Miller Time

Though a number of one-of-a-kind articles from Sipek's studio have been included, most of the items here are of the mass-produced variety. But don't be misled: Despite the modernist notion that industrial production makes things cheap and readily available, the Sipek work on display for the most part was put together by high-end factories like Italy's Driade or France's Sevres. So although many of the inclusions in the DAM show are available for purchase here in Colorado, you won't find them at Kmart; look instead to the toniest shops of Cherry Creek or Aspen. Told you Sipek's a postmodernist.

Many of Sipek's designs seem to defy classification, but there are some patterns that connect his work. He makes overt references to the proto-modern designs produced in his Czech homeland during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And he refers to the human figure not just ergonomically, as do the modernists, but symbolically: Many of his designs look as though they're wearing clothing. Both of these features are easy to see in a seminal work like the "Albertine" porcelain dinner service manufactured since 1988 by Driade. The bowls, for example, have rims decorated with tiny flowers and dots that recall traditional Czech ceramics--until we notice that the rims themselves undulate and are decorated to look like a lace petticoat. In the small cabaret table "Satomi San," made by Neotu in 1984, the classical form has been tweaked. Above the curving feet made of chrome, the table's legs seem to be wearing bell-bottom trousers.

The perfect antidote to all this frivolity is the last of the three DAM shows, the historical survey of industrial design. Even more than the Schwarcz and Sipek solo shows, New Concepts ably demonstrates how Miller is able to make the most from the least. The show is divided into two main parts: a series of vitrines that hold small objects (including ceramic dinnerware created by industrial design legend Russel Wright) and a row of furniture.

The furniture portion is made up of ten pieces that fast-forward the viewer through the last two centuries, helping to illustrate how industrial production helped determine how or why things got designed the way they did. The first piece is an eighteenth-century Windsor chair whose design was clearly orchestrated by the use of lathe-turned elements. All of the furniture is wonderful, but the newly acquired World War I-era Gustav Stickley fall-front desk with inlaid designs by Harvey Ellis is unforgettable. And I can't stand not owning that 1950s bleached teak-and-white-marble credenza by Florence Knoll.

These three compelling shows establish Miller as one of the region's most savvy curators. Other curators, especially those at the Colorado History Museum who have had considerable trouble lately putting together coherent shows on topics related to material culture, could stand to take a page or two from Miller's book. Like him, they should choose high-quality inclusions and arrange them in such a way as to teach us something about history. Then we'll never again have to endure an abomination like the CHM's (sadly) still-open Shake, Rattle and Roll.

June Morris Schwarcz: The Art and Craft of Enamelled Metal; Borek Sipek: Auratic Architecture and Design; and New Concepts: The Industrial Revolution, 1776-1996, through June 1997 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.

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