What was Good Design? How MoMA Shaped the Modern Home
Reviewed by Deborah Hay
La Chaise by Charles and Ray Eames
On a recent visit to the design galleries of New York's Museum of Modern Art, I overheard more than one visitor declare a personal kinship to an item in the newest exhibition.
"Wow! We had one of those when I was a kid!" exclaimed one.
"My gosh, I have that set – packed away in the basement!" another said.
What prompted the memories? A small show of mid-century home furnishings, appliances, textiles and everyday objects called What was Good Design? MoMA's Message 1944-56.
"Good design" was a concept that took hold of the imagination of post-World War II America, and MoMA played a leading role in defining and disseminating it. Eager to raise the profile of modern design in a growing consumer culture, curators forged connections between designers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers. From 1946 to 1950, MoMA ran international design competitions for low-cost furniture, textiles and lighting, then partnered with department stores and women's magazines to exhibit the winning results.
It even assembled fully furnished homes in The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden to demonstrate "Good Design environments." International design councils generated heated debates, and the phrase "good design" became ubiquitous in advertising.
Biomorphic, simple, colorful or cool – each of the roughly 100 items in the show, gathered from MoMA's collection, embodies the modernist tenets of functionality and simplicity. Works by design giants Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames and Marcel Breuer stand beside humbler objects: a garden rake, an iron, a cheese slicer, a shrimp deveiner.
Among several standout chairs in the installation is the wonderfully curvy chaise longue La Chaise by Charles and Ray Eames. Inspired by sculptor Guston Lachaise's Reclining Nude, the chair's name is a play on the sculptor's name. Made of plastic, wood and metal, La Chaise was the winner of MoMA's 1948 competition for low-cost furniture design, and it is still produced today.
The curves are gentler in Hans Wegner's 1949 armchair (above), also known as the "round chair" (Wegner never named his pieces, only numbered them). The prolific Danish designer crafted hundreds of wood chairs in the course of his career, and this comfortable oak example, with its semicircular back and cane seat, was a favorite of John F. Kennedy's. In 1960, Kennedy and Richard Nixon each sat in one of these (at Kennedy's request) during the first televised presidential debate.
Dinnerware and kitchenware are well represented at What was Good Design? Jens Quistgaard's Fjord cutlery, in teak and stainless steel, launched Dansk in 1954 and became an icon of the modern tabletop. Saara Hopea's elegant glass stacking tumblers (1951), the first of their kind, sparkle in deep red, green and amber.
Representing MoMA's Useful Objects series, the wartime precursor to Good Design, is a Chemex coffee maker (above). The Bauhaus-inspired wonder, with its sturdy conical glass and wood collar, is the brainchild of Peter Schlumbohm, a German-American chemist who fashioned it from an Erlenmeyer laboratory flask in 1941.
Maybe the most surprising selections in the show are the works of Earl S. Tupper. Yes, Tupperware, that powerful, plastic symbol of mid-Fifties suburban America. What baby boomer doesn't smile at the sight of an Ice Tup popsicle mold? And a grouping of those indestructible plastic tumblers? A vision in pastel.
What was Good Design? runs through November 30, 2009 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd Street, New York City.