Exhibitions/ A Century of Design, Part II

A Century of Design, Part II: 1925–1950

May 9–October 29, 2000
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This is the second in a four-part series of exhibitions surveying design in the twentieth century through the presentation of significant objects in all media by major European modernist designers, drawn from the Museum's collection. While the luxurious and sensual aesthetic of Art Deco reigned in France during the late 1920s and 1930s, avant-garde German design of the same period presented an ethical and polemical antithesis. Bauhaus designers such as Marianne Brandt, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Wilhelm Wagenfeld explored the possibilities of functionalism, mass production, and industrial materials. Though enormously influential, the severity of their uncompromising work was soon challenged by the softer lines and natural materials of Scandinavian design from the 1930s by such designers as Alvar Aalto and Bruno Mathsson.

The exhibition includes more than fifty objects from the Museum's collection that illustrate the dynamic rise of Modernism and its influence on public perception of everyday objects. Key objects in all media—including furniture, metalwork, glass, ceramics, textiles, and drawings—are arranged thematically and stylistically. Focusing on significant developments in European design, it complements American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age (on view May 16, 2000–February 4, 2001), an exhibition of more than 150 objects examining the parallel rise of a distinctively American modern design aesthetic.

Unabashedly opulent and luxurious, the Art Deco style—named after the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels—continued to dominate French taste during the late 1920s and 1930s. It offered a look that was sleek and modern yet still suggestive of elegance and refinement. Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, the foremost Parisian designer of the period, is represented in the exhibition by a gilt-bronze and alabaster lamp and a sideboard (ca. 1922), made of macassar ebony, ivory, and silvered bronze, exemplifying the Art Deco emphasis on exquisite craftsmanship and costly and exotic materials. Also featured is an equally sumptuous silver bowl (1934) by Jean Puiforcat raised on a polished glass disc. The exhibition includes furniture and decorative objects by Louis Süe, André Mare, and René-Jules Lalique, whose clients included many of Paris's leading couturiers and other tastemakers.

Not everything in France was Art Deco, however. A small but influential group of designers and architects were breaking new ground. Charlotte Perriand's aluminum, steel, and wood cabinet and Eileen Gray's hanging lanterns made of sheets of perspex and mercury-glass balls, all of which are on view, explore an entirely new aesthetic in their time.

Founded in 1919, the Bauhaus, Germany's state-run school for architecture and the applied arts, advocated an approach to design that was the antithesis of the Art Deco luxury style. Believing that practical and economic objects should also be beautiful, Bauhaus designers promoted the use of industrial materials and explored the problems of mass production for middle-class homes. In theory and practice they propounded the virtues of Functionalism, which asserted that the form of an object should be strictly determined by its intended use and materials.

The exhibition includes works by such Bauhaus luminaries as Marcel Breuer, whose "Wassily" armchair (1925), made of tubular steel and canvas upholstery, was designed for and named after his fellow Bauhaus teacher, the painter Wassily Kandinsky. Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—who gave the world of design such aphorisms as "God is in the details" and "less is more"—is represented by his famous "MR" chair. Introduced at a 1927 Stuttgart exhibition, this ingenious and graceful design, with its distinctive S-shaped profile and cantilevered seat, has remained in production ever since. Among the Bauhaus-designed household objects on view is a silver and ebony tea-infuser and strainer (ca. 1925) by Marianne Brandt. Although a mere three inches high, the clean, uncluttered lines of its geometric form make it an object of stately elegance.

By the mid 1930s, the severity and uncompromising utilitarianism of Bauhaus-inspired design was being challenged by a group of Scandinavian designers who advocated a greater emphasis on natural materials and organic forms. Hard-edged, geometric lines now gave way to softer, more irregular biomorphic shapes. Laminated wood, bent into flowing lines, replaced steel and glass. Furniture was now shaped to more closely accommodate the human body. The exhibition features works by noted Finnish designer and architect Alvar Aalto, including his "31" armchair (1930–33), made of molded plywood and black painted bentwood, and Swedish designer Bruno Mathsson's "Pernilla" easy chair and footrest (1941).

Following in the footsteps of these Scandinavian designers, the American architect and furniture designer Charles Eames experimented with further techniques for plywood-molding—many of them developed during his work for the U.S. Navy during World War II. The exhibition includes one of his signature designs, the "LCW" lounge chair (ca. 1946), developed with his wife and fellow designer Ray.

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Exhibition Objects