Hard Wares

Eight years ago Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp hired his old friend Craig Miller, with whom he had worked at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, to put together a design collection at the DAM. The museum had accumulated a hundred years' worth of chairs, vases and candlesticks, but it was a haphazard collection, mostly the result of bequests and not part of an established curatorial area at the museum. The Architecture, Design and Graphics department, created in 1990 with Miller at its helm, marked the museum's first effort to acquire examples of design and the decorative arts.

Miller has greatly expanded the DAM's holdings and given shape to the formerly amorphous collection. On the museum's sixth floor, in a large room with yellow, cloud-painted walls, Miller marches the viewer from the seventeenth century up to the nineteenth with a series of groupings, each comprising a cabinet, a chair and a table in the same style from the same period. On the second floor, Miller is able to go into greater detail in three marvelous shows that just opened last weekend.

Working with longtime DAM exhibition designer Lehlan Murray and graphic artist AlmaDis Kristensdotter, Miller created a single unifying decor with a gray-and-white color scheme carried out in paint and computer graphics. Kristendotter scanned a photo of a Viennese floral design, blew it up to billboard size and applied it to the walls in a variety of configurations, including checkerboards. This presentation is one of the best anywhere, all the more amazing given the AD&G department's budget constraints.

Viewers find themselves smack in the middle of 20th Century Design: Breaking All the Rules as soon as they get off the elevator to the second floor, which was originally conceived as a partial mezzanine with overlooks to the first floor. As a way of coping with the limited space, Miller has mounted showcases in the elevator lobby and on the parapets lining the overlooks. It's a little tight, but the visual tradeoff is worth it.

Made up of artifacts from the DAM's collection, the exhibit is actually two distinct shows. The first half explores design and decorative art in small, functional objects; the second is a survey of chairs. Miller clusters the smaller objects more or less thematically (teacups with teacups, for example) but does not attempt to trace historical paths in the development of specific forms. Some showcases span many years, while others take a detailed look at a brief period. With the chairs, however, Miller is more straightforward, sketching out the form's functionalist tradition from the turn of the century to the present.

There's a ready explanation for the differing approaches. The DAM has chairs to cover the whole century, noting a lacuna or two, but the museum simply doesn't own enough material to do a proper job with the smaller objects. "We're especially weak in pre-war," Miller says. And given the decorative arts' current market, where important early-twentieth-century designs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, the situation has little prospect of changing. But instead of focusing on the collection's weaknesses, Miller presents its strengths--in particular, Italian articles from the last several decades.

The first component of the show begins in the freight-elevator room, of all places, where Miller has assembled a showcase each for ceramics, metalwork, product design, lighting, plastic and glass. The most impressive pieces are in the glass category. Even many of the best lamps, which technically fall in the lighting category, are made of glass. The touchstone showcase is the one fitted with a pair of sensuous Venetian vases by Italian artist Allesandro Mendini, made in 1989 by the world-renowned glassmaking firm of Venini. The lovely vases, from Mendini's Arsos series, have incised surfaces, resulting in a flat sheen on the combination of bright yellow and near-black glass.

There's more fine Venini in the small niche on the other side of the elevator lobby, including a stunningly beautiful and lyrical piece by the famous firm's founder, Paolo Venini. "A Canne" is a well-known flared vase from 1949, made of paper-thin canes of glass arranged in a rainbow of strong, clear colors. There's also "Doppia Incalmo," a dark, multi-colored bottle from 1970 by Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala. And "Pierre Cardin Bowl," a square clear glass bowl with a stripe of turquoise blue from 1969 by Ludovico de Santillana, carries the imprimatur of the French fashion designer.

Venini dominates the Venetian glass section, but crosstown rivals Barovier & Toso and Gino Cenedese e Figlio are also represented. There's a spectacular 1960 "Vase" from the Intarsio series by Ercole Barovier in which orange and blue cased glass create a kaleidoscopic effect. More restrained is the sleek violet "Vase" blown in 1965 by Antonio Da Ras for Cenedese.

Other notable objects in this section are the Olivetti typewriters, representing the best in product design. Typewriters are the buggy whips of our time, and surely Mario Bellini's sleek "Olivetti ETP55" from 1986 is one of the last of its kind. Also compelling are several metalwork vessels, in particular the "Como" coffee and teapots by Italian modernist Lino Sabattini, made in silver plate and wicker by France's Christofle--one of the world's greatest silversmiths.

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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