Hard Wares

For the chair section, the Miller-Murray-Kristensdotter crew has gone all out: The narrow room's gray walls are washed in fluorescent lights (rarely used in museum displays) that are placed under the low white platforms on which the chairs are displayed. If the small things are characterized by an Italian flair, it's good, old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity that prevails with the chairs. One of the oldest pieces on exhibit is the 1904 "Larkin" chair by America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright; it's a simple dining chair made of dark fumed oak that still retains its original leather seat. It is part of a set owned by Ridgeway collector Daniel Wolf, who has promised this one to the museum's AD&G department.

The museum may not yet hold title to the Wright chair, but it does own a deep collection of chairs by major American designers of the Forties and Fifties. Miller has collected a variety of chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, including the organically bent walnut and plywood "LCW" chair from 1946 and the much-different "Lounge Chair" from 1958's industrial-looking Aluminum Group, both made by the Herman Miller Company. Harry Bertoia is represented by one of his signatures, "Small Diamond Chair #421C" from 1952, which is a black wire grid on black wire legs. The complicated details of this chair contrast with the simplicity of Eero Saarinen's "Pedestal Chair #150," an elegant 1955 form of continuous lines stretching from the fiberglass shell seat to the aluminum base. The Bertoia and the Saarinen were both manufactured by Knoll Associates.

Arranged in chronological order, the chairs lead viewers out of 20th Century Design and into the traveling Forging a New Century, which highlights metalwork from the corporate collection of Minneapolis-based Norwest Bank, a financial giant that has just merged with Wells Fargo, another financial giant. The future of Norwest's world-class collection of early modern decorative art is uncertain, since Wells Fargo has its own collection--of Western Americana. Forging a New Century is Miller's second show focusing on different aspects of the Norwest collection; last year the subject was poster art, and barring any corporate shakeup, next year the DAM will host an exhibit highlighting ceramics.

The Norwest collection, which since 1989 has been curated by David Ryan, covers six styles from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the looks of these inclusions, Ryan had few budget constraints: The pieces are some of the finest of their dates and types. ("May I use the word 'connoisseurship' in a museum today?" asks Miller. "The Norwest collection is about connoisseurship.") Miller emphasizes the six stylistic categories by using six large cases laid in three pairs. The first two cases contrast the austerity of the Arts and Crafts movement with the luxuriousness of Art Nouveau; the next two the hand-worked Jugenstil and machine-made Industrial designs; and finally, there's the forward-looking Secessionist style with the updated traditional look of Art Deco.

Everything here is amazing, but some things stand out. Representing the Arts and Crafts style, the patinated copper "Weed Holder" of 1900 and the hammered-and-molded copper "Urn" of 1905--both made by the Miller Brothers for Frank Lloyd Wright--are breathtaking, their dull finishes suggesting antiquity. Vienna-based Josef Hoffmann, a contemporary of Wright's and the founder of the Secessionist movement, takes a different approach in the hammered, shiny brass "Centerpiece Bowl" executed by the Wiener Werkstätte in 1925; the reeded form of the chalice-shaped bowl helped set the stage for the Art Deco style. And the "French Tea Pot" of 1937, by Jean Puiforcat for his family's Parisian workshop, is a Deco masterpiece with machine references made in silver-gilt verseuse and rock crystal.

It will take sensitive viewers a moment to regain their composure after the eye-popping assortment of glittering metal from the Norwest collection, and a moment more to adjust to the dimly lit gallery beyond, which is dedicated to Paper Architecture, a quiet display of prints, drawings and photographs by international, national and local architects. The most compelling are those with Denver associations, including the quartet of black-and-white photographs by the Hedrick-Blessing studio. The 1933 photographs are of the then brand-new Bromfield House, designed by local modern architecture pioneer Burnham Hoyt. (The Bromfield House still stands on South University Boulevard in Cherry Hills Village, but Hoyt's design has been lost to extensive remodeling.) The sepia print "Preliminary Elevation" and the blue print "Facade Study," both done in 1966 in preparation for the construction of the DAM's 1971 tower, intimately reveal the nature of the correspondence between co-designers James Sudler in Denver and Gio Ponti in Milan--whose inked sketches appear on the blueprint. The 1991 Robert Venturi "Conceptual Sketch: The Civic Center," a quick, bird's-eye sketch done in felt-tipped marker, has all the power of a modern master drawing.

With these three riveting shows, Miller has once again set the local standard. By laying out objects to illustrate the distinctions between the various styles--in chronological order where possible--Miller is able to communicate the history of design, which, like the history of art in general, is essentially the history of style.

20th Century Design: Breaking All the Rules, Forging a New Century: Modern Metalwork From the Norwest Collection, 1890-1940, and Paper Architecture: Hand Versus Machine, through August 8, 1999, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 303-640-4433.

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