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Designing Modern: 1920 to the Present

September 15, 2007–September 14, 2008

Designing Modern: 1920 to the Present opens Collab's new gallery in the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building with a chronological look at the Museum's collection of modern and contemporary decorative art. On entering the gallery, object platforms joined together and punctuated by four vertical display cases illustrate major movements in design history: Art Deco and the Bauhaus; American and Scandinavian Modern Design; Italian Design; and Postmodernism. The exhibition includes favorite masterworks from the collection, along with large and small acquisitions that have never before been displayed. Formed in large part since the founding of Collab in 1970, this collection beautifully and dramatically illustrates the history of design, focusing in some depth on the designers who created that history.

Art Deco and Bauhaus

Art Deco and Bauhaus represent opposing theories, styles, materials, and methods of design. The French-made luxury items of the 1920s and 1930s on view in this exhibition—created by designers such as Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, Maurice Marinot, René Lalique, and Jean Puiforcat—exemplify Art Deco's reassertion of traditional skilled handcraft for a small, privileged clientele. These objects make formal references to earlier French styles that required high-quality materials, and to contemporary abstract painting, notably Cubism and Futurism, with fragmented, geometric forms, and patterns of zigzags, circles, lightning bolts, and pyramids. Art Deco—which took its name from the 1925 international exhibition of modern decorative and industrial arts in Paris—spread internationally through displays in museums and department stores, publications, and the work of designers like the American Donald Deskey, who visited the Paris exhibition.

During the same period, designers trained at the Bauhaus art and design school in Germany—including Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, and Wilhelm Wagenfeld—developed an ascetic, purist visual vocabulary based on clean, simple geometric forms with bare surfaces that they considered appropriate for standardized industrial production and efficient living. Along these lines, modern tubular steel furniture was invented by Breuer, developed by van der Rohe, and introduced in the United States by architects George Howe and William Lescaze, who designed the furniture for the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society (PSFS) building in Philadelphia.

American and Scandinavian Designs

American and Scandinavian designs added other dimensions to modernism in the mid-twentieth century. Following Bauhaus orthodoxy, both movements eliminated decoration and pursued standardized production techniques. However, American designers like Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, and George Nelson experimented with industrial technologies and materials that emerged during World War II, bending, stamping, and molding fiberglass (glass-reinforced plastic), plywood, and metal into quirky furniture forms. Eames further used synthetic resins to join steel-rod legs to his plywood and fiberglass seat shells with rubber shock mounts borrowed from the automotive industry, and then left the mechanical details of mounts and bolts plainly visible.

Scandinavian designers, on the other hand, continued to value their native handcraft traditions, using natural as well as industrial materials, and curvilinear, sculptural shapes to express both a personal and regional identity quite different from that of modern designers elsewhere. The Danish architect Arne Jacobsen created "Ant" and "Egg" chairs, which stand as organic symbols, expressed by forms suggestive of an insect on slender metal legs and an enveloping oval shell, respectively. At Finland's Nuutajärvi glassworks and Arabia ceramics factory, Kaj Franck developed generalized tableware for multiple functions in coordinated sizes and colors, along with glass decanters in unusual shapes that could be further individualized with differently colored stoppers.

Italian Design

Postwar Italian Design was influenced by shortages and cost considerations that encouraged Italian designers to think of design as a vehicle for social change. Their experiments with man-made materials (particularly plastics) and new production processes emerged as the dominant innovative force in modern consumer products during the 1960s and 1970s. Many designed furniture and objects that were flexible in function and permitted multiple modes of use and arrangement.

For example, Joe Colombo's mobile Mini-Kitchen on castors reduced the "essential" kitchen to an area of about one cubic yard for use in small living spaces. The firm of Gatti, Paolini, Teodoro created the "Sacco" chair, a soft leather sack filled with polystyrene pellets that adapts itself to any body shape or size. Roberto Matta designed the "Malitte" system of free-form foam cushions that fit together loosely and can be stored as an upright square when not in use. Brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni created the sweeping "Arco" floor lamp of three telescoping pieces and a vertical post that leaves the living area around it open to circulation. Similarly, houseware designers like Roberto Sambonet developed series like the concentric, nesting "Center Line" vessels that occupy no more space than the largest pot. Enzo Mari's "Pago Pago" flower vase can be used from both sides and is manufactured economically in a simple, two-part mold. Some Italian designers made forms that communicated social ideas visually: Gaetano Pesce designed his voluptuous "Up" chair and ottoman to reflect his belief that women were chained by societal convention.


Postmodernism (which roughly encompasses design from the 1980s to the present) has appeared in diverse forms with little apparent stylistic consistency or theoretical basis. As a group, however, these designs reject neutral, objective, and universal characteristics, embracing instead historical and contemporary references with self-consciousness, irony, and playfulness. Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottsass, founders of the design collaboratives Alchimia and Memphis respectively, renewed appreciation for decoration, history, and symbol. Mendini's "Proust" armchair reproduced a Rococo-style armchair ornamented with Pointillist brushstrokes. Sottsass used new patterned materials and eccentric shapes, notably in his "Casablanca" sideboard (seen left). With a wealth of new materials available and technology increasingly integrated into design, contemporary designers have worked to make their products more consumer-friendly. Junichi Arai engineers and heat-finishes high-tech layered fabrics that leave wrinkled, buckled surfaces with the appearance and texture of handcraft. Similarly, objects such as the stackable table from Gaetano Pesce's "Nobody's Perfect" series rely on chance and the choices of the artisan molding the furniture to determine the color, size, and thickness of each piece. Apple exploits a new "double-shot" manufacturing technique to color their "iMac" computers and "iPod" music players with layers of different materials, allowing consumers to personalize their electronic environments. As mass-produced postmodern objects engage traditional craft values of individuality and personal expression, the distinctions between methods, materials, and even fields begin to blur.

Main Building


Kathryn Hiesinger • Curator of European and Decorative Arts after 1700

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