“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)

“apostles of beauty” (arts and crafts exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago)

crop morris cray 1885

"Cray" panel (William Morris, ca. 1885)

The new exhibition at the Art Institute (click here for the website) certainly delivers the beauty. Only a biased Modernist or partisan Classicist would fail to find something to love in this show, which is stuffed with furniture, textiles, lithographs, ceramics, metalwork and a dozen other kinds of art, most of it dating from the 1870s to the 1910s, and all of it related one way or another to the Arts and Crafts movement that began in mid-nineteenth-century Britain.

But that vastness of enterprise is part of this imperfect exhibition’s undoing. Its broad sweep goes far beyond the content that appears to be announced in the exhibition’s advertisement as Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago. By reading the advertised subtitle, one might expect to see and learn about art and design in those two places and the transmission of ideas between them, and not a collection of Arts and Crafts goods that somehow found their way to area collections. The curators have used the preposition “to” rather broadly; the journey of Arts and Crafts ideals is actually from Britain to a dozen other places in America, and finally to Chicago—but then beyond: the show concludes with Scottish furniture and German criticism. And, although the approach to the Arts and Crafts as a philosophical point of view more than a stylistic movement is valid, the exhibit uses this as an excuse to bring unexpected disciplines into the tent while leaving some we’d expect to find there at the periphery, if not abandoning them out in the cold.

D. G. Rossetti Beata Beatrix 1871

Beata Beatrix (D. G. Rossetti, 1871)

The exhibition begins promisingly enough, with a brief acknowledgement of the movement’s founding fathers: A. W. N. Pugin, John Ruskin, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Beatrix, at left, represents all of the Pre-Raphaelites). It’s a brief overview, but reasonably solid, although the suggestion that Pugin’s Catholicism was an excuse for his medievalism is stated in terms that are a little strong. (But more of him later.)

The immediate impact of these progenitors as portrayed in the following room provides the strongest display in the five-part exhibit. Fans of the Arts and Crafts will thrill at the very walls shouting out the glories of the movement with well-known quotes from Morris and C. F. A. Voysey, with some of their famous works close at hand. It’s a wonderful collection, chockfull of things you expect to see in a big Arts and Crafts show: Philip Webb’s iconic Morris chair (see one by clicking here), a range of Voysey and Morris textiles, the Kelmscott Chaucer (see another copy by clicking here), metalwork by M. H. Baillie Scott. And there are some unexpected delights (which is what a big exhibition is supposed to have, right?), like two big Edward Burne-Jones cartoons for stained glass windows (click here). Better yet, the kinds of things I was hoping to see in a Chicago-centric show: Marion Mahony Griffin’s lush renderings (on satin!) of Wright designs and Chicago illustrator Will H. Bradley’s zincographs for the locally-published Chap-Book are delightful and on-point. Also interesting is the small section on Ukiyo-e prints as part of the concurrent “Japanism” in the later nineteenth century, which touches on the influence of Japanese prints in America, specifically among Chicago collectors and the impact of Japanese goods at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 that was followed by a Ukiyo-e exhibition at the Art Institute designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908. There were enough compelling ideas in that one corner to mount a separate exhibition.

bradley chapbook

Chap-Book (Will Bradley, 1895)

The intellectual clarity and visual thematic purpose so clear in that display fell apart upon crossing the threshold; the rest of the show gave me the distinct impression that the curators had filled out the rest of the exhibition with whatever was lying around upstairs, and/or got tired and forgot what it was they set out to accomplish in the first place. Ostensibly this part of the exhibition was intended to portray the general sweep of Arts and Crafts influence in America, but it was not comprehensive enough to really do that job, nor did it enhance the “Chicago” angle of the exhibit. With the exception of two small pieces by Midwestern jewelers Marie Zimmerman and Mildred Watkins (whose pendant necklace is one of the loveliest objects in the exhibition), the exhibition takes an artistic and intellectual freefall into a realm that includes admittedly nice things (Greene and Greene furniture, Arthur Wesley Dow paintings, more than enough of the Gustav Stickley catalogue), but they do not enhance the Britain/Chicago angle. At all. And their selection seems incredibly hit-or-miss. This is especially true of the display of some two dozen Pictorialist photographs which apparently have some philosophical underpinning in common with the Arts and Crafts movement, but their inclusion was really a stretch. Mind you, there are worse things you can do with your time than look at Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, but this part of the exhibition in particular reveals significant mission drift—especially on the heels of what felt like a really good start.

