et al., was not a foregone conclusion, nor the only reasonable development of the era.  Instead, it looks to earlier periods to work out the difficult details to find the fuller story, believing that the previous century’s middle had some pretty interesting things happening too, and they were often the result of creative individuals thinking, well, individually.  This is the kind of approach taken by the Smart Museum’s exhibition “Mid-Century: ‘Good Design’ in Europe and America, 1850-1950.”

Wilhelm Wagenfeld, glass tea pot (ca. 1931)

The exhibition reveals a strong sense of the real quality of work in this century (+/-), and the great range of design that could be considered “good.”  Given the fact that the exhibition has no loaned objects, and is relatively small, its scope is especially admirable.  “Good Design” communicates the diversity of form/aesthetic arising from different designers’ interests/taste; We are delighted to see that the website text actually refers to taste (as in “aesthetic preference”) as a viable consideration within the design process itself as well as a factor for the critic/historian to weigh with other contextual issues.  Exemplary works like the trio of tea pots shown here reveal drastically different forms (organic and mechanistic), materials (natural and industrial) and general qualities (opaque and transparent) even while performing the same basic function.  All of them designed by Germans within six years of each other, the vessels exhibit their designers’ different views of what modern form should suit the function of brewing tea.

Edmond Johnson, metal processional cross (ca. 1891) & A. W. N. Pugin, dessert plate (ca. 1849)

Such comparative display pieces related by time and place abound through the exhibition (behold the family of vases . . . consider the herd of chairs . . .), within an overall narrative that is is roundly inclusive for the century advertised in the exhibition title.  It opens with two Gothic Revival works, including the requisite A. W. N. Pugin piece (as all good modern design exhibitions seem to do lately–although one wonders how Pugin himself would feel about being colored a proto-modernist while his unwavering Catholicism is cleanly cut from the discussion: he is represented not by church fittings but rather a cake tray).  Associated with these, as they are within the historical record, are some nice Sorta-Nouveau works, including a very pretty biscuit tin from Liberty & Co. (and if you are a regular here at MoT, you know We always reward extra credit for the inclusion of Liberty in any undertaking).

Archibald Knox, metal 'biscuit barrel' (ca. 1903)

Vilmos Huszár, maquette for a side chair (1918-19)

The exhibit catalogues some famous items, such as those drawn from the well-worn path of the Prairie School (including–you guessed it!–a Robie House dining set, abiding by Illinois law that nineteenth/twentieth century design exhibitions MUST include the Robie House dining room furniture and at least one Frank Lloyd Wright window per 5,000 SF of exhibition space).  But it also includes some surprising and interesting unknowns.  One piece that was new to Us was a maquette for a side chair by Hungarian de Stijl designer Vilmos Huszár.  It’s a crude little thing, but shows that Gerrit Rietveld was not the only one obsessed with primary-colored planes and lines back in the 1910s.  (Speaking of “humble” work, there is also a jarringly coarse Mies drawing on display that makes one wonder, if Herr Ludwig was better at freehand sketching, would he have relied on the straightedge and compass so much?  Who knows how differently the twentieth century might have turned out if he had just learned to draw back in Aachen.)

Charles and Ray Eames, leg splint (1942) & chair (1946)

In short, “Good Design” is a terrific little exhibition that assesses famous designers along with the less-well-known for a comprehensive view of a richly diverse period.  The catch phrase, good design, is cited not only for the general idea of reformist design in the period 1850-1950, but is taken from a series of competitions and exhibitions that were the joint work of MOMA in New York and the Chicago Merchandise Mart.  We would have liked more fleshing out of this collaboration, but are satisfied to have been made aware of it; the curator of this show (Richard A. Born) is a good teacher, and makes us want to get a book from the library to find out more about that nibble of Chicago design history, as well as this Hungarian Huszár, and makes us think that maybe We should read a little more about Archibald Knox while We are at it.  With its placement of the usual suspects (like Mies’  lounge chair for the German Pavilion in Barcelona) among lesser-known points of contrast (like a folding chair with woven cane seat and back by Dane Hans Weber that begs to be compared with the Barcelona lounger), made this much more than a university museum trying to make do with whatever it had in storage (as such, it was much more successful than the Art Institute’s recent Arts and Crafts exhibition).  Seeing that famous Eames chair next to a leg splint reinforces the idea that these iconic pieces did not solidify out of vapor but had strong connections to historical events: in this case, the designers’ association with wartime activities.  The arrangement is straightforward, with variety set within four historically consecutive timeframes.  The wall text was helpful enough without being overbearing; it felt very much like a place for discovery and/or teaching–as indeed the whole museum is curated to serve education at several levels.

Exhibits such as this one help to repair the damage done by several generations of modernist critics pushing an agenda that was historically inaccurate and also, well, just sort of boring.  Whereas the famous MOMA show of 1932 organized by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock worked overtime to squish examples from Plano to Brno into a strict and unforgiving thesis, the Smart exhibition takes the evidence and tells the story that the objects communicate.  It’s a richer, more honest and smarter look at a great century of design.

Hans J. Wegner, folding chair (1949) & Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, lounge chair (1929)

“Mid-Century: ‘Good Design’ in Europe and America, 1850-1950” at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago: July 8 – September 5, 2010

Museum Credits:

Otto Lindig, Glazed slip-cast earthenware tea pot (1929; Gift of Barry Friedman, 2004.384a-b)

Marianne Brandt, hammered sterling silver and ebony tea pot (designed in 1924; anon. gift in memory of Liesl Landau, 2006.19.1-2006.19.4)

Wilhelm Wagenfeld, glass tea pot (ca. 1931; Gift of Barry Friedman, part of a tea service: 2004.395, 2004.396, 2005.29a-b, 2005.30)

Edmond Johnson, wrought and cast metal Processional Cross of Cong with gilt, silver, enamel, and glass decoration (ca. 1891, 1967.121.2)

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, glazed stoneware Dessert Plate (ca. 1849, 1997.7)

Archibald Knox for Liberty & Co., cast pewter Biscuit Barrel with enamel inlay (ca. 1903, 1997.23a-b)

Vilmos Huszár, painted pine maquette for a side chair (1918-19, 1988.80)

Charles and Ray Eames, leg splint (1942, 1984.28) and Chair (1946, 1984.23) both molded and bent plywood

Hans J. Wegner, oak-frame folding chair with woven split cane seat and back (designed in 1949, 1991.353)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, chrome-plated steel frame lounge chair with leather upholstery (1929, 1985.31)

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