Panavision

The Denver Art Museum turns recent design history every which way but loose.

In the next section, "Celebrating the Everyday," Miller looks at the way in which some designers began to refer to popular culture in their work. There are many prototypes here and unique pieces that are as much a part of the fine arts as they are examples of design.

One eye-catching item is the famous "Otto Cabinet," from 1990-91, by Lyn Godley and Lloyd Schwan. The cabinet, which is crudely made compared to the Venturi and Graves furniture, is shaped like a guitar and has been partially painted a jarring color combination of grass green and orange-peel orange.

Also in this section are a number of things by Dan Friedman, including his oddball "Cosmos I" floor lamp, a painted metal dome punctuated with bare lightbulbs. Behind a room divider that mimics the shape of the cabinet, Miller has installed a group of very arty chairs -- none more so than Allan Wexler's "Picket Fence Furniture," a set of four seats that can be joined together in a rack so that the resulting contraption resembles a white picket fence. (The effect is enhanced by the fact that Wexler made it with a casual approach to craftsmanship, just as he would a real fence.)

"Space" chaise, by Karim Rashid, glass, metal and neoprene.
"Space" chaise, by Karim Rashid, glass, metal and neoprene.

Details

Through May 26, 720-865-5000
Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

In a way, the next part of the exhibit, "Redefining Expressionism," turns its back on postmodernism and looks at post-postmodernism, or neo-modernism, or whatever you want to call it. Miller points out that many of the expressionistic designers represented in this section adhere to postmodernist tenets. Regardless of their intentions, however, the pieces still have a modern appearance.

Good examples are seen in Lisa Krohn and Tucker Viemeister's "Phonebook Answering Machine," from 1987-88, and David Gresham's "Book Computer," from 1985. Both are prototypes, and neither was ever put into production.

For Miller, expressionism has various meanings. In the case of the computer, the poetic references between meaning, form and use -- a computer in a shape based on a row of books -- is what makes it expressionistic.

Miller sees some of the other objects as expressionist for an entirely different reason: their shapes respond directly to the human body through ergonomic design. He's included things like the "Radius" toothbrushes by Kevin Foley and James O'Holloran, a pair of Rollerblade in-line skates, and a pair of Raichle ski boots.

Miller also sees expressionism in the old-fashioned modern way -- as a tradition in American architecture and design that goes back to Frank Lloyd Wright and comes forward to deconstructivism. It's another major revelation in this show. Through a series of architectural models, photos and drawings, radical theorist Peter Eisenman is linked to the craft-oriented Bart Prince, an heir of Wright's. This is clear and unequivocal. And if Eisenman relates to Prince, doesn't Frank Gehry fit right in between?

US Design is light on Gehry. There's a single photo, for instance, of the Guggenheim Bilbao. But Miller did include two examples of Gehry's decorative designs -- 1979-82's incredible "Bubbles Chaise Lounge," a cluster of cardboard curlicues covered with a cardboard cushion. Truly insane, even considering the cardboard chaise, is the infamous "Fish" lamp from 1984, a tall wooden stand surmounted by an internally illuminated fish made from chips of ColorCore plastic laminate. The irrationality of both the chaise and the lamp make them classic expressionistic objects.

By the time we get to the final section, "Expanding Modernism," the moral of the story Miller is telling is clear: Modernism is back after the postmodern hiatus of the past twenty years.

The principle displays here are a pair of room settings, each of which explores a different aspect of this revived modernism; on the left is organic modernism, on the right the hard-edged industrial variant. Like postmodernism, this new modernism is reflexive and interpretive and harks back to the past.

In the organic group, a pair of Karim Rashid's 1999 "Soft" blown-glass light fixtures seem like they could have come off the set of Goldfinger. And there's definitely a Rat Pack-era Vegas quality to Ali Tayar and Attila Rona's "Plaza," a screen made of aluminum and rubber. Gisela Stromeyer's "Hula Hoop" and "Oval" lighting, both from 1987, also have that chic, retro-lounge look.

The backward-looking references continue with the industrial grouping. This time, though, we don't think of nightlife, but of the pioneers of modern design. Daven Joy's "430 Dresser" -- so exquisitely made, I literally gasped -- is very George Nelson. Christopher Deam doubtless looked at Florence Knoll's credenzas and buffets before creating the "Gallery Blonde" and "Gallery Black" storage cabinets. And Rashid's "Space" chaise follows right in Marcel Breuer's footsteps, especially in the discrete relationship between the tubular frame and the neoprene seat and back.

By finishing the show here, Miller gives us a happy ending: Modernism has vanquished postmodernism. Plus, the lessons of postmodernism -- that more, and not less, is actually more -- have been absorbed by modernism. "More is more" describes Lehlan Murray's exhibition design as well, and perhaps his cluttered, over-the-top installation throughout the exhibit indicates the not-too-distant future of interior design.

As I left the show, a number of things crossed my mind. First, that neither postmodernism nor neo-modernism had saturated the culture the way modernism had during the previous 25 years, from 1950 to 1975. And second, that even with all that Miller included, he left out a lot. The most obvious missing in action is architect Philip Johnson. Miller told me he left Johnson out because he was not an innovator. Then again, US Design demonstrates that the era was marked by interpretation, derivation, analysis and hermeneutics, and not innovation, which, it seems to me, makes Johnson the godfather of postmodernism and, thus, post-postmodernism.

Finally, I realized that I hadn't even looked at the graphics or the textiles that run through the entire show. I'd already planned to go back anyway, though, and I'm sure you'll feel the same way.

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