The above photograph credits belong to Allie Caulfield. Found on Flickr.
There’s a not-so-new exhibition making the rounds at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We found out about it through an article on The Detroit News: it is just a small, easy-to-miss, showing of furniture and industrial design, which appropriately greets all museum-goers with the same question:
Is there art in a broomstick?
This little inquiry comes from the MoMA’s previous Good Design exhibitions in the 50s, a number of showcasing efforts that provided a much-needed spotlight to various mid-century modern items.
At the time, most of the furniture pieces represented groundbreaking achievements in many areas of manufacturing, and we would say that all of them (for this very matter) have stayed relevant.
However, there is a contrast between the iconic pieces that have remained so enchanting, interesting, and oftentimes weird, and the pieces that have become ubiquitous, familiar, and commonly expected.
Exploring what makes us human through industrial design
The Value of Good Design attempts to bring both clusters together once again to inquire about the test of time itself; an attempt to draw visitors into the duality of the mid-century modern era: so progressive, so ‘futuristic’ (even today), so otherworldly (at times), and yet so down-to-earth, so mundane (according to its detractors), and so present in everyday life.
Visitors have been greeted by this exhibition since the beginnings of February. Currently located on the third floor, it seems to stand as an oddly interesting pause on the way to the museum’s masterpieces: like exiting MoMA to briefly enter a carefully curated showroom entirely made out of classic objects that, though marked as old-school, you could still purchase normally at general-public prices.
Obvious exceptions, like a Marcello Nizzoli typewriter, briefly break the spell to remind you that these are objects with a legacy. Any new yorker might also enjoy seeing some iconic pieces from the era in their original state, especially at a time where replicas seem to be dominating the market.
We don’t want to make a point of criticizing the replica market, however, as we believe it can be beneficial for people who don’t have access to the top-tier manufacturers. My initial stance on this matter was covered on a previous article.
What is the message behind this exhibition?
We could summarize this exhibit as a small bridge into the past, present, and future of post-war, booming America, crowned by a lone Womb chair, a Noguchi table, an Eames La Chaise, and many other iconic pieces of furniture.
According to Time magazine (and MoMA), there can be art in a broomstick “if it is designed both for usefulness and good looks.” That’s what Good Design has always meant for the museum and the reason behind their reluctance to let go on this concept: What does good design mean today? What will good design always mean?
They also recognize that this notion transcended America, and showcase objects from a time when war had divided entire continents into a couple of factions that would shape our 21st-century society. There are pieces from Imperial Japan, Soviet Russia, East Germany, and mid-century Italy. From the aforementioned typewriter to a small automobile, to Irwin Gershen’s Shrimp Cleaner.
The idea is to remind people of the human aspect behind the notion of Good Design: at its best, it goes well beyond our individual preferences and artificial borders, tapping into the very essence of our peoplehood.
Key furniture items from The Value of Good Design
The Womb chair from Eero Saarinen and the Noguchi table both rest on the same panel, accompanied by a Finn Juhl no. 45 chair. There’s also an Eames hanger above them, as well as a George Nelson clock, though they are not mentioned as pieces in most of the photos.
You can see the full gallery on the website and browse through the history of the ones that catch your eye the most.
For example, the Womb chair, according to the page, was exhibited in the US Pavilion in the 1951 Milan Triennale, and it was manufactured by Knoll in 1946 and gifted to the museum. It has a plastic shell reinforced with fiberglass and upholstered with latex foam, resting on a chrome-plated steel rod base.
The Noguchi table, whose original name is Table IN-50, is a relic from 1944 constructed out of ebonized birch and thick glass plate.
Then we have Finn Juhl’s no. 45 chair, which we would definitely include on a best-selling list for mid-century modern items. This one was manufactured by Niels Vodder in 1945 and is made simply out of teak wood and soft wool. You can also see a Side Chair from Marcel Breuer (1948), the Low Chair by Charlotte Perriand (1946), and the Stacking Side chair from Arne Jacobsen (1951), manufactured by Fritz Hansen.
Last but not least, there is a gorgeous, huge prototype for the Eames original chaise lounge from 1948, which would later be named La Chaise. Contrary to popular belief, this chair’s name is not a French phrase (as “la chaise” directly translates to “the chair.”)
The name is an homage from the Eames couple to French artist Gaston Lachaise, whose 1927 Floating Figure sculpture served as inspiration for the chaise lounge. You could argue that the name works as a quirky double entendre, which only adds to the legend that was Charles and Ray Eames.
We really hope that any and everyone who reads this article, and this blog, are able to visit MoMA at some point before June 15, when it will be officially discontinued. To a true mid-century modern enthusiast, this could be the opportunity of a lifetime.
It is really good to know that its timelessness still persists, as well as its artistic value, even though this exhibition wants to make a much deeper point about history and industrial design. We will attempt to dissect this exhibition, piece by piece, in the following months.