Art: The shape of things

Speed exhibit examines design of the 20th century

Architect Mies van der Rohe’s trademark philosophy was “less is more.” That contradictory statement summed up the thinking in design during the 20th century. In other words, less is modern.

The Speed Art Museum’s exhibition “Modern in the Making: Design 1900-2000” takes us on a timeline tour from Art Deco and Bauhaus through Mid-Century Modern and Postmodernism. The definition of “modern” is liquid; it means different things at different times in different countries.

Scott Erbes, curator of decorative arts at the Speed, defines the core principles of modernism as “design for the masses, functionalism, visual simplicity and truth to materials.” Another important component is “form follows function,” a statement attributed to architect Louis Sullivan, which means the shape of an object should reflect its purpose.

Art Deco, the first great 20th-century modern style, followed on the heels of Art Nouveau, a lush style exemplified by flamboyant jungles of tendrils and plants and curvilinear excess that was popular in Europe at the end of the 19th century. Deco’s straight-line simplicity first arrived on the French design scene sometime around World War I. The 1920s were its heyday.

Paul T. Frankl, best known for his skyscraper-inspired Deco furniture, also designed glamorous utilitarian objects to rest atop his tables. His “Rond” vanity set from 1927 uses the then-modern material of celluloid, an early form of plastic.

“(Art Deco) existed alongside … the German art school, the Bauhaus, where purity of form and stark simplicity were the ideal,” Erbes says. An excellent example of that philosophy is Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s glass “Kubusgeschirr (Cube)” of 1938 — storage containers that could be stacked to create a larger cube. Its purity and starkness are the heart of its appeal.

Mass production expanded the role of industrial designers, whose job was to improve both the aesthetics and function of items. Of special note is Belle Kogan, who, as Erbes explains, “was a woman in a man’s world. She never got married; she thought that would hold her back. She set out to be an industrial designer (and) worked on a contract basis with many different manufacturers, creating designs in a range of media.” Examples of her work in the show include a silver-plated double vegetable dish from 1936.

Kogan is just one of the female artists covered. The exhibit does a good job of showing how many women contributed to 20th-century design, including Sara Sax, Susie Cooper and Eva Zeisel.

The 1940s brought what is now termed Mid-Century Modern, a period that lasted into the ’60s. Russel and Mary Wright dominated this time period; they were Martha Stewarts of their day, instructing housewives on how to achieve the perfect home life in their 1950 book “Mary and Russel Wright’s Guide to Easier Living.”

Although their designs included furniture, metal flatware and textiles, Russel is best known for his ceramic American Modern tableware. These “Jetsons”-style pieces in biomorphic shapes still look as modern today as they did then.

The movie “The Graduate” had it right — plastics were the way to go. “Plastics became the ultimate modern material,” Erbes says. “After all, as man-made materials, they showed that the laboratory could compete with nature. Choosing it meant modern.”

Plastic’s saturated colors, coupled with its unbreakability made the plates, cups, even the chairs a dream to wash and store. Massimo and Lella Vignelli designed the exhibit’s plastic “Dinnerware” set in 1964.

I give the award for the most unusual looking object to Günter Beltzig’s “Floris,” a fiberglass chair designed around 1963. (The runner-up is the 1951 aluminum baby-bottle warmer by Ivar Per Jepson.) Erbes calls this human body-based design a “… futuristic, sci-fi approach to modern furniture … Ironically, though, each chair had to be molded by hand, making it unsuitable for mass production.”

Postmodernism came about in the 1970s and was especially popular in architecture. The resulting buildings were colorful and eclectic, usually with references to such historical styles as Neoclassicism and Art Deco. One of the best examples is Louisville’s Humana Building by Michael Graves, dubbed one of the 10 best buildings of the 1980s by Time magazine.

Many architects design not only buildings but also what goes inside them. Graves divides his time between his architecture firm and his design group, which specializes in product design. His ceramic “Big Dripper” coffeepot and filter-holder was created in 1986. Fellow architect Robert Venturi, another strong proponent of Postmodernism, designed a Neoclassic-style carving knife and fork in 1981.

‘Modern in the Making: Design 1900-2000’
Through March 20 • Speed Art Museum
2035 S. Third St. • 634-2700