The exhibition increasingly suffers just from plain old bad design: wall text without clear connection to displays, elements strewn far and wide through the room. Even in the one corner set up like a little sitting-room, the objects were treated so individually that it became painfully obvious just how challenging it is to show the Arts and Crafts—a movement tied to the “total work of art” environment, and the intimate domestic scale if ever there was one—in a museum setting (although, for the record, it’s not impossible: the Delaware Art Museum displays a fine collection of Arts and Crafts decorative arts and Pre-Raphaelite painting in a colorful gallery complete with Morris Wall paper and period-appropriate furniture that visitors are allowed to use). The irony of this movement, dedicated to beautifying ordinary objects and obliterating the notion of “fine” art, sequestered in a museum that has the gall to charge $60 for a family of four to visit, suddenly dawned on me as a sad legacy of this exhibit.


Vase (Teco Potteries, ca. 1910)

The final room is the most disappointing for anyone who came for a celebration of Chicago design in the context of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Such parallel movements as department store development (earlier we read a note about Liberty of London and see a tiny sampling of Liberty goods; how interesting it would have been to compare Mr. Liberty with Marshall Field), social reform and education are all alluded to, but not really taken up. Text and a photo reference Hull House, but I could only find a single example of its craft production on display. Instead of looking more deeply into these lesser-known subjects—which have a very strong philosophical connection with the roots of the movement in Britain—, we get another load of Wright furniture and Sullivan ornament which is, you know, fine and all, but we’ve seen these things before. There’s a little (actually, too little) from local craft firms Teco, Gates Potteries and the Kalo Shop; their pottery and silver are both Chicago-specific and Arts and Crafts-inspired. More of this—which would have emphasized the role of Chicago like the exhibition title suggests—and fewer pieces of crummy Mackintosh furniture—allegedly part of the proof of the international quality of the movement, which again seems off-point—would have been very welcome. A few local goods that are rarely seen, and maybe for good reason, includes some incredibly clunky pieces by George Maher, and an orange velvet curtain with a thorn design that is really pretty great—but, it hung in a house that Maher designed for some very wealthy folks in Evanston: not exactly an example of the reformist story that is suggested (but not illustrated very well) on the other side of the room.

By the time I was at the end of the room and ready to exit—nearly blinded by one more far-too-brightly-lit stained glass by you-know-who (which reminds me: honestly, do we need another exhibition poster featuring another Wright window?)—I had the same feeling as I do when I am grading an essay by a student with a really good thesis, but who feels compelled to include every scrap of research he’s completed. That is understandable for a college student learning to self-edit; it’s not OK for the curatorial team for a big fat exhibition.

Lastly, my disappointment bordered on distraction by a final bit of wall text featuring a quotation by Hermann Muthesius (from his publication The English House—although the exhibition doesn’t tell us that), who, it turns out, is the source of the reference to “apostles” in the exhibition title. In 1901 he wrote of the Arts and Crafts:

Once the movement had gathered momentum, another way out emerged: the way of modern art. The essential means towards it had been the ethical values practiced by those apostles on the basis of medieval art, the sincerity, faithfulness, and pleasure taken by the workmen in their work, in general: the good workmanship, genuine materials and sound construction, in particular. The medieval forms that the apostles had advocated as indispensable concomitants of these values disappeared at last and out of the ashes rose the phoenix of modern art.

Muthesius is a provocative and significant choice to physically cap off the exhibition space that was opened with Pugin, the most medieval of the “apostles.” The means by which Pugin’s moralizing design theory eventually was hammered and bent into the ideas which spawned the Modernist movement of the 1920s is a fascinating road: you can draw a line (maybe not a straight one, but a line nonetheless) from the Red House to the Bauhaus. But that little intellectual thrill is only available if (1) you have read a whole bunch of books about this period and (2) if you go looking really hard for some sort of (intellectual) saving grace in this show.  But more importantly, interesting as the Pugin-Muthesius connection is, it too is off-message.

Because of the curators’ inconsistent treatment of their subject and scattered design of the galleries they don’t really accomplish the aim of making the exhibit more about Arts and Crafts philosophy than turn-of-the-century style; nor does it follow through on the promise of celebrating its host city.  In spite of the exhibition’s uneven quality and shifting points of view, it does accomplish the task of bringing together a variety of aesthetically delightful objects, from chairs to jewelry and from books to textiles.   The ultimate message of the “apostles” may be obscured in its translation from mid-nineteenth-century Britain to twenty-first-century Chicago, but the beauty of the objects transcends even a clunky exhibition.

crop voysey purple bird 1899

"Purple bird" (C. F. A. Voysey, 1899)

“Apostles of Beauty: Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago”runs from November 7, 2009 to January 31, 2010